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Photoshop Masking and Compositing: Fundamentals is the introductory installment of Deke McClelland's four-part series on making photorealistic compositions in Photoshop. The course shows how to make selections, refine the selections with masks, and then combine them in new ways, using layer effects, blend modes, and other techniques to create a single seamless piece of artwork. Deke introduces the Channels panel and the alpha channel, the key to masking and transparency in Photoshop; reviews the selection tools, including the Color Range tool , Quick Mask mode, and the Refine Edge command; and shows how to blend masked images so they interact naturally.
In this exercise, we're going to mask the kite, that is, the bird, and we're going to move into our larger composition. Working inside the bird image, first thing I want you to do is grab that newest alpha channel, and duplicate it by dropping it onto the little Page icon at the bottom of the Channels panel. And now let's increase the contrast of this channel dramatically, using the levels command. So press Control+L, or Command+L on the Mac. This group of luminance levels here inside the histogram; those represent the darkest colors inside the channel, that is to say the background. And then this little group of very bright luminance levels; those represent the tonal values inside the bird.
So I'm going to start by dragging that black slider triangle all the way beyond the first group of spikes right there, and that ends up giving us a black point value of 200. And then I'll grab the white slider triangle, and take it down to beyond the second group of spikes, and we end up with a white point value of 225. Then click OK in order to accept that modification, and let's go ahead and rename the channel as well: 200/1/225, so that once again I know how I created the channel.
If you zoom in to 100%, you're going to see that we have some pretty sharp, if not outright jagged transitions. We'll solve that problem shortly once we bring the bird into larger composition, but for now this is going to serve as a great base mask. Control+click, or Command+click, on that alpha channel to load it up as a selection. Then switch to the RGB composite here at the top of the Channels panel, return to the Layers panel, and then double- click in the Background image to convert it to an independent layer, and I'm going to call it kite, and click OK.
And then finally, we need to add the selection as a layer mask by clicking on the Add layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Now we are ready to move the bird into the larger composition. So right-click anywhere inside the image window, and choose Duplicate layer, and then change the Document from, in our case, Bird with base alpha.psd, Composite model.psd, and click OK. Now let's go ahead and switch to that image, and you can see that we end up with a bird right there on the model's face. That, of course, is not what we want.
I'll go ahead and Control+drag, or Command+ drag, the bird off to the side. And notice that he is in front of the model. He really wants to be in the background, because there is no way the kite would be this tiny, and in front of the model. He is, in fact, far in the background. So I'm going to go ahead and scroll to the bottom of the Layers panel, and drag the kite layer down to between the background and the M1 R40 layer, and then he appears behind the model, as well he should. Now, he is way too big, so I want to scale him. I'm also going to want to apply a filter later on, which means that he should be a smart object.
In the past, I've been telling you I don't like to convert layers to smart objects while they contain layer masks. So normally, I would temporarily move the layer mask to a different layer, convert the image to a smart object, and then bring the layer mask back, but that's going to make it tricky to scale the bird and its mask at the same time. So I'm going to take an alternate route. We'll see if this make sense. It's pretty darn clever, by the way, and it's a very useful technique. But step one is, with that current layer selected, go out to the Layers panel flyout menu, and choose Convert to Smart Object. Or, if you loaded my DekeKeys shortcuts, you can press Control+Comma; Command+Comma on the Mac. That goes go ahead and puts both the layer, and it's mask, inside that smart object.
Next go up to the Edit menu, and choose the Free Transform command, or press Control+T; Command+T on the Mac. And then I want you to go out to the Options bar, click that link icon between W and H, and change either the W, or H value to 50%. And we also want to move the bird to a slightly different location. I'm going to kind of drag it around here, but the specific coordinate values I came up with, assuming that that center point inside the Reference point matrix on the far left side of the options bar selected, then I want you to change the X value to 2315, and then Tab to the Y value, and go ahead and change it to 375.
And press the Enter key a couple of times on the PC, or the Return key a couple of times on the Mac, in order to accept that modification. Alright, now let's go ahead and zoom in on the kite, and notice that he has got some very sharp edges around him there. We have a little bit of white haloing over on the right side of this forward wing, which means that I need access to my layer mask, but it's buried inside of the smart object. Here is how to regain it. This is the clever part.
You start by Control+clicking, or Command+ clicking, on the thumbnail for that smart object layer in order to convert it's mask to a selection outline. Then drop down to the Add layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, and click on it. Now we have access to the layer mask again, except we're masking a mask that's at work inside of the Smart Object. So I want you to double-click on the thumbnail for the Smart Object layer. You may see a warning that tells you how to work with smart objects inside of Photoshop.
Just go ahead and click OK, and that brings up a separate window for the bird. And notice that it's cropped. I hate that Photoshop does this. I want to give myself a little more wiggle room in case we decide to do something to the edges of the bird. So go up to the Image menu and choose the Canvas Size command, or press Control+Alt+C; Command+Option+C on the Mac. Turn on the Relative check box, and let's go ahead and add 50 pixels to both the Width, and the Height, of this canvas. And you should have that center chicklet selected so that we're going to expand the canvas outward in all directions, and then click OK.
That just gives us a little more room to work, and then I want you to Shift+click on the layer mask thumbnail here inside the Layers panel to turn it off. We don't have to throw the layer mask away, just turn it off, and next go ahead and close the image. On the PC you click the Yes button in order to save your changes. On the Mac you'll click the Save button. And that goes ahead and unmasks the smart object version of the kite, so that the one and only mask that's at work is the layer mask here inside the overall composition.
And that's how we introduce the mask version of the bird into a new sky environment.
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