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Drop Those Pesky Backgrounds

A typical photographic problem is having the right shot with the wrong background. This month I will discuss a great way of using Adobe Photoshop to drop out the unwanted background, putting the subject into a simple but more appropriate setting. I started with a scan of the photo that was a little flat, a quick curve (Image: Adjust: Curves) (Fig. 1) pumped up the contrast and improved the color (if you could see the color).
Fig 1
Next, I made the photo into a layer by double-clicking the "Background" layer in the layers palette. By doing this, I can now add a layer mask to this layer (now called "Layer 0"). Add a layer mask by choosing Add Layer Mask from the Layer menu using the option of "Reveal All." A layer mask allows you to hide parts of a layer without destroying or erasing them, the greatest benefit being that you can fudge back & forth if you are not that steady drawing with a mouse. The technique is simple, paint with black anywhere that you want to be hidden, any of the painting tools will work, but I prefer a slightly soft brush with the paintbrush tool (Fig. 2). Photoshop represents transparency by filling the clear area with a checkerboard grid. For added effect, I used a feather elliptical selection to leave a ‘spotlighted’ area of the floor still visible by filling that area of the mask with white.
Fig. 2
Now that the mask is made, the fun begins. To add the new background, first add a new layer by selecting Image: New: Layer from the menu (by default it is called "Layer 1"), and drag it so that it is below your main photograph. Using the Radial Gradient tool (Fig. 3), I created a gradation from gray at the center, to black in the corners. At this point you may see some imperfections in your mask, and you may need to touch them up.
Fig. 3
Next, with Layer 1 selected, I applied a lighting effect by selecting Render: Lighting Effects from the Filter menu (Fig. 4). Using one of the stock effects, I was able to create a dramatic backdrop. To make the background look more realistic, I added a little noise (Filter: Noise: Add Noise) to simulate the grain of the existing picture.

Fig. 4

To finish the project, I added the names of the dancers with a little glow effect (Fig. 5). You do not need to make your own background, with the same layer mask technique, you can use a different photograph altogether. Photoshop’s layer mask feature makes it very convenient to turn a mediocre photo into a great piece.
Fig. 5
Paul Vaughn is the Director of Digital Services at River City Silver, the premiere photographic and digital imaging laboratory in San Antonio and South Texas. Mr. Vaughn is a graphic artist and masked avenger, he can be contacted at

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