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Masking is one of the secrets of happiness in Photoshop, whether you're doing color correction or compositing, or you're silhouetting subjects from their backgrounds. Multiple terms are used, silhouette, knockout, dropout, cutout, you get the idea. First, some basic rules. Work nondestructively if you can. Don't kill innocent pixels. Let Photoshop help you if possible. And keep in mind that it's okay to improve an edge. It's well within your artistic license to reshape a lumpy waist or an irregular ear while you're creating a mask.
If you need to knock out a straight edge object such as a book or this pencil, or you need something with a smooth arcing curve, then the Pen tool is your good choice. Now it takes some practice to become accustomed to this, and this is not intended to be a Pen tool tutorial. You can find a number of those on lynda.com. It's a very powerful tool. So I'm just going to make a quick pen path around this pencil just click, click, click to make straight points, and then click and drag to make curve points.
And I always tell my students, when you're making those straight points, you have to be precise on your pen. Just click and peck like a chicken. Now I've got a point that's a little out. Right there I can use my Arrow keys to reposition it. Sometimes that's easier than redrawing, and then I keep on drawing, then I sort of sharpen my pencil here, head back up. And when you get near the end, you see a little circle next to your pen nib. There you go! At the moment, it's sort of ethereal. If I go to my Paths panel, it's just called Work Path.
Now if I'm going to take this into InDesign, I have to name this path. So I'll double-click on it, and I'll just call it pencil. InDesign will let me choose whether or not to use this path as a way to silhouette the object. And that's kind of neat, it gives you some flexibility. But Illustrator doesn't feel the same way. If I want to silhouette this pencil and have it float in, in Illustrator, I need to designate this as an official clipping path. To do that, go to the Paths panel menu, choose Clipping Path, it recognizes the name. Don't put anything in the Flatness field.
What this means is that the ultimate imaging device is going to make a decision about flatness. Frankly, you don't have to think about it, so just click OK. Now you'll notice that the name pencil shows a little outline around it, and that's just a hint that it's now officially designated as a clipping path. When I save this, if I'm going to go into Illustrator or into InDesign, I can save it as a PSD, and it will be just fine. In older workflows, we had to save as an EPS so that that path would be recognized--that shouldn't be necessary. But keep that in back of your mind if you're working with somebody that's using an older program has to have an EPS, well, save this as an EPS.
But there are some subjects that really don't lend themselves to the Pen tool. When you have a cat with furry ears or you have a person with flyaway hair. For that, you want to start with something like the Magic Wand or the Quick Selection tool. With the Quick Selection tool, you just paint across the subject, and Photoshop is looking at color and contrast differences to try to determine where the edge is. And as I paint across, oh, it picks up some stuff I don't want, but that's okay. I can hold down the Option key on the Mac or Alt on Windows, and I can carve away the parts that I don't want. But this isn't perfect.
You can see that it's not selecting the hair on the cat's ears. That's why we have Refine Edge. When I choose Refine Edge, I get a separate little dialog up that helps me judge whether I'm making a good selection. And I can choose different ways to view. I can choose Marching Ants, Overlay, on a black background, on a white background. My personal favorite though is to just view this as a potential mask by choosing Black & White. And here's the secret to happiness in the Refine Edge dialog, Smart Radius. Check that Smart Radius option, and as I drag this slider up, you'll see it's starting to move out from that initial selection, it's starting to look for more subtle changes to determine where an edge is.
Now it's not going to be perfect, you'll probably have to tune it up a little bit, but look, Photoshop has done the really hard part for me. It's captured the hair on the ears. Before I click OK, I'm going to choose how I want to output this. I can output it to an Active Selection, layer Mask, several other options. I'm going to save myself some time and go directly to layer Mask. When I choose that and click OK, now you can see that the cat is silhouetted from the background. Now I'm going to do a little quick clean up just so you know how to do this. If I hold down Option or Alt and click on the Mask thumbnail, I look at just the mask by itself.
If I press D on my keyboard for default, it ensures that my foreground and background colors are black and white, and X on the keyboard can swap my foreground and background colors. So I want to paint with black to hide. A mask is sort of like a stencil. The black part hides pixels, the white part reveals pixels. So I'm not going to go all the way through with this, I really just want you to understand the concept, I'm painting with black where it's picking up background that I don't want to have show in my final piece.
If I hit the X on my keyboard, I can paint with white, and I can ensure that some of these little gray areas are actually white. So remember that black hides, white reveals, gray areas reveal at reduced opacity, so you have a little translucency actually at the edge of the cat and the little hairs on the top. The truth is that's sort of how it is in real life. Hairs and fur are sort of translucent, so you really get a more realistic mask. When I Alt-click or Option-click on the Mask thumbnail, now I can see the cat silhouetted on the background. Again, this is not really meant to teach you all these techniques, it's just to expose you to them.
But just remember, for straight edge, hard edge things, you're going to use the Pen tool. For soft edge, more organic edges, you're going to use the Magic Wand or the Quick Selection tool and clean it up with Refine Edge. I'm going to save this just like it is. I'm not going to compress my layers. Remember, I want to work nondestructively. You always want to be able to go back in and make changes if you need to.
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