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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."
In the previous exercise, I showed you how to convert a path to a selection outline. In this exercise, I am going to show you how to convert a path to a layer mask, a pixel based layer mask, that is to say, or a more flexible resolution independent vector mask. I am working inside of that same document, I opened in the previous exercise, it's called Ready to mask.psd found inside the 15_Paths folder. Notice that I am working inside the Paths palette; I have the free-form polygon path selected here. Now if I want to convert the path to a layer mask, I have to first convert the path to a selection outline. You do that, of course, by Ctrl+Clicking or Command+Clicking on that path thumbnail. Note, by the way, that the path doesn't have to be selected to take advantage of this technique. If the path is deselected, like so, I can still Ctrl+Click on it here on the PC or Command+Click on it on the Mac in order to invoke that selection outline. So an additional advantage to Ctrl or Command+Clicking, as a technique.
All right, now I am going to go over to the Layers palette and I am going to make sure my Profile layer is active, of course. Then go ahead and click on this Add layer mask icon down here at the bottom of the Layers palette. Photoshop goes ahead and converts the selection to a layer mask, like usual. I am going to Alt+Click or Option+Click on that layer mask thumbnail in order to view the layer mask here inside of the image window and I will zoom in. You can see all the same stuff that we saw on the Quick Mask mode in the previous exercise. We have straight edges that are punctuated by these corner points and those are the same corner points that we created with a Pen tool. We have ant-aliasing as well, good anti- aliasing inside Photoshop; so nice, smooth, representative edges.
The problem is that it's a pixel based mask at this point. When we converted the path to a selection outline, we converted it from vectors to pixels. That may or may not be the way, you want to go. If you want to come in here, now paint the path and modify using the Brush tool, for example, then it's a great way to go. However, if you would prefer to modify the mask as points, as anchor points, and segments, and so on, as the path outline, then you want to convert it to a vector mask, instead. Let me show you how that works. Go ahead and undo the creation of the layer mask by pressing Ctrl+Z or Command+Z on the Mac, then de-select the image by pressing Ctrl+D or Command+D on the Mac. Now let's go ahead and zoom out from the image, a little bit here. I am going to switch back over to the Paths palette and I am going to click on free- form polygon to make it active. Then I am going to go over to the Layers palette, make sure the Profile layer is active, once again, and then go up to the Layer menu, choose Vector Mask, and choose Current Path.
Now we will go ahead and convert that path to a vector mask right here inside of the Layers palette, where this thumbnail is concerned. Wherever the thumbnail is white, means that the layer is opaque; and wherever the thumbnail is gray, then the layer is transparent, and we can see through to the barracudas in the background. That's one way to work, is to choose that command. I will show you a work around, I will show you a little shortcut here. If you press Ctrl+Z or Command+Z on the Mac to undo the creation of that vector mask, you can also go down here to that add a layer mask icon down there, and I want you to press and hold the Ctrl key or the Command key on the Mac and click. When you Ctrl or Command+Click on this icon, you convert the path outline to a vector based mask.
The advantages are as follows- you can now get the white Arrow tool, for example, and you can drag these points around to move them. So you can edit the mask as a vector based path outline. Also, it's resolution independent. So if you scale your image, the path outlines are going to scale smoothly. That can be great, when you are working with a really low resolution image and you want to up sample it, and you are going to still have very, very smooth edges. Thanks to this vector based mask. Now one little caveat that I want to share with you, I am going to go ahead and zoom in here and I am going to make a really ridiculous modification. I am going to go ahead and drag this point all the way inwards, so we cut away her eye and that way we can see the adjustment that's been applied to the vector mask here inside the Layers palette.
I am now going to switch over to the Paths palette and you can see there is this item called Profile Vector Mask, Profile being the layer name, and then this is the Vector Mask associated with that layer. You can see that it has got this big, sort of, dig into the eyes there. However, the original free-form polygon item does not have the eyes gouged out. That's because these are now two independent objects inside of Photoshop. So as soon as you convert the path outline into a vector mask, it becomes an independent outline that you are going to edit independently as well. That can be a good thing actually because it means you have your original version available to you, in case you want to come back to it but it's also a bad thing if you think that they are somehow linked to each other because they are not.
Anyway, I am going to undo that modification. This looks pretty good to me. Now, a couple of more things before we close out the exercise. I am going to switch over here to the Layers palette, I want to show you now that---- you can see that we can see the vector based outline and the bunch of points as well because the points are active, around the outline of this masked layer. What if you don't want to see the anchor points, and the paths, and so on? Because after all, they are not part of the printable image, they are not going to print. So they are, kind of, in your face right now, especially if you don't want to work with them.
Well, you can go over here and just click on the vector mask thumbnail. Click on it and it becomes inactive. You can see the double outline go away and you can also see the path outline disappear here inside image window. To bring it back, you just click on the thumbnail again; or if the Pen tool, the Arrow tool, or one of the shape tools is active, you can also take advantage of the keyboard shortcut, which is the Enter key. You will press the Enter key, the path outline goes away, this thumbnail becomes inactive as well. If you press the Enter key again, the thumbnail becomes active and you see the path outline, once again.
All right, I am going to hide the path outline and I am going to go ahead and twirl open Profile and Baracuda, both of these layers. So that I can see the layer effects and I am going to turn the effects on. I have got a Drop Shadow assigned to the Profile layer and the Color Overly effect assigned to the Baracuda layer. You can check out those effects by double-clicking on them, if you want to see the settings that I used. This is the final version of the free-form polygon outline. Now that's not going to be the final version we use because it's got some problems. If you zoom in here, you will see that we have a little bit of a disconnect associated with these corners around her nose and her actual nose.
So I would say, this looks like we cut it out with a pair of scissors, when we were in a big hurry. Let's try to do a better job by introducing some smooth points and taking advantage of a more sophisticated approach using the Pen tool and we are going to do that in the very next exercise.
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