Using Photoshop Masking to enhance a subject

August 15, 2015

This post is as much for me creating a “how to” note for my own future reference as it is for “you the public.”

When I retired I subscribed to so I could work on improving my photography and photo editing skills. I also subscribed to the Adobe Creative Cloud which includes Lightroom, Lightroom Mobile, and Photoshop.

Photoshop is a daunting tool; layers were magic. I knew they held great power but their use was like a black box. Driven by frustration with building some collages of our Route 66 trip I started watching (taking?) the course: Photoshop CC 2015 for Photographers: Fundamentals with Chris Orwig. The course is broken down into 19 sections with each section having 4-5 lessons. Each lesson is made up of the instructor talking while you watch a Photoshop screen reveal the magic. You can even download the same photos and work along with him.

I was blown away with the “Refining the edges of a mask” lesson in the “Advanced Adjustments with Masking” section. After doing the sample exercise I knew I had a photo to practice on.

This is the image downloaded from the camera and adjusted slightly in Lightroom. I find that raw images sometimes appear a little washed out when compared to Jpegs, so I use a Lightroom  preset to apply a Sony A77 “Camera Standard” profile to give it a little pop.

Original Image of Henriët making pasta salad
Original Image of Henriët making pasta salad

It’s easy to take a great picture of Henriët but I thought it would be fun to try to get her to stand out a bit from the busy background. My goal was to preserve the light on her but darken the background.

Here are the steps I took. Again, I’m doing this as much for me as for you so please bear with the detailed steps.

  1. Click “Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer” at the bottom of the layers panel. I picked the Solid Color option and used black. This created a new layer that would be the agent for darkening the background later.
    Uh oh! the whole image was black because my new layer was on top. Layers work from the top down; layers on top occlude things below them, meaning a black layer would block visibility of anything below it. I moved the solid color layer below the image of Henriët, and could now see my original photo but not the black background.
  2. Use the quick select tool to get Henriët’s outline knowing that the wisps of hair would need some later adjustments.
  3. Click  “Add Vector Mask” at the bottom of the layers panel. This generated a mask of the selection of Henriët  I could work on. The layer panel then had a second thumbnail to the right of the image (the white silhouette in the screen capture below).
  4. Double-click that adjustment layer thumbnail to bring up the adjustment window.
    • Select the “Refine: Mask Edge” option and turn on the Smart Radius button. I turned up the Radius amount just a bit.
    • Set the View to “On Black”; this does a great job of showing the selection I made of Henriët along with all the bits of combined background and wisps of hair against a solid background.
    • Then using the brush next to the “Edge Detection” I brushed along the edges of her hair which was intermingled with the green background. It was like magic. The wisps of hair remained selected while the bits of background showing on the edges of her hair disappeared leaving strands of hair in the selection.
    • Here is a screen shot of the dialog box and layers panel. Notice that the “Layer 0” is what I am working on.

      Photoshop Masking dialog box
      Photoshop Masking dialog box
    • Push the Smooth, Feather, Contrast and Shift Edge sliders around until the desired effect is created. When happy with the selection, close the “Manage Edge” dialog, returning to the mask.
  5. At this point I had an image of Henriët on a black background – the layer below – because the Density was at 100% meaning that the black background of the Color layer was showing through the masked/non-selected area.
    Henriët on a black background
    Henriët on a black background

    If you look closely, you can see my selection still isn’t perfect; the green background shows up in her right eyeglass lens; and the hair on the back of her neck isn’t perfect. So, I still have some fine tuning to learn.

  6. By dragging the Density slider to the left, the mask is lessened letting the true background come through. We end up with a picture like this.
Photoshop Version 1 with background darkened.
Photoshop Version 1 with background darkened.

Here is a before and after collage after darkening the background a bit more than in the picture above. The light on Henriët hasn’t changed at all; all the adjustment is in the background. (Note: I also used Photoshop to create the collage.)

Before and After picture showing method to darken a background
Before and After picture showing method to darken a background

There are other adjustments I could have made, like blurring the background. I think masking is a method I can use in my food photography to bring a little more attention to the objects I’m focused on.

Now, I know there are some purists around that consider Photoshop as a copout; they think it’s important to just show what the camera captured. I see that point;  and certainly you have to start with a good photo to have a good result.

People engage in long, loud, and sometimes angry debates that I’m not interested in. Suffice it to say, I guess that way, way over 80% of the images you see in magazines, wedding photos, or professional web sites will have had some adjustment made to them; maybe not Photoshop, but something. I’m interested in bringing attention to the subjects I photograph.

Feel free to leave a comment one way or the other; it would be nice to hear what you think.

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