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Where is that Masked Man?

Photo-composites are a great way to spice up a photo or highlight a product. Digital compositing is seen frequently in movies and television. Images of Forrest Gump shaking hands with John F. Kennedy or Fred Astair dancing with a vacuum cleaner are certainly memorable. The powerful digital photo software we have today allows anyone to make a photo-composite with his or her own images. This month’s example will be a snapshot submitted for use as a commercial headshot composited in Adobe Photoshop.

To start with, the photo does not have an appropriate background to be a headshot. The quilt backdrop is too busy and distracts from the subject (Fig 1). Having already selecting a funky, but more appropriate, background image, the first step is to set up the layers. Think of layers as multiple images on glass slides stacked on top of each other. We will need to have the layer with the photograph (called “Photo” in this example) ‘above’ the new background layer (called “New Background”). Working with the photograph, open the Layers palette and double-click the “Background” layer or select New: Layer from Background from the Layers menu to change the photo into a floating layer. Name the layer “Photo.”

Fig. 1

Now, with both images open, use the Move tool to click-and-drag the new background image into the photograph. You can also do this by the copy-and-paste method, but that uses more memory and is slower than simply dragging the layer. Either method will create a new layer called “Layer 1,” change the name to “New Background” by selecting Layer Properties from the Layer menu. If the “New Background” layer is above the “Photo” layer (Fig 2), drag it beneath the “Photo” layer in the Layers palette. You may also need to move it into the correct position with in the image. Use the Move tool or the Arrow keys to nudge it into place.

Fig. 2

The next step is to make a mask. Masks allow you to hide part of a layer, essentially making it completely or partially transparent allowing the underlying layers to show through. In this example, we need to mask out the quilt to be able to see the background.

There are several ways to do this in Photoshop. You can easily use the Eraser tool to delete the quilt, but it will be difficult to get around the hair. Similarly, you can use the Lasso tool to outline the quilt area and delete it, but this combines the difficulty of dealing with the hair with the need to be able to draw a complex line with your mouse. Not easy. The best choice is to use Photoshop’s Quick Mask and Layer Mask tools.
To get into Quick Mask Mode in Photoshop, select the Quick Mask button on the Tools palette (it’s toward the bottom and looks like a white circle in a gray rectangle) or press the “Q” on your keyboard. Now you can use any of the painting tools to paint a mask over the face (Fig 3). Anything painted black will end up staying in the image, anything painted white or left alone will be hidden. You can also paint with shades of gray for a semi-transparent effect. By default the Quick Mask shows up as transparent red, this can be changed double-clicking the Quick Mask button.

Fig. 3

Using a big brush, roughly paint out the face with the Paintbrush tool. Select a smaller brush to go along the edges. Don’t use a very soft-edged brush for this, as the composite will not be as realistic. If you go over the edge of the hair, switch to white and paint back to the line. You may want to zoom in to 200% or more for accuracy.
Once the mask is complete, exit Quick Mask Mode by pressing “Q” or the Standard Mode button on the Tools palette. You will see the ‘marching ants’ designating the selection area (Fig 4). Notice that the quilt area is selected. To hide the quilt, simply select Add Layer Mask with the Hide Selection option for the Layers menu (Fig 5). Unfortunately, if you are doing this in Photoshop Elements, Layer Masks are not available and you will just have to delete the quilt area by hitting the Delete key or select Clear from the Edit menu.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

You may at the point notice some light colored edges. These can be removed by painting black on the Layer Mask (be sure you are selected on the Layer Mask in the Layers palette). If you are using Photoshop Elements, touch up the edges with the Eraser tool.

Draw in a quick suit jacket on its own layer (Fig 6) and this becomes a completely different portrait. Next month, I’ll have more about the masking tools in Photoshop.

Fig. 6

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. No masked men where harmed in the making of this picture. Color examples can be seen at Email Paul Vaughn at

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