Select and Mask
I was in the Galapagos last year (back in the days of travel and when Americans were not banned from entering other countries). Prince Philip’s Steps (El Barranco) is an extraordinarily steep volcanic rock trail on Tower Island (Isla Genovesa) that leads through a bustling, thriving seabird colony to 25 meter high cliffs with incredible views of Darwin’s Bay. Red-footed boobies, blue-footed boobies, Nazca boobies as well as Galapagos Petrels abound, with nesting families in abundance. I was fortunate enough to photograph a Galapagos short-eared owl, one of two Galapagos species of owls. I say fortunate because they blend in so well with their surroundings that they can be difficult to spot. The one I photographed was posing for me in a deep ravine on the side of a cliff so I was able to spot his relatively lighter colored body against the dark volcanic rocks. My foreground was a heavily branched palo santo forest. In most of my photos, not only is the owl difficult to see but his eyes are closed. Boring! Just as I was about to continue on the trail, though, the owl suddenly took off and I was able to get one photo in flight. The problem was the unattractive branchy foreground. What to do?
That’s where the Select and Mask workspace in Photoshop was so helpful. This workspace replaces the Refine Edge dialog in earlier versions of Photoshop and with each iteration of Photoshop has become both easier to use and more precise. It allows users to select very fine details, such as fur and hair, with single clicks on dialogue boxes.
With my image open, I clicked on the Quick Selection Tool. In the past, I would have then made a rough selection and chosen the dialogue in the top dialogue panel to open the Select and Mask workspace. In this case, however, I chose the Select Subject button in the upper tool dialogue box. One click of the button did an amazingly precise job of selecting my owl, in spite of all the bristly branches surrounding him. I then clicked on the Select and Mask button in the upper dialogue, which opened up the Select and Mask Workspace with my selection outlined in marching ants and the background masked in red. You have the option of choosing how you want to view your selection, however, with about 6 different views from marching ants to masks or transparencies. I then adjusted the sliders in the right handed panel (Radius, Smooth, Feather, Contrast, Shift Edge) of the Select and Mask Workspace to my satisfaction.
The Refine Edge Brush Tool is in the left sided panel of the Select and Mask workspace. It will allow you to fine-tune your selection even more. Since the tool works by quickly choosing between contrasting pixels, choosing Decontaminate Colors in the dialogue box of the Refine Edge Brush Tool will do an incredibly precise job of selection as you move the brush over the areas you want Photoshop to refine.
Once you are through with your selection, return to the right-hand panel of the Select and Mask workspace and open the Output To dialogue. You can output your work to a selection, a layer mask, a new layer, a new layer with layer mask, a new document, or a new document with a layer mask. Such flexibility!
In the case of my photo, I outputted my owl to a new layer with transparency. I was then able to slide the background texture of my choosing between my base layer and my selected owl. As a last step, I added a mask to my selected owl and used a soft brush at about 30% opacity and brushed over the edges of my selection until I was happy with the blending of the selected owl and the background of my choosing.
My final process was to use the filter dialogue in Photoshop, choosing Stylize, then Oil Paint (one of my very favorite filters) to give the final photo a painterly quality. Then, I added a canvas texture to the final image in an overlay mode to enhance the painterly effect.
In the past, I used purchased Photoshop plug-ins to do complicated selections for me but with the continually improving selection algorithms of Photoshop CC 2020, I find it provides all the capabilities I need.
I wish for you, Good Light and Clear Skies!
** The instructional screenshot images are from a teaching website by Benjamin Martorell for the Envira Gallery (https://enviragallery.com/guide-to-refine-edge-tool-photoshop/).