Sunday, January 3, 2010

Basic Masking techniques for Photoshop

Terice did a training session this week for a family of seven. Five extroverted school age kids and their parents. The sessions was a great chance for her to not only learn a little more about lighting and posing but to focus on her people skills. Making a group laugh simultaneously is an art form. And many times it involves using potty humor to crack a smile on some of the tougher characters. So after about a half an hour of trying to pose a non-traditional family the way the Cleavers would be photographed, we gave the kids sunglasses, fur coats, and our permission to jump around like monkeys.

Jumping shots are hard and it takes 2-3 dozen with a large group to get a perfect shot. This ones isn't perfect by any means but it'll do in a pinch. There is a feeling of motion, even though their feet aren't all visibly off the ground, and the oldest has some how managed to be perfectly hidden by his brothers. You could almost photoshop him out of this one for a better image but I'm sure he's parents would mind.

Photoshop is the only way this image even came together in the first place though. I gave Terice permission early in the shoot to frame a little wider then the background if needed so there would be room to crop for 8x10's. This is what she thought I meant:

No lighting diagram necessary today folks, you can see the actual lights for yourself! All honest mistakes aside, this gave me the opportunity to go over the basic ways to mask out an image and remove background. Here's the steps I took:

  • Using the magic lasso tool I selected a much of the background as I could. I set my tolerance to 20 (normally anywhere between 10-40 is good for shots with good contrast) and held down the shift key to continually add to the selection. Once I had a large portion of the image selected, I created a layer mask. The selected areas are represented by black on the layer mask and are now hidden but they still exist.

As you can see, there is still a lot of work to be done.
  • Next I selected the layer mask and using the paint brush tool (set to black) I painted directly on the mask and removed the larger sections I couldn't get rid of with the magic lasso tool.

  • Now comes the hard part. I zoomed into 300 percent and starting with the girl in the orange jacket, I began outlining each person with the pen tool. I like this tool because it can create a clipping path quickly and easily (using the shortcut keys and mouse).To use the pen tool you create points with each click. If you hold the point and drag two handles will appear from each point allowing you to curve the path. You can then adjust it to fit percisely along the area you wish to mask. Once I have outlined the section I can go back and adjust any of the points until it fits correctly. Under the Path's window you'll see a "working path" which is the outline you just created. By clicking the "load path as selection" option you can now take invert the selection (ctrl+I) and use the paint brush again to paint black on your mask and remove anything you don't like. The problem? This method takes forever! It is very accurate though and it came in handy around the orange coat and the fur (girl on right).
  • Where the clipping path didn't look right was around the girl's flying hair. Here I used the magnetic lasso (which is a similar tool but the computer is selecting the points and not you) to get closer. This tool doesn't work well in areas with little contrast. 
  • Both of those tools helped but the hair still needed a little finessing, so I use the paint brush tool and painted white on the layer mask to bring back some of the gray background and zooming up to 400% I took out smaller groups and tried to randomly select what to remove. 
  • Last step for the hair was to make a duplicate layer and add the motion blur filter to it. I also dodged out the ends of the hair (midtones at 53%) to they were lighter and didn't has such a sharp line around them. Finally I created a mask of the duplicate layer, filled it with black and then painted in with white the small bit of hair I wanted to show through.
Total work time on this ONE  image? An hour and a half. I do not suggest doing this on a regular basis unless your client is paying you by the minute for retouching. A better bet is to find a way to do it in camera. This could mean a completely different pose, or crop. In Terice's defense, there was really no way to make all of these kids fit the background. Next time we'll try this shot on location where the background is not a problem.

I didn't even touch on the quick mask because I hate it. I avoid the paint brush as a masking tool since it leaves a feathered effect around the edges that looks fake to me. I want crisp clean lines, not hazing hap-hazard photoshop work.

Random Question: My birthday is at the end of the month, what photo gear should my husband buy me as a present? $50.00 or less would be preferrable.


  1. whew! long time on one shot but the end result was well worth it!!!

  2. @ Samantha White Thanks. I spent the whole time grumbling while editing!

  3. Image masking is one of the most necessary pre-production work of graphic designing and used for background removal of any complex image. Graet post. Thanks and keep blogging.