“Photoshop Masking & Compositing: Fundamentals” Goes Live Today

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.

Next entry:Deke’s Techniques 077: Creating a Synthetic Rainbow

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 076: Miniaturizing the World in Photoshop


  • Your new Photoshop course at Lynda dot com

    Thank God I am a member of Lynda dot com.
    Money well spent, a really fantastic resource.
    Thanks Deke!!
    Very much looking forward to this new course.


  • Yeah,

    I’ve been following Deke since the PS CS3 One-on-One book.  Everything is so well explained.  I still really enjoy the videos.  And I love the old school masking techniques.  Thanks Deke.  DP

  • Brilliant

    I have been using Lynda for a long-time now and when I first started I was put off by Deke’s accent and his humour so I avoided his courses. All this time later and I must be losing my mind as I like his humour and he is the first person I look for when viewing a new course as I always hope that Deke has made it. Just started this new course and the first hour has taken me a full-day as it has taken time for the channel info to seep in. Deke just keep doing what you are doing and also throw in the humor - simply brilliant or maybe Awesome as our American cousins would say.

  • PS Masking and Compositing: Fundamentals


    I can see you have put in an enormous amount of thought, planning and just plain hard work into this series of tutorials. For that we can all thank you.

    I’ve been using PS for about 20 years - the last 10 seriously. I depend greatly on well conceived and presented written/video lessons on PS tools. Due to project deadlines I value the tutorials that get me up to speed and able to accomplish the task at hand most rapidly. For example, there is a video tutorial on You Tube that walks you through a pretty complex series of steps to create a spectacular neon effect. By following the instructions as stated, I got the intended result first time through.

    My point in bringing that up, is to point out I do not have the time nor the interest in absorbing all that “channel color theory” in order to create a mask. I really don’t. I became more and more frustrated as I went through each lesson, up to the LAB section, when I finally threw in the towel. There was no way I’d remember 90% of what you explained. And truthfully, I saw no reason to.

    I just want to go from Point A to Point whatever, to get a real crisp cutout, with minimal theory input. I had hoped, when reading your email ad, that I would be able to do that. But scrolling through the subject headings of the remaining lessons it seems that there will be a lot more theory, which I’m not likely to retain.

    So thanks for the effort, and I will continue to view and use all the other tutorials you have kindly provided to us guys in the trenches.

    Rory Tate

    Director of Marketing and Promotion.

  • Thanks for your kind and critical response

    Yours was a reasoned and thoughtful argument. Thanks for that. I hope to respond in kind.

    My instinct to lead with up-front theory is twofold: First, it gives me the chance to outline the fundamental underpinnings of channels, which are the basis of masking. Second, I hope to pass along the understanding and even the skills that I’ve learned over the years, both of which have helped me adapt Photoshop’s myriad features to my own projects.

    In short, I could lead with short-form recipes. That is to say, I could spend each movie revealing the steps required to roll out a specific project. (As I do on a weekly basis in Deke’s Techniques.)

    That approach is wonderful insofar as it goes. But recipes take you only so far. If all I do is teach you how to bake a specific variety of cake, for example, then that—-bereft of knowledge you may learn from outside avenues—-is all I have given you.

    But (pursuing this analogy) if I begin by showing how the oven works, then I share the mechanics behind the craft. Or, in contrast (and abandoning the analogy), if I sidestep that channel theory is important to masking, then I ignore a core teaching thread that may serve you exceedingly well in the long term.

    The nature of the Masking & Compositing: Fundamentals course is that the theory gives way quickly to the brass tacks of theory application and project creation. This is, after all, a course; not a series of fragmented, independently standing movies. And, to succeed, a course hinges on continuity.

    Rory, if you have the time, skip Chapter 1 and move on to the others. I would love to hear your reaction to future movies. Which goes for anyone else reading this thread.

    This is in no way me adopting a defensive posture. If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. The nature of an online course is that it is forever subject to change and adaptation. I’m happy to report, the course is doing phenomenally well so far. But that isn’t to say that initial interest might not eventually give way to long-term frustration. I am, as ever, interested in teaching as many people as many long-term skills in the most efficient manner possible.

  • Continuing with the movies


    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my comments. I can be a cranky ol’ fart (I’m 73) when things don’t go just my way, so I appreciate your patient explanation of the intention behind the course design.

    I will indeed skip ahead with an open mind and hopefully, I will write again with cap in hand, raving about the results.

    warm regards,


  • almost got away

    I’ve been piling through Deke’s PSCS5 Advanced course and moving on to the Mastery chapter, planning on slipping away from lynda for a bit at the end of the month.

    Oh well, Deke, you got me again.

    Thanks for your brilliant courses. I am a photographer and not much interested in how to make graphics jump and dance for my personal work, but, wow. The intricacies of this program never cease to amaze me. Not only am I delighted with the thorough walk-through of each and almost every feature but I am almost able to grasp the overall picture, as I learn the whys and wherefores while watching your videos. Photoshop seems less formidable (and after 16 years with the program, lord knows, it should), but entirely useful in new ways.

    Looking forward to the new course, but I’ll tuck Mastery under my belt before I move on.

    Can’t wait.

    Katherine Mann

  • Thanks for the videos

    Just starting out with your masking techniques videos, I’ve gone through the entire series of photoshop and illustrator one-on-one videos you presented and I think I’ve recovered enough to absorb this next trip.
    You’ve ruined it for me though: I teach visual communication summer camps and I am expected to cover the basics of both these programs in just three short days each to small groups of young adults who constantly ask the tough questions (why does it work this way? how does that produce this result?) You are tremendously helpful for explaining this to me but if I try to pass this on to the students, I’d go into serious overtime!

    It’s all good ... please keep up the hard work!

  • I guess that this just goes

    I guess that this just goes to show that people are very different. For me, your sometimes in depth explanations for the theory behind things is a big reason for why I keep coming back to your videos over at Lynda.com. That’s simply how I learn best, and I feel that your explanations and baking metaphor here covers how I feel well.

    For me, learning how something works on a basic level is pretty much essential if I want to retain any knowledge about how to actually do something. A “click this button, add this effect, press this keyboard shortcut and now we’re done”-explanation is something I can follow but not remember. Learning theory about channels and other such things in Photoshop is something much better to me and gives me the chance to understand precisely why I click buttons and therefore later remember what I did.

    But as I said, people are different. When I help others with their computer problems I’ve found many who really can learn and remember instructions like “do this, then do that” without the context of exactly why they’re doing it. So of course there are people who would rather have your videos work like that.

    With all due respect to Rory Tate and others who feel that way though, I must say that I hope that you don’t let yourself be too influenced by that opinion. I understand why Rory wants things done differently, but I feel like there are already enough tutorials like that out there - your style of more in depth explanations is something that I think is lacking and it’s very good if someone still makes videos like that.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. Your videos on Illustrator and Photoshop are a big reason why I’m still always renewing my subscription to Lynda.com. I understand that producing the videos takes a lot of work, but I hope you can get the “satellite courses” out soon smile

  • more theory plz

    I love the theory which pricks me into going off to find out even more. I am a beginner and I not only enjoy the theory but I need it. Without it then I may as well get a monkey to press the right keys. Thanks again

  • Masking and compositing

    I must say that I enjoy the theory approach. How would one learn to really understand and use the program to its potential without understanding how something works. I am a printer by trade and have tought many individuals how to operate full size web presses. My training takes the same approach. i teach not only which button to press or which adjustment to make but why to do it and when and also what not to do and the reasons why. If you understand how a machine or program works then you will become a better operator or user. I will also say that you are my favorite instructor at Lynda.com and the reason for being a member. Thanks Deke.

  • Masking and compositing

    Hey Deke, when can we expect the remaining chapters?

  • Thanks Deke!! I want to take

    Thanks Deke!!

    I want to take a new course.

  • The Masking & Compositing series

    Will include several micro-courses. The first, Advanced Blending, is recorded and should be out next month. (It includes blend mode formulas and a degree of blending detail I haven’t shared before, all designed to expand your compositing options.) I’m scheduled to record the intensive Hair course in early December, so it should be out in early 2012. The Pen Tool and others will emerge over time as I am able to record them.

  • New Courses

    Are the new courses going to be sold? If so, where?

    Can’t wait for the “Pen Tool” course.

    Time to get back online with Lynda.com.

    Deke, you are IMHO the best teacher I have ever had. You have a wonderful way of explaining your lessons. Your humor is an added extra for me.



  • Champagne glasses in front of a sunset

    Deke, you’re my hero, but . . . I’m not buying the image of the masked champagne glasses in front of the sunset. I think you may have stopped just slightly short of what could have been a more convincing finale. There really should be some distortion looking through the glasses (and champagne) and seeing the sunset.

    Awesome tutorial - NO DOUBT and well executed concepts. But let’s go that little bit further and make adequate into exceptional.

    You’re awesome Deke!!!