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The elusive alpha channel remains one of the most misunderstood yet powerful tools in Photoshop. Alpha channels are collections of luminance data that control the transparency of an image, and they inform just about every aspect of Photoshop. As he builds transitional blended layers, fashions a depth map, makes edge adjustments, and takes on extreme channel mixing, Omni Award-winning expert Deke McClelland teaches Photoshop users that where there's a will, there's a way. Photoshop CS3 Channels and Masks: Advanced Techniques covers mapping texture on an image, turning flesh into stone, using vector masks, working with all different channels, creating a rustic edge effect, and much more. Exercise files accompany the tutorials.
Download Deke's customized keyboard layouts for Channels and Masks from the Exercise Files tab."
We have got this beautiful, beautiful composition here. We have totally dealt effectively with the fact that we had a warm subject against the warm background. We have addressed the blonde hair quite nicely, it looks absolutely great against this, completely formed background, she was nowhere near the Valley Of Fire. I shot the Valley Of Fire photograph. Andre Barrack, a guy I don't even know in a totally different country shot the foreground image here. But we still have to deal with our third challenge which is the flame. The flame remains broken, and part of the problem is that the flame is darkening the background in certain places. So it's either darkening the background or it's just kind of covering up the background, it's just making what was formerly blue, orange, which is not what a flame would do it, this doesn't all of a sudden convey completely different colors. It's not like an opaque phenomenon. It lightens the background, it is a lightning agent unlike the blonde hair which does cover things up, the flame is a lightning agent and so it should probably be set to the Screen mode. Problem is, we can't independently set the flame to the Screen mode.
So we are going to have to established a new mask that just addresses the flame, and then we will jump the flame and assign the Screen blend mode and so on, you will see. But let's do the Mask first. The Mask is a very important step of course. I am working inside of a document called the Bad flame.psd, because after all, it's a bad flame and it's found inside the 16 Tough Stuff folder. I know everything else looks great, I just choose to focus on the negative, that's me, I am in a grumpy mood I guess.
All right, so let's go back to the Layers palette. Now in order to generate this Flame Mask we need to see the composite image and currently, of course, we are not seeing the composite image. So here's how we are going to see the composite image. Alt+Click or Option+Click in that horizontal line in order to turn off the Clipping Mask and then Shift+Click on the mask in order to turn it off on the layer mask, it is. So we are seeing the composite photograph from Andre Barrack. Let's now press Ctrl+1, we are just going to check out the channels once again.
Ctrl+1 for the Red Channel, that would be Command+1 on the Mac, Ctrl+2 or Command+2 for the Green Channel and Ctrl+3 or Command+3 for the Blue Channel. And in this case, I want to work with the Red Channel which, of course has a very bright flame and the Blue Channel which has a very dim flame but a very smooth background. And we are going to use the Subtract blend mode in order to draw the flame out from the background. Here's how it's going to work. I will press Ctrl or Command+~ in order to switch back to the composite image, going up to the Image menu, choosing the Calculations command. And I am going to go ahead and of course, set Source 1 and Source 2, both the Bad flame.psd. You want both of the layers to be set to Merged by the way. If you try to set both the layers to Normal which kind of makes sense because we are working on the normal layer. Then we are going to take into account the Layer masks, and we don't want to do that. So we are going to have quite the bad effects going on there.
All right, so go ahead and switch it to Merged and switch this one to Merged as well. And then switch the first channel to Red, it's already Red, so you don't need to switch that one, let's change the second channel to Blue, and I will go with the Subtract blend mode and that makes the image way too dark. So let's go ahead -- oop! Actually I am subtracting in the wrong order. The top channel needs to be Blue and the bottom channel needs to be Red, the Source 2 channel needs to be Red. Then we will go ahead and subtract out the channel. We get this freaky effect in the background, that's okay. We are going to go ahead and darken the image a little bit by reducing the Offset value to -20, and we have this very dim flame in the background, that's fine. But it is called out from sort of the banded background a little bit. We do have enough contrast to do what needs to be done.
Now I will go ahead and click OK in order to create that new channel, let's go over to the Channels palette, scroll down there it is Alpha 1. I am going to go ahead and called it flame, and I am going to drag it up to the fifth position right there. This will be where our Flame Mask resides, just to keep it handy. Now let's go ahead and increase the Contrast using the Levels command. I am going to press Ctrl+L or Command+L on a Mac to bring up the Levels dialog box. Let's reduce this white point value to 125, oops! 125, like that, so that we are brightening the heck of the flame. All we are concerned about is the flame, with her black eye holes, we are not worried about her. We are going to get rid of all that stuff shortly. And then, we will take the black value up to 30 like so, and leave the Gamma value where it is. So we have got 30, 1.0, 125, looks great, click OK in order to accept that modification there.
Now let's go ahead and zoom in on the image and I want to start things off by burning the background away. So I am going to go grab my Burn tool of course. Make sure that it's set to Shadows as it is. And notice that I have got the Air Brush turned off. I think I want to turn it on, I will go ahead and click on it there. And then I am going to drag along the flame, now you want to be very careful, very gentle with the flame because you need to treasure it dearly, because we do not want to scroll outside of flame, we want it to be nice and bright. So we want a lot of brightness left over to our flame, we just need to get rid of all the background here.
So this area is pretty easy. The stuff I have done so far is pretty easy to work with. It does take several applications of the Burn tool in order to get rid of that stuff. Here's the tender stuff, this area in the middle. If you go too hog wild with it, too fast, you are going to harm your flame and you really don't want to do that. I assure you, you want to be good to it. Here we get into even tougher territory, notice this and I am trying to be very, very careful here. Now I am going to go very, very tiny underneath this little lick of flame right there and over the top of it. You have to be careful when you are painting, when you are doing this because when you are working with a very small brush that means that, that area that is being painted is being affected to a larger degree than when you are working with a large brush.
Do you understand what I am saying? The idea is with a large brush you have a big fuzzy edge so you have a lot of wiggle room. When you are working with a tiny brush, you have only a little bit of softness associated with it, so you have to be ultra careful. All right, let's get rid of this stuff right there, maybe paint along the top there. I want to keep these guys, this guy there and this guy there and this little guy, I want to keep them, so I am not going to paint over them at all, of course. Now let's brighten using the Dodge tool, I will press the O key in order to switch over to Dodge. Let's go with a bigger brush and we can go a little bit hog wild with this one because we definitely want to dodge the heck out of the flame, we want to keep as much flame as we possibly can. Let's dodge those details good and that there, more dodge, more dodge, dodge, dodge. You don't want sharp edges, that's the only reason you don't want to go too far, but you do of course want as much flame as possible there.
Now let's switch back to Burn and I am going to paint down the side here and against the match, just a little bit, like so. And now we have got a good flame. Now let's just go ahead and grab the Lasso tool by pressing the L key, I will drag around. Go ahead and encircle the flame there, and I will press Ctrl+Shift+I or Command+Shift+I on the Mac to reverse the selection and my foreground color is black, so I will press Alt+Backspace or Option+Delete in order to fill that outer selection area with black. All right, so far so good.
Now I press Ctrl+D or Command+D on the Mac to de-select the image. I want to pop the flame a little bit more, I want to actually blur it outwards, and I'll show you how I am going to pull this off. First, we'll go to the Filter menu and Gaussian Blur was the last filter I applied. So I guess I can just press Ctrl+Alt+F or Command+Option+F on the Mac to bring the Gaussian Blur dialog box up on screen and I will change the Radius value to 8, so a lot of blur is happening here. Now I'll click OK. Now immediately before you do anything else we want to go ahead and blend this filtered version of the flame with the unfiltered version of the flame. So the after with the before, so go up to the Edit menu, and choose Fade Gaussian Blur, we don't have any layers to work with inside of an Alpha Channel so we have to take advantage of fading instead.
So go ahead and choose that command and you could go ahead and assign the Screen blend mode to blur strictly outward, we have seen that before. But I just don't like the way that effect looks, it's just not quite what I am going for. So I am going to switch the mode back to Normal, and I am going to reduce the Opacity value to 80%, so we get a little bit of a pop. See what am I talking about there, so it's like a ghost flame, almost at this point. Now click OK. Now I do want it to be brighter than this, so I am going to press Ctrl+L or Command+L on the Mac in order to bring up the Levels dialog box and I am going to once again change this white point value to 125. Now there is no special reason I am going with 125 again, it's just that I happened to like the way this effect looks.
So 125 is what I am going for, for white point, leave the others alone, click OK, there is our Flame Mask, it's a thing of absolute beauty of course. In the next exercise, we are going to use that Flame Mask to bolster the flame in the final composition.
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