Thursday, March 18, 2010

Layer adjustment masks for the lazy artsy slob

When it comes to masking, those extra neat and precise detail-oriented types have the clear advantage. But if you're more the sloppy, intuitive, artsy type, and/or you're a beginner then rejoice! This tutorial is for you. Oh, the discipline that masking requires! This is probably one of the reasons that my personal projects involve fairly minor post-processing manipulation. Mastering all of the selection tools (I have a particular fear of the reputedly wondrous pen tool.), loading alpha channels, altering blending modes...it's just so much to learn that I won't even pretend to cover it all by the end of the month. We'll get to some of it (alpha channels is coming soon), but for today, I want to bask in the relative ease of basic adjustment masking. In particular, the kind of masking that doesn't require precise borders. Here it is in three steps:
  1. you open your image
  2. you add an adjustment layer such as curves, hue/saturation, etc.
  3. you use a very soft brush and paint effects in or out in your sloppy, intuitive way.
Maybe you already know the joys of this kind of masking, but then again, maybe you were just avoiding masks altogether and weren't aware that you had such an easy option.

So let me give a basic example.
Some people might call this the "painting with light" technique. I'm not a fan of the term, because it makes me think of Thomas Kinkade "painter of light." No offense if you're a fan of his (obviously a lot of people are or he wouldn't have stores in your local mall), but those cottages of his always have such intense light emanating from the windows that I can't help but think I am witnessing either an alien abduction or a terrible fire.

But back to "painting with light."
Let's take this pretty lame photo of the pont Alexandre III:


It's no prize to begin with, but if it was the only one you had and you wanted to make your friends green with envy over your trip to Paris then some retouching could help further your sadistic aims.

Now I'll add a curves layer:
Click on the curves icon at the bottom of your layers palette, or in CS4 you can click on the little "s-curve" icon.

Now let's lighten the whole image by taking that black dot and pulling it toward the upper left corner of the curves box:You will see the effect over the entire image because you haven't done any masking yet. With the curves adjustment layer, you automatically get a white mask, which means that any adjustments you make will be applied to the whole image. If you use a black paintbrush on the mask, you can selectively remove the effect. It's just a matter of preference, but I think it's way more fun to use a black mask and the selectively paint in the effect. The only advantage is psychological—brushing the effect in feels more magical whereas brushing the effect out just feels like cleaning up a mess (at least that's how I see it). So dump that white layer mask (click and drag on the mask part—NOT the curves side or you'll trash the whole layer) in the trash:

Yes. Delete. Now alt click on the mask icon to get a black layer mask.

You will just see the dark original...
but by taking a brush (b) and painting white in the mask you can add the light back in as you please. Use the right and left brackets to change the size of your brush and use them with shift to change the softness. For this kind of sloppy intuitive work, I set the brush hardness to zero to avoid strong edges to my changes. You can also adjust the opacity of your brush strokes up in the brush toolbar.

Here's some sloppy painting in action:

Hit the backslash key (\) to see your masking as a red overlay:

You can toggle back and forth or just paint in the overlay view, whatever works. Some more quick painting—and really, this is quick and sloppy but it works—and you've lightened up the bottom:

Remember that this isn't about making one uniform mask, you can change the opacity and make more subtle little blobs of change....

Keep following this process (adding adjustment layers and masking their effects) on as many layers as you want. For example, I think the sky could be less washed out, so I'll add another curves layer and pull the curve down toward the bottom right corner to make everything darker:

It looks like you just undid all of your previous work, but in a minute you'll be painting the effect in and out as above. Once again, I prefer to trash the white layer...


and change to a black layers mask as before.


Mask away....
Notice that I'm not trying to be super precise selections. Instead, I'll use a low opacity brush to feather the effect a little for smooth transitions. I will also take some of the effect off of the clouds to keep them fluffy white.

You can now see the two curves layers...
but since this is a picture of France, two just feels too....too...how you say...conventional. Three is much more interesting.
A little more contrast selectively applied spices things up. And if you think you've gone too far with any one layer, you can always reduce the opacity.

By this point, I'm done, but you could add as many layers and adjustments as you want.
Finally, then, with no adjustments other than our three curves layers, you go from the "meh" photo...
to the "aahhhh" photo:

Closing words...
  • use this technique on anything from landscapes to people's faces
  • you don't need surgical precision to make artful changes
  • if you have never tried adjustment layers and masks, this "sloppy" intuitive way is the least intimidating way to start.

5 comments:

Susanne Davis Photography said...

I love reading your blog. Thank you for all the tips and tutorials!

Alex Bischoff said...

Rather than trashing a layer mask that's the wrong color, I believe you can also hit Cmd-I to invert a layer mask from Black -> White or White -> Black.

young master said...

Thanks for the tip

Leslie Renaud Kuther said...

Thanks for the great tutorial. Can you tell me what application you are using here? Perhaps I missed it. I use Elements and Lightroom. Not sure if these things can be accomplished with those two applications, but I will be hunting around now.

marc said...

I use Photoshop, but you should be able to do the same thing with any application that supports layers/masking (or dodging and burning, or anything that gives you selective adjustments). It's been a long time since I used Elements, so I can't remember the precise differences with Photoshop, but I'm pretty sure that it's possible to do the same thing.