Get to the Good Stuff

You and your little one have canned jam to give as holiday gifts. You've used your Mac to create a gift label, and all that's left to do is placing your child's smiling face into it. You've already scanned your most angelic picture of him, but the photo is of a summery scene that just doesn't suit December's jam jars.

No problem. Using the Layer Mask feature in Adobe Photoshop 5.0 and above and Photoshop LE (800/833-6687, ), you can digitally cut your cutie out of that background with greater accuracy than any pair of scissors affords.

Understanding the Layer Mask feature is easy when you think about its name. Before you paint a wall, you generally mask the baseboards with tape or paper. Layer Mask similarly obscures some parts of an image, but instead of covering them, Layer Mask makes those parts invisible. And because the image still exists behind the mask, you can easily restore portions of it if you cut out too much.

Once you mask the background, your perfectly silhouetted subject fits into your label, and your work of art is ready to print for the gift basket.

GENEVIEVE MARGHERIO ( ) is partial to masks, both as a designer at Chicago's interactive agency Generator ( ) and as someone born on Halloween.

1. Prepare to Mask   Before you begin surgery to remove the background from your photo, place the scanned image on a new layer above the label you've created in Photoshop.

In Photoshop, open both the image you've scanned and the label you've created. Within the scanned document, select the Marquee tool from the Tools palette (or press M) and drag the mouse to create a box around the part of the photo you want to keep. In my example, I'm concentrating on the head and shoulders of a boy I'll call Cousin Max.


Switch to the Move tool (press V) and drag your selection onto the label document A . Photoshop will automatically create a new layer to accommodate the selection B .

Make sure you've selected the new layer, and then use the Move tool to position the selection over the label C .

Now you're ready to mask the portion of the photo that you don't want to appear--in this case, everything except Max's head and shoulders.

2. Create a Loose Outline   Before you do any intricate cutting, rough in the outline you'll want around your subject.

Choose the Lasso tool from the Tools palette (or press L), and click and drag to draw a loose outline around your subject A . Next, click on the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers palette B .

The part of the photo that wasn't selected disappears C , and a black-and-white icon indicating the presence of a layer mask appears in the Layers palette D , next to the icon of the photograph. Though it looks as if you've erased part of your photograph, nothing has actually been deleted--it's only hidden behind the mask.

3. Zoom In   To accurately trim a complicated shape (such as Max) out of a busy background, you'll need to pay attention. Focus on detail by looking very closely at your image before you cut.

Select the Zoom tool (press Z) and drag a box around a small portion of the photograph to enlarge it A . If you've sufficiently zoomed in on your photo, you should be able to see individual pixels--the tiny colored squares that make up images on a screen.

This makes it easier to determine where your subject ends and the background begins. Here I can see which pixels make up Max's hair and which make up the fence pole behind him B .

As you draw around your subject in the next step, you'll zoom in and out to gauge which bits of the photo to keep and which to mask. To zoom out, hold down the option key and click on your image with the Zoom tool.

TIP: To zoom in, press command-plus (+); to zoom out, command-minus (-).

4. Cut It Out   The Layer Mask is in place, you've zoomed in, and it's time to pick up your Lasso tool to perfect the outline of your subject.

Select the Polygon Lasso tool (shift-L). In the Polygon Lasso Options window (Window: Show Options), select Anti-aliased to cut with a smooth edge A .

The Polygon Lasso tool lets you define precise points in your outline by clicking on them. (The regular Lasso tool relies on the less-exact movements of the mouse.)

Press D to set the Tool palette color swatches to default values. Then, using the Polygon Lasso tool, draw around the part of the photo you want to hide B . Press the delete key to add your selection to the layer mask and make it invisible C .

If you mask too much of your image D , you can restore a portion to visibility by selecting it with the Polygon Lasso tool and then pressing option-delete E .

When you've finished refining your mask, choose Save A Copy from the File menu and choose the TIFF format. This will collapse your layers into one and save the combined image while preserving your layered version. Now you're ready to print.

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