Sunday, February 10, 2008

The Mask – To Hide or Reveal our Personality

First I would like to announce that some of my fellow photo bloggers such as Brian Auer , Neil Creek , Andrew Gibson ,
Andreas Manessinger, Cody Redmon , David Ziser , and Joseph Szymanski have decided to start a Fine Art Blog Photo Blog .

Many of you may already subscribe to their blogs, but I would like you to go over and subscribe to their new site. As the site progresses, there will be a great collection of fine art photo images that should enthral us all.

These photographers, through their personal dedication and love of photography, provide a great resource for all of us and I think that it is important to show our support for their effort.

In this article, I will discuss the use of masks to enhance or change an image to best bring out the vision I had. As a secondary point you might also be amazed that this image was taken by a 2Mb point-and-shoot camera made in the year 2000.

Through proper editing and enlarging techniques I am able to print this at 11x14” and it has been one of my popular sellers. The main reason I can make such a large increase in size is because this is an abstract image with relatively little fine detail.

It doesn’t take the best and most expensive technology to have great pictures. The extra features though will help you in more tricky situations and may ease some workflow issues.

A tranquil place to contemplate your thoughts

In photo-editing programs such as Photoshop, masks allows us to fine tune local detail to almost any extent we desire within the image. It is all dependant on the amount of effort we wish to pursue.

The original image from the Canon A40

The first thing I did was to enter in LAB mode so that I could both increase the saturation of the reflected colours and by using LAB I could also increase the separation between the red/green and blue/yellow which would help to give the appearance of more contrast in the fall foliage.

I found that the floating weeds on the pond where reflecting too much of the light from the blue sky and these needed to be darker which at the same time makes the fall colours appear brighter due to the relative difference between the two.

The image below shows the areas I had selected for improvement.

You will note that I planned to fix areas of reeds that had blurred objects in front of them. This was accomplished by finding other sections of suitable reeds in the image and copying them to a new layer and then using the transform function to stretch and tilt to fit correctly.

This is a very complex image, at least from the point that there has to be many layers and masks to handle the numerous changes that are required.

This image shows the steps I used to achieve the changes.

You will see that there is no overall sharpening in this file (except to fix any specific problems that would apply to any version) as I create a separate image for each size and type of output and sharpen it to meet the output needs.

It is difficult to see the mask detail in the layers’ palette and therefore I have reproduced them in the image below.

As you can see there are a lot of layers used to fine-tune specific sections within the image. These range from changes in hue or saturation to some colours, to adding new parts of reeds that were obscured by the very out-of-focus foreground reeds (light blurred parts). Some of you may think this is more work than is necessary or even warranted, but if you have ever spent time making a painting then you may appreciate that time is not really important to an artist but only the final image. For commercial work, time is critical and good enough tends to be the main criteria.


Creating masks from these types of images is a complex process and there is no magic wand (well there is but it tends not to work too well) to create them.

Other than hand painting your own mask, the best method is to find one of the many channel to use as the starting point. Some of you may wonder, how can I use the term ‘many’ with only 3 channels. In actual fact there are 10 channels available for use and these are:

Sources of Masks

RGB mode - Red, Green and Blue

Lab mode - Luminosity, a and b

CMYK mode - Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black

Note: As switch between RGB and LAB to get a copy of the channel, there is no destruction to image. This is not the case for CMYK, as there tends to be a loss of saturation. To overcome this problem, make a copy of the image, convert to CMYK and then copy the desired channel back to the original image.

Fine Tuning the Masks – Curves and Paste

When creating a local editing mask it should normally be either pure white or pure black, but when you look at any channel this is not the case as there is a full range of grey tones.

Select the mask that gives the best separation between the elements that you wish to enhance and the rest of the image. Don’t worry if it is the wrong colour (black blocks and white let’s effect through) as the mask can be inverted later on.

As you are making the mask, make a copy each time you fine tune. This permits you to go aback to a pervious version and recreate it or use it for other purposes. The copies can be discarded when finished.

The 2 main tools I use to take a grey scale and convert to pure black and white is to use either the curves tool or the copy and paste method with Fade to a different mode.

There is no set formula or order to create a mask. It tends to be a bit of trial and error. Experience will increase your success rate as you understand how these changes affect grey tones.

The example I have selected is to create a mask to work on the very dark reeds in the foreground.

As you can see the red channel provides the greatest separation between these elements, but definitely is nowhere near perfect.

I applied a curve function to the Red channel and this removed a fair bit of mid-tones.

I then copied the channel and did a select all (Ctrl A) and a paste into the same channel (Ctrl V), which has no effect, but now the magic. I did a fade (under Edit) and changed to Screen mode.

You can try many of the modes to see which has the best effect. Those that create the greatest B&W also tends to reduce some of the edges you need so I select a compromise version and then will further fine-tune it.

Then I take a paintbrush and clean-up in mask

Paint with Dodge and Lighten

Sometimes, especially where there are fine details, the mask edges will be corrupted by applying these methods and I may use the paint brush first set to low opacity and soft edge and paint over the mask edges using dodge and lighten mode.

In the dodge mode only the darker pixels become blacker and there is either no or very little effect on lighter pixels

The same applies to painting in the lighten mode but reverse. The light pixels becomes lighter but there is little effect on darker pixels.

Do switch back and forth with the dodge and lighten regularly as you work the mask because if you stay too long in one mode it will impact the opposite (lighter or darker) pixels. By changing, you restore the pixel before it goes too far into either whiter or blacker.

In the image below, I used this method to increase contrast between the reeds and background before I applied the curves.

You will notice the reeds have become slightly darker and the background lighter. This permits the curve function to better separate the edges.

This may all sound quite complex and in some ways it is but when you have practiced these methods you will be able to very quickly create these masks and spend less time removing the few pixels that still remain to be changed.

Please feel free to ask any questions, as in writing this article I wanted to provide enough information to help you explore these approaches without boring you with pages and pages of extraneous detail.

Niels Henriksen

A Photographer’s Adage

One advantage of the discovery of the Photographic Art will be, that it will enable us to introduce into our pictures a multitude of minute details which add to the truth and reality of the representation, but which no artist would take the trouble to faithfully copy from nature. - William Henry Fox Talbot, Fox Talbot, photographer by Robert Lassam , ISBN: 090019374


Anonymous said...

Great stuff Niels! I love doing this kind of thing with my photos to really target specific areas. I'm also prone to utilizing masks in such a way that I'm "painting" in areas of brightness, darkness, color, etc. It's pretty amazing what you can do with some educated masking techniques.

Ed Z said...

This is a great explanation of a great process. My post-processing generally falls into "whole image" adjustments (Lightroom) with photoshop for dodging/burning (using soft light layers) I guess coming from a wet-darkroom background, this feels most natural - but I've been exploring this more "detailed" editing in PS, and this gives me some interesting things to try out!

Unknown said...

Thanks Brian:

This amount of effort of masking is not for everyone and is definitely not for every photo.

When I am working on a photo that I will print and sell, then there seems no limit to the creative playing or fine-tuning I will spend on it to bring it to full vision I have for an image.


Unknown said...

My life with masking has been made easier and more fun with experimenting with Photoshop CS3 because it allows you to fine tune the mask in many ways.

There is another method that I use, which is described over at the luminous landscape. It uses a very loose selection method and then by the use of curves and anchor points makes corrections.

This work well when the item to be adjusted is significaantly different then other parts of selection areas.

Niels said...

Pretty helpful data, lots of thanks for your post.


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