Photoshop Channels & Masks has traditionally been one of my most popular video series in the lynda.com Online Training Library. Which is why I decided to update the course and rename it Photoshop Masking & Compositing. After all, if it ain’t broke, fix it.
It starts today with the release of my entirely reinvigorated primer course, Photoshop Masking & Compositing: Fundamentals, in which you’ll learn everything there is to know about selections, alpha channels, layers, compositing, clipping masks, Color Range, the Quick Mask mode, Refine Edges, everyday channel masking, Calculations, layer masks, vector path outlines, and knockout layers. Give me your time, and I’ll make sure your compositions look their absolute best.
And this is just the beginning. There will be many satellite courses, including (but not limited to) Advanced Blending, The Pen Tool, and my personal favorite, Hair. (I’m working on Photoshop Masking & Compositing: Advanced Blending, complete with mathematical formulas for each and every one of the blend modes, as you read this.)
Here’s my chosen splash screen, complete with a toucan. Because let’s face it, toucan’s are about as cool as masked birds get:
For a chapter-by-chapter analysis (there are nine chapters in all), read on:
Chapter 1, It All Starts with the Channel
Just so we’re clear on our terms, a mask is a grayscale depiction of a selection outline, like the one below. A composite is a collection of layers blended into a (hopefully!) seamless whole.
You create and modify layers (and by extension, compositions) in the Layers panel. So you might naturally expect that you create and modify masks in the Masks panel. Not so. The Masks panel is a minor support panel that I address in Chapter 9, when we discuss layer masks. You create and modify masks in, of all places, the Channels panel. Which is exceedingly powerful, as you’ll learn in this chapter.
Chapter 2, The Magic of Masking
The first job of an alpha channel is to let you save a selection for later use. But it also lets you evaluate a selection with unparalleled authority and edit it with unmatched control. Plus, you can load the alpha channel as a selection at a moment’s notice. Surprisingly, the core concepts are pretty straightforward, as you’ll learn in this chapter.
Chapter 3, The Science of Compositing
Building the perfect mask is just the first half of the battle. The second half is making the masked image look altogether at home in an enhanced or modified environment. And that’s where compositing comes into play. Things like layers, layer masks, layer effects, clipping masks, and more.
What’s great is that every modification is nondestructive, parametric, and (if done right) infinitely flexible. In this chapter, I’ll introduce you to the ways in which masking and compositing work together, so you can do it right the first time.
Chapter 4, The Essentials of Selecting
Photoshop provides seven selection tools. These include the Marquee tools, the Lassos, the Magic Wand, and the Quick Selection tool. Many folks regard these tools as primitive. Which is true when employed incorrectly, but untrue when properly understood. In other words, the selection tools are very good at doing what they were designed to do. Understanding their powers and avoiding their limitations permits you to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, as witnessed below.
Chapter 5, The Versatility of Combining & Transforming
In Photoshop, selections are fully realized citizens. You can undo them, drag them around, and edit them independently of pixels. In this chapter, you’ll learn how to combine selections in all sorts of extremely useful and necessary ways, as well as transform (scale, rotate, and distort) them independently of the image itself. As you’ll learn, even a basic selection can be molded to fit your very exacting needs.
Chapter 6, The Unmatched Power of Color Range
Photoshop’s best automated selection tools aren’t tools at all; they’re commands. The first one, Color Range, lets you select image elements by identifying their shared colors and luminance ranges. Which, as usual, sounds harder than it is. What it means is that you can extract an image, composite it against a new background, and assemble a fundamentally impeccable composition. Even when there’s not the slightest chance your audience will believe the results, as in the case below.
Chapter 7, The Unearthly Joy of Refinement
Photoshop’s other great selection automation feature is Refine Edge, which lets you take a rough base selection and manipulate it to fit the contours of the image. Refine Edge can expand a selection into fine details, such as hair, as well as match the varying degrees of focus associated with portrait shots and the like. Which is how I selected this guy, threw him against a moonlit background, turned him into a ghoul, and made blood drip out of his mouth. You know, just by way of example.
Chapter 8, The Rewards of Everyday Masking
Here’s where we abandon Photoshop’s tools, roll up our respective sleeves, and mask complex images all by ourselves. Which is to say, now’s when things get truly interesting.
I often define masking as the art of using the image to select itself. You start by identifying one or two channels that provide sufficient contrast to lift the foreground from its background. Then you copy and merge those channels, enhance the contrast, selectively enhance edges, and ultimately combine your masking and compositing skills to isolate fleshtones, hair, feathers, and rays of sunshine, as pictured below. This is also where I introduce you to Photoshop’s old-school but still powerful Calculations command.
Chapter 9, The Mechanics of Layer Masks
If it seems like this course goes heavy on the masking and light on the compositing, that’s just a function of the chapter names. Watch the movies, and you’ll quickly learn that masking and compositing are inseparable. Even so, in this final chapter, compositing takes center stage.
Here’s where I convey the essence of layer masks, vector masks, path outlines, and the Masks panel. You’ll also learn how to mask glass. It’s golden.
At 128 movies and more than 10 hours, this is not one of my short courses. But nor should it be if you’re serious about mastering these topics. Meanwhile, every movie is a unique challenge and a whole lot of fun.
Take my advice to heart and not only will your skills benefit but so will the quality of your artwork. Learning to mask is like learning to draw, photograph, or use one of these complex applications in the first place. Once you acknowledge and embrace the craft, you unleash your artistic mind—confident and floating free—to do whatever it damn well likes.