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Some tools in Photoshop make the marks for you, like the Gradient Tool and Paths.

When it comes to masking, there’s no reason to fear drawing in Photoshop. Often, it amounts to little more than tracing. Plus, the History palette gives you an unlimited number of undo’s and redo’s. Still, there a number of painting strategies that can help you make masks more efficiently and precisely.

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Use colors other than true black and white only when you want to reduce opacity.

Keep it black and white.

Before you start painting masks, use the reset icon to make sure you’re painting with a true black and a true white. It’s not uncommon to find out too late that you’ve been painting with some other shade of gray. If you find out too late, you may be able to modify the contrast of the mask by applying an adjustment like Levels or Curves.

Illustrate

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Watch for unevenness created by scrubbing with too small a brush.

Check for uniformity.

It’s a good idea to check masks (Option click the mask to see it. Do that again to hide it.) for uniformity and to eliminate (Fill, brush, or filter.) unintended gaps between brush strokes (black specks in a white field, white specks in a black field) and unintended unevenness when brushing with opacities lower than 100%. Remember, this speckled appearance can happen not only when brushing but also when the Magic Wand Tool or Color Range has been used as the foundation for a selection.

Fill broad areas.

Avoid painting broad areas. Instead, select and fill them. Filling an area ensures that it will be uniform, where building up multiple overlapping brush strokes sometimes leads to uneven results. You don’t have to precisely select the edges of broad area you’d like to fill; after the lion’s share of the work is done, you can refine areas that require more care with a brush.

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Paint with the edge of the brush except for those rare occasions you need to paint with its center, then use the caps lock cross hair .

Be mindful of the edge of a brush.

The appearance of a brush will help you better see the marks you make. Normal Brush Tip (Preferences > Displays and Cursors) will show you the circumference of a brush allowing you to see the placement of its edges. You can press the Caps Lock key to change this to a cross hair that will pinpoint its center when necessary.

Use soft-edged brushes when you’re painting general areas. The feathered edges will blend into one another. Use hard-edge brushes when painting along specific contours. You’ll see the accuracy of your marks as you make them. When you’ve finished, you can soften them more precisely (Favor using Properties > Feather; you can reset the values at any time. Use the Blur tool for local effects.)

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Key commands make repetitive actions quicker and easier.

Use key commands.

Key commands make repetitive tasks easier. You’ll use these a lot. Use the X key to reverse foreground and background colors. Use the bracket keys to make a brush smaller ( [ ) or larger ( ] ). Use the Shift and bracket keys to make a brush softer ( [ ) or harder ( ] ). Use the number keys to change the opacity of a brush; press 1 for 10%, 2 for 20%, 3 for 30%, etc.

Get a list of useful masking key commands here.

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The History palette is great for multiple global undos.

The History Brush tool is great for undoing just one portion of an image.

Use the History Brush for local undos.

The History Brush tool can be very helpful when you want to undo changes in one area only. In the History palette, step back in history states to find a state you’d like to return to in one area; check the icon to the left of that state to set the source for the brush; return to the most current state; and use the History brush to paint back to a desired state in your file’s timeline.

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Painting masks with a series of successive straight lines yields surprisingly good results quickly, even for contours that aren’t straight.

Start rough, then refine.

Draftsmen often “block in” a contour, using a series of straight marks that cut around a contour in progressively finer increments rather than trying to draw it perfectly the first time. It’s highly efficient. It also takes the wobble out of handmade marks. You can draw a straight line with any brush by clicking once, letting go, moving to another point, holding the Shift key, and clicking a second time.

Illustrate

Mask_Corner_425 Three strokes can fill a corner precisely; start by overpainting with the first stroke, then erase the excess with two more strokes.

Paint over corners, not into them.

Avoid painting yourself into a corner; instead, paint over a corner. It’s challenging and inefficient to paint into corners with a series of increasingly smaller brushes.

Instead, you can cut a corner with three strokes; with the first stroke paint over the area broadly; using the edge of an eraser (or a brush with the inverse color), make a second stroke to paint away the overspill on one side of the corner and finish the job with a third stroke for the overspill on the second side of the corner.

Adopt these simple practices and you’ll find that you’ll make better masks and make them faster too.

Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

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So often, it’s the simplest things that are the most often used and so the most useful. You may find that you use this very simple three-step technique for a majority of the masks you make in Photoshop. (I do.)

1 In the Layers palette, highlight the layer you want to affect.
2 Click on the mask icon. (It looks like a Japanese flag.)
3 Use a brush to paint over the areas you want to remove an effect from.

The marks you make with a brush will determine how broad or precise your mask becomes. While you can use any brush tool, a simple round feathered brush is the most useful. Vary the brush size as needed. (You can use the square bracket keys to quickly make your brush smaller or larger.) Zoom in or out as needed.

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Brush marks can vary in size and shape.

To partially mask areas vary the opacity of the brush (You can use the number keys to quickly change a brush’s opacity.) You can stroke an area multiple times to build up a desired effect.

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You can control the opacity of any brush.

If you make a mistake, step back in history with the History palette. Or, switch the foreground and background colors (Use the X key to quickly toggle them.) and paint with the opposite color; the Eraser tool, a brush, essentially paints with the current background color. Masks can be made of any shade of gray between black and white but they cannot contain saturated color; while you’re painting, if you see a foreground color that is a saturated hue you’re painting on a layer not a mask. Again, stepping back in time with the History palette will provide you with an easy do over.

While you’re brushing, favor soft-edged brushes; hard-edged brushes may introduce unwanted contours.

Mask_Brush_HardnessThe edges of brushes can be hard or soft.

If you plan to make a mask that eliminates a layer’s effect for a majority of an image’s area, it’s faster to start with a black mask and use a white brush to paint the layer’s effect into the other smaller areas. You can start with a black mask by holding the Option key when you click the mask icon. Or, you can use the menu command Layer > Add A Layer > Hide All. Or, you can fill a mask with any color – in this case black. All of these methods will achieve the same result.

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Masks can start with a white or black base.

While there are many methods that can be used to modify a mask after it has been created brushing remains the most common and is often the most effective way.

You might be tempted to think that this technique is too easy and only for beginners – don’t. Simple is not simplistic. This is a go to technique everyone uses, beginner and master alike. Remember, you can achieve much greater precision with a mask and a brush than anything you can achieve in the analog darkroom.

Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

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“At B&H’s Optic 2018, photographer Keith Carter talks about myths, magic, and mojo. He believes that the best way to elevate your photography is to tell the truth as you know it through your photos, and he stresses that there are great lessons to be learned by revisiting history. We can learn a lot about how to shoot well – even in this digital age – by studying classic photos that pre-date digital photography.”

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Lindblad Cove, Antarctic Peninsula, Antarctica, 11 January 2011

 

Jökulsárlón	Iceland	3/2/09. Where the glacier goes to die: Pieces of the great Breidermerkurjokull  washed up on the beach at Jokulsarlon, Iceland. The ice was originally created 500-700 years ago in snowstorms high on the great Vatnajokull Ice Cap. The Breidermerjokull is one of the ice streams draining the ice cap. The ice stream has been retreating since 1930, leaving the tidewater lagoon known as "Jokulsarlon." Calved into Jokulsarlon, the icebergs float across the lagoon, breaking into smaller and smaller pieces as they go, then flow into the waves of the North Atlantic. At high tide, they wash up on the beach, then are taken away by the sea when the high tide returns half a day later. Through the process of destruction, they are contributing, drop by drop, to the rise of global sea level. The chunks of ice have been dubbed "ice diamonds" by James Balog.

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Cryoconite channles 68 deg 31.78'N 49 deg 40.56' W

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Asian elephant (curtain), from SURVIVORS, photographed 1990

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From "Anima", published 1984

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Enjoy this collection of photographs by James Balog.

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