Photoshop – Masking with the Pen Tool

Introduction

In this article, I cover a reliable, and one of the easiest methods of performing subject isolation in Photoshop for the inclusion of an image against another background: Masking with the Pen Tool.

You don’t find many articles on the internet promoting the use of this method. The reason is it doesn’t rely on fancy software algorithms created by someone with a PHD in software to automatically do the mask for you. This method whilst easy takes time and patience, but unlike fancy algorithms works consistently. For those prepared to persevere, the results remain far better than you can get with any other method. Indeed, if you sell photographs on the stock photography sites, some still insist that you use this method to ensure the quality of the product to their customers.

In reality, photographers have several methods in their arsenal to create great masks. We will cover the Pen Tool here, but I will also go through some of the other methods in other articles.

In writing this article, my assumption is that you know your way around Photoshop. I will describe each step we go through, but not cover the basic mechanics of the Photoshop software.

Getting Started with Photoshop Masking

To start with, launch Photoshop, open up the image you want to mask and select the Pen Tool on the left-hand toolbar. It’s also a good idea at this point to create a duplicate layer and work on the duplicate. That way, if you mess up, you can always recover and start again.

duplicate layer
Setting up and duplicate layer

The Hard Work Commences

Our aim is to create a path all the way around the object we want to extract from its background so that we start and finish in the same place. To do this, you want to work at around 300-400% zoom. We then left-click using the pen tool and gradually create a path around our object.

As you work your way around, you will notice that the edges have a lighter shade to them, this is where light has reflected on the subject from behind it. You want to stay slightly inside this so that you are not right up to the edge; otherwise, your extraction will end up with a halo effect. You can get rid of this halo afterwards using other tools but is better to get the mask right first time.

If you make a mistake, you can go back using Ctrl Z. Also, you don’t need to have the points too close together, particularly on straight runs. We will feather the path later on.

Once you have made your way around the whole subject, click your final point on the starting point. At this point, Photoshop will recognise that you have finished your selection, and will automatically create a Path.

using the pen tool
using the pen tool

Paths & Selections

Next, select the path tab, by default, it is located in the Layers Panel in the Right-Hand menu at the bottom. Along the bottom of the path tab, there are a number of options. Select “Load path as a selection”. As its name suggests, the Path will now turn into a Selection.

work path optimisation
work path optimisation

With this step done, from the top Toolbar click “Select” then “Modify” then “Feather”, and feather the selection by say 1-2 pixels to smooth out the selection.

Photoshop Masking – Job Done

That’s it, job done! From here you can copy and paste your selection into another image. You can also save the selection so that you can come back to it at a later time.

isolated image
isolated image

One final tip is to try putting the object onto both a black and then white background. This will give you an idea of any areas that have a halo effect. You can then either refine your selection from the Layer tab or go ahead and make separate extractions using the Pen Tool.

If you found this article useful, check out some of our other Learn Photography guides.

Here are some other Photoshop articles that may be of interest to you:

Photoshop Articles

If you don’t have Photoshop, but want to download a copy, head over to the Adobe website here


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