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The Photoshop CS4 Masks Panel: Another Great Innovation

Photoshop CS4 Masks Panel

Columbia Gorge wildflowers optimized with the Photoshop CS4 Masks Panel

It's hard to capture the range of brightness and the diversity of color found in the natural world. That's why masks are such a useful tool for optimizing images in Photoshop. And now Photoshop CS4 makes working with masks easier than ever with the introduction of the new Masks Panel.

For those who haven't upgraded to CS4, Adobe has consolidated and renamed the various palette windows into what are now called panels. Most of these will be familiar to users of previous Photoshop versions, but the Masks Panel is new. It's not that older versions wouldn't let you do everything the Masks Panel lets you do. It's that now you can do common tasks involving masks more easily. That not only saves time for experienced users, it makes it simpler for new users to learn how to use masks.

You can have a mask on either an image layer of an adjustment layer. Adjustment layers in fact come ready made with empty masks right next to the icon for the adjustment itself. To add a mask to a layer that doesn't have one yet, you can either click on the "Add Layer Mask" button at the bottom of the list of layers just the way you did in previous versions of Photoshop, or you can use the new Masks Panel.

You'll find the Masks Panel in CS4 sharing the same area as the Adjustments Panel. Click on the tab for MASKS and there it is. Click on ADJUSTMENTS and you're back to the Adjustments Panel when needed. To select an existing mask, click on it in the list of layers. To add a mask to a layer that doesn't have one, select that layer and then click on the "Add a pixel mask" button in the upper right corner of the Masks Panel. There's also a button to "add a vector mask" for those of you who do graphic design work as well as photo optimization. Whether you create a new pixel mask or select an existing one, you'll find a mask thumbnail in the upper left of the Masks Panel together with some sliders and other controls for adjusting that mask. It's these sliders and controls that are the real heart of the Masks Panel.

The first of these sliders is labeled Density which is basically a fancy word for opacity. Sliding it back and forth allows you to control the overall degree to which the current mask will affect the underlying layer information. Without this, it used to be necessary to use Levels or Brightness to similarly modify a mask. Tweaking the Density slider is much more intuitive and also non-destructive, something I am always in favor of. If you lighten a mask too much, you can undo your change by pushing the Density slider back to the right a little. Your mask data itself hasn't been changed. Just as with the use of the Opacity slider on an image layer, you can control how your mask interacts with the associated image data underneath.

The other main control in the Masks Panel is the Feather slider. You can think of it as being equivalent to applying a Gaussian blur to a mask in Pre-CS4 days. I love this slider. For those of us who mainly use masks for blending adjustment layers, a non-destructive way to blur their edges makes the blending process much easier than before. All you have to do is move the Feather slider back and forth until you like the way things look. What could be easier? And if you do use Vector masks in your work, you'll be pleased to know that you can Feather their edges too.

At the bottom of the Masks Panel, there's a group of buttons labeled "Refine." Clicking on the corresponding button allows you to refine the edges of your mask, create a mask based on a color range or invert a mask to swap the areas that are currently selected with those that are not. At the very bottom are smaller buttons for applying the mask you have select to merge it with the underlying image data, disable or enable a mask to hide or show its effects, and a trash can icon so you can easily delete a mask if you change your mind completely.

With the introduction of the Masks Panel, Adobe has created a one-stop shop for all things Mask. This is a great improvement in the Photoshop user interface.

Date posted: February 1, 2009


Copyright © 2009 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: Color Management Changes in Photoshop CS4 Return to archives menu Next tip: What is the Best Aperture to Use?

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Adjustment Layer Plus Layer Mask Equals Ultimate Flexibility
Layer Masks on an Image Layer
Creative Sharpening with a Layer Mask
Digital Blending with a Layer Mask
The 2009 Earthbound Light Top Ten List
Some Thoughts on Selecting and Feathering in Photoshop

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