Thursday, February 19, 2009

REVIEW: Photoshop Masking & Compositing

This book was published back in 2005, which is a LONG time in the software industry, but surprisingly there are few books that cover this important topic in such depth.

For the uninformed, Masking is one of the most important things you should learn in Photoshop, but it can also be very complex to master. Basically the way it works is that images in Photoshop stack one on top of another like sheets of paper. If you were to cut out a hole on a top sheet of paper, you'd see the content of the paper underneath it. This is effectively what a mask is - it is feature that tells Photoshop what to show from the current layer (using White) and what to show from the layer beneath (using Black). Of course if it were that simple, there wouldn't be a need for an entire book on the subject.

Katrin Eismann's book, while a bit outdated due to advancements in Photoshop CS2 - CS4, but it is one of the more comprehensive books on the subject of masking. It covers some very challenging things to mask using a lot of images and complex scenarios that you'll find in the real world. The real questions are - Should you read this book? and Is this really the best resource to learn about masking? Read on to get my 2 cents...

Chapter by Chapter Comments

Here's my thoughts on each chapter of this book:

Chapter 1: The Creative Process and Configuring Photoshop

This chapter begins by whetting your appetite by showing you what is possible from master retouchers like Mark Beckelman, and the origin of what we do in Photoshop with examples by the great Jerry Uelssmann who did amazing composites in the darkroom WITHOUT Photoshop!

From there the chapter goes into detail as to what Eismann sets her preferences to in Photoshop. Some of these choices are likely to be controversial, but for the newbie it is helpful to know what the impact is of changing some of these settings. Of course, CS3 & CS4 has introduced new preferences, but many still apply.

Chapter 2: Selection Strategies and Essentials

I got excited about this chapter because I expected to learn some cool new concepts. Unfortunately I didn't but there were some in-depth discussions of topics like feathering that I hadn't seen elsewhere that proved to be valuable.

Chapter 3: The Essential Select Menu

This is one of the more useful chapters of the book because she goes into details of features like the Quick Mask that I had never seen in other books, and she shows how combining it with a Gaussian Blur can give you a visual of what feathering will do. This is something others have credited her book for demonstrating, and is very useful to know about.

This chapter is also great about showing you alternative ways to accomplish specific tasks using filters like the Median, Maximum, and Minimum filters which (if you are like me) are ones I have never even bothered to use. After reading this book, I can see the value of her approach.

Chapter 4: Pen Tool Power

I was excited about this chapter because I've repeatedly heard that the Pen tool is one of those tools that once you master it, you can do some pretty cool selections (or more specifically - smooth). I've pretty much said to myself that once I have this one mastered that I'll have my Photoshop "merit badge" and pretty much be limited only by my creativity. Sadly, Eismann has already mastered this tool and fails instruct as good as I would like to have seen. Sure, this tool requires rote practice, but I was expecting more and even better some cool techniques on how to create paths besides using the pen. There's still plenty of instruction and value in this chapter, but if you are looking for a magic bullet you aren't going to find it here.

Chapter 5: Masks Are Your Friends

Indeed Masks are your friends, and in opinion they are the most important thing a Photographer can master in Photoshop. Ironically though, this is one of her weakest chapters on masks. If you read the entire book you'll learn more about masks, but I was disappointed with this chapter. She gets there in chapters 7 & 8 though, so all isn't lost.

Chapter 6: Layers Are Your Friends

This is a perfect example where Eismann has the opportunity to make a subject that is somewhat confusing to newcomers very simple (as Matt Kloskowski does in Layers). She does try to write a better "owners manual" for Photoshop when she talks about blending modes, but she uses a terrible example which serves to confuse more than it instructs. Furthermore, she goes off on a tangent jumping into details of the Curves dialog under the disguise of talking about adjustment layers which continues with her discussion of the Lighting filter and Shadows and Highlights adjustment. Once again, there's good content here but the presentation is a bit sporadic.

Chapter 7: The Power of Layer Masking

Here's where Eismann starts covering masking the way it should have been covered in Chapter 5, and she is more focused on real world applications of masks. This is probably the most practical chapter in the book, yet Kelby does a better job of demonstrating all of this in his 7 Point System book. Of course Kelby credits Eismann for teaching these things, so this is more of a knock of the age of the book rather than the author.

Chapter 8: Selecting Hair and Fine Detail

The reason why you buy a book like this is because complex masking for things like hair and fine detail are quite frankly a pain in the ass, and you want to learn how to make it easy. Sadly a lot has changed since this book was written, so this chapter uses a lot of brute force and user skill to get results that are much easier to achieve using channels and the quick selection tool available in CS3 and up. There's still tips here worth reading, but using these techniques which drive you mad as they require more skill than most mere mortals posses. The rest of us would benefit from The Photoshop Channels Book or onOne Software's Mask Pro and spend our precious time improving the photo instead of spending all day on a mask.

Chapter 9: Advanced Selection Techniques

There's some good stuff in this chapter and techniques (like using Apply Image to a channel) that I haven't seen discussed in any book I've read to date. Some of these techniques could be really helpful in difficult situations where features of CS3/4 don't quite get the job done. Definitely read this chapter and add it to your arsenal of great tips and tricks.

Chapter 10: Selecting Translucency and Green Screen Techniques

This chapter was probably the most disappointing in the book because when I first skimmed the book and saw that this chapter would teach me how to "work with flames, fireworks, and smoke" I thought there was going to be some very cool voodoo I was going to learn that I've never seen elsewhere. However, when I read the "Creative Smoke" section (page 359) I was like "what the f**k"!!!! Any buffoon could do what she suggests - there's nothing about "selecting smoke" as I would have expected.

Moaning and groaning aside, there was some great stuff in this chapter that was worthwhile. For example, the veil section was brilliant and seeing how she added the tint to the surface of the table for the goldfish tank was inspirational. The rest had some interesting nuggets, but fell short on showing the difficult details about making some of the composites believable.

Chapter 11: Image Execution and Photography

This and the remaining chapters felt very out of place in this book. Sure, the city of books example is very cool and Mark Beckelman's composites are really great, but this and the remaining chapters feel like a ADD moment where Eismann goes off on a tangent about "see the cool stuff my friends are doing"? The worst part is that there are no sample images to follow along so you can actually learn by doing, so it ends up being as useful as watching someone in a video teaching Photoshop with the TV on mute. You see what's possible, but you learn nothing!

Chapter 12: Photorealistc Compositing

This chapter feels like déjà vu as the city of books and G5 examples return with a little more info that would have been useful had it been combined with the content from chapter 11. Again, if you have ADD then jumping around like this might be okay, but if you are super analytical then you are going to be dazed and confused. I will say that the section on "Harmoninzing Light and Shadow" of Lee Varis' photo was very cool and described much better than we'd ever get out of Lee Varis. I also felt that the additional details for the city of books and G5 were much more useful in this chapter, but just out of place.

This chapter ends up being pretty good with a lot of good stuff up to page 467, but then something goes wrong. The section on adding cloud reflections to a champagne glass was very confusing because the before and after photos look identical to me. I just don't see the benefit in what she is trying explain. She then goes into owners manual mode for the Liquify filter with no practical application of it, when there are tons of benefits that she actually alludes too. It was as if she discovered after the fact "oh, I forgot to talk about the Liquify filter" OR she has no idea how to use it and asked others (like Lee Varis who surprisingly describes its use fairly well in Skin) for an overview of what it does, and then masks her lack of knowledge by telling you what all of the controls are for - very disappointing!

Next up it becomes even more maddening when they show you a candy cane photo and composite where the art director doesn't like the stripes, so she briefly describes how they create new candy cane stripes. However, one wonders why not just re-shoot the shot of the candy canes and composite those in? Of course, the answer must lie in the fact that they were probably being paid a large sum of money per hour, so it wouldn't have been too profitable to use logic like that! However, they add insult to injury by not giving the details of how the hell you get that strip pattern around the freakin canes!

My recommendation is to stop at page 467 and call this book done. I read the rest and feel like it's wasted time I'll never get back.

Chapter 13: Creative Compositing

Who writes a book with 13 chapters? In this case, I say 13 is unlucky and there's not much value in this chapter so keep your good luck in hand and skip this chapter all together.


When I read the first couple chapters of this book I was optimistic that it was going to be a really great book that would make my must read list. Others had told me it should be on that list, so I went in thinking that they might be right. However, as I pressed on in this book I found that despite its size, many of the topics left me wanting more information or more in-depth coverage. I also felt that her mastery of the Pen tool caused her to rely too heavily on the selection skills of the reader, which is a fallacy since most of us get books like this to learn how to NOT suck at selections!

Many of her solutions gloss over selection in one step by saying "select X with the pen tool", yet she'll take two steps telling you to do a Edit->Copy and Edit->Paste. A perfect example of this is the goldfish example in Chapter 10, but there are many others. Other topics feel like they were forced by the editor (i.e., Liquify Filter page 470) and end up being little more than a reference manual with no examples. In addition, the last few chapters are more about "here's some cool things my friends have done", but they weren't super meaningful. However, if you look carefully you'll find useful nuggets (i.e., page 494) hidden in the content.

In the end I felt like she belabors some topics by acting as a owners manual and fails to get to the point. In other sections she glosses over critical steps (especially in chapter 10 & beyond).

Scott Kelby credits Katrin Eismann in his books as a resource (and in fact, he's hired her for his training website). Other great photographers have done so as well, so I won't diminish the importance of this book. However, in 2009 there are others like Scott Kelby who have taken the good from this book and applied its concepts into easy to understand steps. I suggest you look elsewhere to spend your precious reading hours.

Skill Level: Advanced
Value: Reasonable
Recommendation: Skip it or just read chapters 3, 6, 9 & 10. Instead, read The Photoshop Channels Book first as it covers this topic WAY better in a more practical manner, then read Scott Kelby's 7 Point System for Photoshop CS3 to see what you can do with the power of masking. If you are still hungry for more repetition or details, then this book will still offer many satisfying tips not found elsewhere. Chapters 3, 6, 9 & 10 offer the most bang for the buck, so if you just read those then you'll get 90% of the value out of this book.

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Anonymous said...

This is an excellent read. Thanks for the review.

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Gayathri said...

Great review. Keep blogging and thanks.