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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."
Now one of the first approaches I usually take to a complex image like this one is to grab the Pen tool because after all, the Pen tool allows you to be in charge of where the edges are rather than asking Photoshop to figure out where they are. And once you come to terms with the tool, it can be pretty comfortable. It's still a little bit tedious because you have to set every one of those points in the control handles and so on. But, you can make it work out especially where smooth edges are concerned. So I am going to go ahead and grab the Pen tool here and let's zoom in on this Macaw and I will remind you that I am working on an image called Military macaw.jpg that's found inside of the 16 Tough Stuff folder, and then I would start working at this point right here, I draw a couple of smooth points probably. And then oh, what have I done? Look at that, I am creating a shape layer. I am such a dope. I am forgetting my own advise as I want to do.
So notice that I do have the Shape Layer option turned on here. I could have switched over to the Paths option here in order to create a new path in the Paths palette which is the way a lot of people work, but the way I recommend you work is I will restate once again in this exercise since I am making a mistake, and obviously I need to learn from me. I am first going to get rid of this new shape layer that I just created by pressing the Backspace key a couple of times in a row, on the Mac that would be the Delete key a couple of times in a row. You'll get this dialog box that asks you, what it is you want to delete the default option is the whole layer. Just go ahead and click OK, and that's what we want to do, get rid of that.
If we had done some meaningful work, we've got to cut that path and then paste it into the Paths palette, but we didn't do really much of anything. So now I will switch over to the Paths palette and I will create a new path by Alt or Option+Clicking on that little Page icon. I will call this My Macaw or something along those lines and I'll click OK. And now I will start dragging with the Pen tool, and because I have a path selected here in the Paths palette, Photoshop knows that I want to create a path and it will not a create a Shape Layer this time. The problem with drawing a shape layer over the bird, even though that's an option is that you can't see the bird because then you have the shape layer in the way.
All right, so anyway, I go ahead and get those points into alignment and I went ahead and dragged, at one point with the Pen tool, dragged at the other point and then I was dragging these control handles around by pressing the Ctrl key in order to get the Wide Arrow tool on the fly. That would be the Command key on the Mac. Then, I will Alt or Option+Drag from this point to change the smooth point into a cusp point and I drag down here and notice I get a little bit of an auto-scroll which is actually fairly helpful when you are using the Pen tool. And then I will Ctrl+Drag this handle back, like so, and then I will move this guy up a little bit and Ctrl+Drag this around here a little bit. I have got the Ctrl key down when I am doing any of my Arrow tool modifications and then I will start dragging again like so, and notice that this allows me this very sort of abrupt transition between these control handles, even though I am working with smooth points, this abrupt transition allows me to create a corner like transition, even though it's an arching transition, it has quite the angle associated with it, it's very steep.
I will go ahead and Ctrl+Drag this up a little bit, Ctrl+Drag this over here. It all becomes very natural to you to the point that you forget to narrate it to your students here as I am doing. Once you come to terms with working with the Pen tool. I mean the more you use it, obviously the more sort of second nature it becomes. Finally, I am trying to do a good job because I am trying to demonstrate how well this tool can work. Although, I would have to go back and make some other modifications if I wanted to hit it exactly. Like at this point, I am sort of shaving off a few of these edges, these natural edges inside of the bill.
I would probably want to do some more work right there at this point, and I could add a point by clicking there if I wanted to, and then I would go ahead and Ctrl+Drag this control handle in order to change the angle of the control handle or if I want to cusp point right at that location, watch this. I could press the Ctrl and Alt keys at the same time or the Command and Option keys at the same time in order to convert that smooth point to a cusp point on the fly right there. So that works out pretty nicely, and I'll go ahead and Ctrl or Command+Drag this guy up here.
Okay, here's the weird spot. This is the complicated spot. Anytime you start running into hairs and feathers or any of those kinds of little filigree details with a Pen tool, you are kind of in trouble because this tool is really designed to smooth off rough transitions and leave smooth edges in its wake. So how do you handle this junk while still drawing a path? Well, you go ahead and switch over to a different variation of the Pen tool. I am going to click-and-hold on the Pen tool to bring up the fly-out menu and then I am going to choose the Free Form Pen tool. Now, I don't think much of the Free Form Pen tool because it's really just a Lasso tool that draws paths.
So if you just sit here and kind of drag with this tool and you release, notice that Photoshop goes ahead and creates a path based on your drag and it's not a very accurate path either. But, there is this option right here called Magnetic that can really help you out. So I am going to go ahead and undo that last segment by pressing Ctrl+Z or Command+Z on the Mac. Then, I will turn on the Magnetic check-box up here in the Options bar, and now notice that I can go ahead and click at this point in order to make the path active and then I can just sort of click around inside of this weird stuff, this weird sort of macaw cotton-candy, that's upfront here above the bill in order to add points and put Photoshop in-charge of tracing these edges to the best of its ability.
What it's really doing, what I like this where feathers are concerned, and these kinds of details are concerned in general, is that it's fairly random. So Photoshop is adding these pretty random edges, so that you don't have to get involved in making of random edges on your own which can be pretty difficult because you're probably not a sufficiently random person to make it look random if you know what I mean. All right, so I am just going to sort of keep clicking and you would just keep going with this tool inside of the image. I am going to go ahead and double-click in order to stop working on the image here for a moment because that's all that I want to draw for now and you can see that it's done a halfway decent job, not the most accurate job on earth. It's going to look a little bit like a cartoon cutout, but not a bad one and it can provide a certain effect if that's what you're looking for.
So remember to get to the Magnetic Pen tool, you actually go to this guy right here, the Free Form Pen tool and then you turn on the Magnetic check box up here on the Options bar. So that's how you go about tracing this kind of image with the Pen tool if you want to stick with it and trace the rest of the image by all means, please do. I am going to be moving it right along though. In the next exercise, we're going to try to put together a mask with the help of an arbitrary map that you can create using the Pencil tool inside of the Curves dialog box.
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