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Create photo-realistic composites with layer masks

Added on Friday 1st of July 2011 09:24 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows

One of the more challenging things to do in Photoshop is combining several images to create a new composite photo. To create a realistic composite, you usually have to manipulate the images in some way. Layer masks, for example, enable you to synthesize images that are on multiple layers in the same document.


We’ll demonstrate how layer masks enable you to:

•  Remove unwanted background pixels from an image.

•  Reveal or hide pixels on underlying layers selectively.

•  Create more realistic transitions between layered images.


You can use a layer mask in Photoshop to hide (or mask) designated pixels in a layer or layer set completely or to a specified degree of opacity. This allows you to edit unmasked areas on a layer without affecting the masked areas on the same layer. You can use layer masks to create all sorts of special effects, such as the composite image shown in Figure A.




Unmask the possibilities

To create the composite shown in Figure A, we took advantage of the fact that layer masks allow us to show and hide pixels at varying degrees of transparency. We’ll use this example to introduce you to the world of layer masks.


Start with a multi-layered document

To work along with us, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, extract the file construction.psd, launch Photoshop, and open the file. (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.) In its current state, shown in Figure B, we have a little work to do to create a realistic composite.




Use a layer mask to hide unwanted pixels

We’ll start with using a layer mask to remove the background pixels from the truck image on Layer 3. We already created a selection around the truck and saved it as a channel, so all you have to do now is load the selection and add the mask.


To mask the background:

1.  Choose Window > Layers to display the Layers panel if it isn’t already.

2.  Click on Layer 3 in the Layers panel to highlight and select it.

3.  Choose Select > Load Selection to open the Load Selection dialog box.

4.  Choose Truck from the Channel pop-up menu.

5.  Click OK to create a selection around the truck.

6.  Click the Add Layer Mask button at the base of the Layers panel, or choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection.

The selection is now revealed and the background is masked, as shown in Figure C. A layer mask thumbnail also now appears to the right of the layer thumbnail on Layer 3 in the Layers panel, as shown in Figure D.






Get those tires dirty

With the unwanted background pixels successfully hidden, the truck now looks like it’s floating above the dirt. To fix this, we already duplicated the dirt layer and moved it above the truck layer in the Layers panel. The next step is to mask the upper half of the duplicated dirt image to reveal most of the truck underneath.


To create an inverted mask:

1.  Select Layer 4 in the Layers panel.

2.  Choose Select > Load Selection to open the Load Selection dialog box.

3.  Select Dirt from the Channel pop-up menu.

4.  Click OK.

5.  Choose Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection, or [option]-click ([Alt]-click in Windows) on the Add Layer Mask button to create an inverted mask.

As shown in Figure E, the selected pixels on Layer 4 are now hidden, revealing the layers bel...


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