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In this installment of his popular Masking & Compositing series, Photoshop guru Deke McClelland shows how to select hair—down to the individual strands—and composite portraits against new backgrounds. The course covers how to mask out hair, paint in detail, blend hair, merge channels, and match light sources. Deke also explores special techniques for working with both dark and light hair, as well as extracting hair from complex backgrounds.
Our composition is looking pretty great with the exception of this flame, which doesn't look right at all. Now, the thing about a flame is that it naturally increases the brightness of the background behind it. So it's a kind of anti-shadow in other words, and just as you would generally set a shadow to the Multiply mode, we should set a flame to the Screen mode and that way instead of this opaque and fairly scrawny flame, we'll end up with something more like this. And so in this exercise we'll mask the flame and then in the next exercise we'll composite it. Now to mask the flame I need to reinstate an opaque version of it.
So over here in the layers panel I'll Alt+Click in a horizontal line between the top two layers, and then I'll Shift+Click on the layer mask thumbnail for that normal layer. Now let's check out what we have to work within the Channels panel. I'll switch over to it. Here's the Red channel and you can see that the flame is very bright against a fairly bright background as well. When I click on the Green Channel we have way more contrast. We've got a nice dark background. However, we're losing a lot of the detail inside the flame and we really want to retain as much flame detail as we can.
And then in the Blue Channel things darken up even more and we're practically losing the flame altogether. But here's what I like about the Blue Channel, it has this nice distinction here between the beginning of the flame and the area of flame beyond her hair. Whereas in the Red channel that area of brightness is fairly homogeneous, and so what I'm going to suggest is that we take the Red Channel and we subtract what is essentially its opposite, the Blue Channel. I'm going to switch back to the RGB image, deselect the image as well and then go up to the Image menu and choose the Calculations command.
The base channel needs to be Red so I'm going to set Source 2 to the Red Channel, and then I'll go ahead and switch Source 1 to the Blue Channel and this ends up looking really wrong. See the sharp edges here, and that's a function of the layers that are selected. Now you would figure we want to work from the normal layer, because that's the layer that's active and that's the layer that contains the opaque version of the model, but what ends up happening here, I'll change the Blend mode from Add to Normal. Notice that Photoshop goes ahead and interprets the layer mask.
Even though it's turned off, the Calculations command still sees it and it sees it as either black or white. So that fairly ruins that layer. What we want instead is to set both of the layer options to Merged, just as I was telling you, you normally want to do when you're working inside Calculations, and then I'm going to change the Blend mode from Normal to Subtract. Now this ends up creating, believe it or not, a brighter version of the image than we want, because I really want to sync that background if I can. So I'm going to reduce the Offset value to -20 like so, and we end up getting a halfway decent flame.
Of course, we need to increase the contrast and we will in just a moment, but for now click OK in order to create that new alpha channel. I'm going to rename the channel flame, and I'm also going to drag it up to just below final mask, so we can access its keyboard shortcut if need be. Now let's increase the contrast of the image using the Levels command. Now I'll do that by pressing Ctrl+L that would be Command+L on the Mac and I'm going to click in that black point value and raise it to 30, and then I'll tab my way over to the white point value and take it way down to 125, so that we end with this intensely bright flame, a little bit of darkness in the background.
However, that's going to be enough to get the job done. So I'll click OK. Now I'll go ahead and zoom-in on the flame in order to take it in, and notice what I was talking about there. We have this nice distinction between where the flame starts and the area of flame outside of her hair. Now it's time for the selective modifications and we want to take it very easy. We're going to start off with the Burn tool. So I'll go ahead and switch to the Burn tool here inside the toolbox. Make sure that your Range is set to Shadows and working with a pretty small brush, I'll take it up a little bit here and I'm just going to click over and over again in this area in order to diminish the brightness of that background.
And notice that I'm clicking more or less outside the flame, because I don't want to darken up the flame anymore than I have to, I really don't lose any of that detail inside of the bright portion of the flame. Now, I'm reducing the size of my brush quite a bit and painting along inside this region right there. I want to retain that little bit of brightness if I can, as well as this little bit, and that guy right there as well. Now, I'll increase the size of my brush, paint over in this region. I'm going to have to click many times around here in order to darken things up, maybe take that down as well.
Reduce the size of my cursor again in order to get inside of some of these regions. Increase the size of the cursor, so I'm just painting along. I'm also doing a lot of clicking and probably ending up clicking something like 50 times altogether in order to get this right. And finally, click inside this little region right there. Now I'll increase the size of my cursor a little more, paint over in this region next to her head in order to get that all nice and black. Let's make everything outside the flame black by grabbing the Lasso tool and then selecting widely around the flame as you see me doing here, coming back in around her head.
And then I'll go up to the Select menu, choose the Inverse command in order to select everything outside the flame, and in my case the background color is black, so I'll press Ctrl+Backspace or Command+Delete on the Mac in order to blacken up everything outside that flame. All right! Now, I'll press Ctrl+D, Command+D on the Mac to deselect the image. Now, we need to brighten that flame a little bit. So I'm going to grab my Dodge tool and increase the size of my cursor. I don't want the Exposure value to be this high, so I'm going to press the 5 key to reduce it to 50%.
Make sure the Range is set to Highlights and then just click inside some of these regions of the flame in order to brighten them up. And the final effect looks something like this. If you end up getting a slightly different effect, that's really not that big a deal, as long as you ultimately select as much of that flame as you can. Now, at this point I want to soften the flame a little bit, so I'm going to go up to the Filter menu, choose the Blur command and then choose Gaussian Blur and I ended up arriving at a Radius value of 8 pixels, and now I'll go ahead and click OK.
Again, because that's a pixel based value, that would depend on the resolution of the image. If you're working with a higher res image, you might set the Radius to 20 or more. Now I'll OK, and I figure we want some sort of interaction between the blur that I just applied in that original flame, and I'm going to create such an interaction by going up to the Edit menu and choosing Fade Gaussian Blur. And you might figure that the best solution would be to change the mode from Normal to Screen, so that we're exclusively blurring outward.
However, I ultimately decided that wasn't the effect I wanted. So I'm going to change the mode back to Normal, and instead I decided to take the Opacity value down to 80%. So we have just a little bit of the original flame showing through. Then I'll go ahead and click OK in order to accept that modification and that is our final mask. In the next exercise I'll show you have use the mask to composite and brighten up that flame.
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