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Getting the most out of your Adjustment Brush

If you feel like your adjustment brush is a little clunky, then you may want to take a look at adjusting your Flow and Density settings.

adj brush density original

Here is an image I took of my friend David Carr playing drums for his band Third Day. I want to be able to lighten up his face just a bit and tone down the background to focus more on him.

First step we usually take is to zoom in on his face and pick the adjustment brush. Set the exposure up to a reasonable setting and start painting. It will brighten him up, but it looks a tad over-edited especially on the shoulder and cheek.

adj brush density a adj brush density b

My default reaction would be to jump over into Photoshop and make a mask and use my brushes to sculpt the light with much more precision. However if you can understand Flow and Density, there really isn’t much need to jump over to Photoshop.

Think of Flow as the setting of the nozzle on a water hose. 100% is going to give you a full blast of water in one shot… where as a lower setting will cause it to come out more slowly. Density determines the strength of the effect that you are applying with the brush. It sets the limit of how much of the effect is applied. For instance if you are applying a lightening of the exposure by 4 stops and you have the Density at 75, that would mean that you are only applying the effect at 75% strength.

I have created an illustration to show you how the two work in conjunction. The first two groups are made by a single stroke straight down, while the third group is made by brushing back and forth with more strokes down at the bottom to show the build-up.

adj brush density chart

Using only one adjustment setting for this example:Exposure… just changing the Density on its own will only affect the Opacity (apparent strength) of the stroke. When only changing the Flow setting and only making a single stroke in one direction, it has the appearance of effecting the opacity, but when you look at the last set of three strokes, you see that Flow will let you keep painting over that stroke until it reaches the Density ceiling.

Now I know that isn’t the most exciting chart, and the bottom line is that if you will just experiment with adjusting both of those sliders first by themselves and then together, you will begin to get a feel for how well you can set your brush to act exactly the way you want to.

Why would you want to use these settings? Perhaps you are wanting to add subtle lighting to a face… you could set a low Flow and a low Density to paint a light base without having to worry about over-painting or doing too much at one time. Next you can increase the density slider and just paint over the areas that need to be built up with even more exposure. You have full control of how fast and how strong the effect is. This also eliminates the need to keep going over and creating a new adjustment brush, to build up an effect in an area.

adj brush density b adj brush density c

Here you can compare the difference in the two results of lightening his face… the first is without changing Flow or Density and the second is using the build up method. (I have made it a little over the top so that you can see the effects… but you will be able to be more subtle on your own.)

At the end of the day it comes down to being comfortable and competent with our tools… understanding Flow and Density will make the Adjustment Brush that much better for you and your work.

adj brush density original

Original image with the background lighter and more distracting and his face too dark

Darkened the background and lightened the face using adjustment brush




  1. Violy 26 December, 2015 at 02:40 Reply

    May be a silly question, but I need to ask.What denioitifns did you use for that soft brush to be working for this result?I tried to follow the tut but something isn’t right and I didn’t get the desired effect.Thanks.

  2. labro 27 January, 2015 at 00:23 Reply

    thanks for these explanations.
    i am coming from nx2 and with u-points i didn’t have the ugly effect of the exposure brush of lightroom. so i always hesitated to use the exposure brush because too visible.
    so very happy to see there are tricks.
    however i don’t understand very well how you proceeded on your image.
    on base of your rimage, can you please explain how you started and proceeded (ie: exposure =? flow=density=10 on face 1 time, flow 30 density 50 three passes on ceiling light,…)

    best regards

  3. Jules 22 January, 2015 at 12:38 Reply

    Hi Pete

    Thanks for this great tip.

    I am interesting to know how the flow and density parameters work when using a pen with a tablet having pressure sensitivity.


    • Pete Collins 22 January, 2015 at 16:33 Reply

      Good question Jules… I am using Lightroom with a Cintiq 22″ (Shameless Wacom plug :D) and I just went and tried to see what difference pressure would make, and I cannot tell a difference. I tried it with different settings and the easiest way to tell was having zero feather and 100 flow and density to see if I could get a smaller less opaque line and I couldn’t see any changes. So I will check with the Wacom guys and see if that is correct, next time I get together with them.

  4. David Elesh 22 January, 2015 at 11:49 Reply


    A wonderful lesson, but this comment is not intended for display. It may be only me, but your incorrect use of a word is a bit cringing. You are consistently using the noun “affect” when you mean “effect.” The noun affect means “emotional appearance.” The noun effect means result. The verb affect means influence. The verb effect means to create a result.

    • Pete Collins 22 January, 2015 at 12:02 Reply

      David… I know it is a bad habit when I am typing I keep having to go back and fix it… but I missed some… I teach a workshop with a friend and we talk about “affect” a lot… and it is hard to get the fingers to not type out of habit. I also can never type the word “about” correctly, but fortunately spell check gets that one… I need to program the computer to ask me which word I want each time I type affect. thanks for the reminder… the spirit is willing… the brain is soft! 😀

  5. IanB 21 January, 2015 at 16:38 Reply

    Nicely explained Peter. I have often said the adjustment brush will be our best LR friend so we need to spend time getting to know all it will do for us.

    • Pete Collins 22 January, 2015 at 11:04 Reply

      The reality is that the Adjustment brush is really just like using a layer mask in Photoshop. We don’t have to create a mask and paint with white or black to reveal or conceal… Lightroom does that for us behind the scenes, so all we see is the brush and its effects, but it is doing the same thing. We become really good at Photoshop when we can learn more about how to work with masks to get them to give us the precision we need… it would then seem that the same thing would apply in Lightroom… so I agree wholeheartedly with your comment here. Thanks

  6. Richard 21 January, 2015 at 15:55 Reply

    Are both of these settings adjustable after you have used the brush?
    I assume you can adjust Density after you have used the brush, but can you change the Flow as well afterwards?

    • Pete Collins 22 January, 2015 at 10:58 Reply

      Density and flow are immediate parameters of the brush stroke, and can’t be adjusted real time afterwards they have been painted… unlike the effects sliders that can change real-time. The only way to change the look of the stroke is to use the eraser to lighten or remove that part of the stroke.

      Let me try to make an illustration. You have a window and you want to paint is black to block the light… you have control over how much paint you have on the brush and how much you apply to the glass. There may be areas that have less paint and let a little bit more light come through… but once the paint has been applied, you will either have to scrape off some of the paint (with the eraser brush) or crank up the light to let more through, but you can’t change the overall light blocking characteristic of the paint, only how thick the paint is on the window. The adjustment brush is just simply telling Lightroom where and how much of the effect to apply… the adjustability after the fact is solely in the amount of the effect applied such as exposure. Boy, I hope that makes sense.

  7. Arne H. 21 January, 2015 at 12:35 Reply

    Thanks, very useful. I am pleased to see more technical tutorials of this kind on lightroomkillertips. Keep it coming!

  8. 21 January, 2015 at 11:37 Reply

    I tend to set my Density to 100% and my flow to the low 30s. I build up slowly and don’t need to worry about the Density ceiling since I just stop when it looks right. Changing fewer variables actually gives me more control as I don’t need to guess what the combination of changing both the density and flow will produce.

    • Pete Collins 22 January, 2015 at 10:44 Reply

      I generally work that way too, but then sometimes I want to build up a base in a couple of areas and I want the effect to match, so I drop the density ceiling and paint both areas, then raise the density and paint in part of that area that I want brighter… sort of like bumpers in bowling… it is just another level of control. I also tend to be hyper and caffeinated and so having a check point along the way so I do over-brighten an area is nice and then I can look at it and raise the density to just hit certain highlights. I hope that helps.

  9. Dennis Zito 21 January, 2015 at 06:57 Reply

    Hey Pete,

    Wow, I finally understand what Density and Flow do!!! For some reason, I couldn’t get my head around the density … Density = Opacity … Duh! 🙂 Thanks for the Great Tip!


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