Precise Color Masking in Photoshop

Photoshop color Mask tutorial

Level: Advanced

In general I hope you agree, painting all our masks in Photoshop by hand is not the most precise way of post processing. Even if using a Wacom tablet some kind or automation would be helpful. So let’s see whether we can make Photoshop work for us a little bit in combination of making use of the techniques we learnt in the previous tutorials.

Colors in the Image

What if we could tell Photoshop to separate just one color in our image? We could for example add a Vibrance layer for pushing only the green tones of the wall in the featured image – without changing the saturation of the chair or the window shutters and the ground.

Preparation

First open the copy of any image in Photoshop where you have one dominant color, or two dominant colors. Create a Vibration layer by clicking the icon in the adjustment tools panel. Move the saturation slider to the far right (it’s pretty much overdone now, I know, but it will best show you how the mask works).

Presently the whole image should be way over-saturated. We now try to apply the effect on the one dominant color only (a car, a coat, or the skin in a portrait).

As first we have to add a mask again by clicking the rectangular symbol with circle found in the bottom of the layers panel. The white rectangle (which is the mask) shows up in your Vibration layer.

Working with the recently described method of painting the mask with a black brush to block the effect in the undesired areas might be too rough. Therefore this time we automate the masking process.

Create a Color Mask

Double click the white mask in the Vibrance layer and the mask properties window will pop up (the one with density and feather slider). This time I want to take you to the “Color Range” button in this window. Click.

A new small window opens, most probably with a black mask shown. Move the Fuzziness slider to the left if it not already is.

Your cursor should look like a color picker now. I personally set the checkbox under the black box to “Selection” (instead of “Image”). Move the adjustment window on your screen to not cover the actual image.

With the color picker now click anywhere into your real photo, wherever you discover a strong color, the one you want the saturation change to be applied, be it blue, yellow, red, green, or whatever.

Have you seen the change in the black mask in our small window? It turned white in the part we clicked into as well as in all other areas with the same color.

Just remember, the black parts of the mask don’t allow any of the adjustments to be applied, but in the white areas the adjustments of the layer will take effect. That means with our color picker we now tell the mask to apply the effect of saturation to the color we clicked into.

In the example of the featured image therefore I would click on the green wall to have the saturation applied to the wall only. Pretty simple – and we are almost done. This mask is not really big magic.

With one click the mask nearly always still is way too rough. But we have a couple of options how to make our color selection more precise.

Refine Color Mask with Clicking

There are three ways of refining the color selection – and we will need all of them together.

Often due to some broader tonal range, due to darker shadows, one click with the color picker is not enough to properly mask the whole colored subject. We have to extend the mask a little bit to also include the darker and brighter tones of our chosen color.

Hold the Shift-key down and click into your photo again, somewhere else now.

Baaam, more white in the mask. Ah, with holding the Shift key pressed and clicking into the mask we seem to add either some slightly different tones of the same color or a completely different color – depending on where we clicked.

If we went too far with extending, hold the Alt-key while clicking into your image for taking some areas out again. The Alt+click will unmask the color you click into, reducing the white areas in the mask.

Once you have created a mask, where all areas we want the saturation effect (or any other effect) to be applied are more or less white in the mask, we can step into further fine-tuning.

Refine Color Mask with Slider

Additionally to adding colors or taking some tones out, we can fine-tune the mask even further with the Fuzziness slider. Move it to the left and right until you think to have a pretty good mask of the colored areas you want to have more saturated.

When you are done click ok and the mask is applied to your saturation layer. With clicking on the eye icon of the layer you see where the saturation effect is applied and where not.

Tipp: Clicking the eye icon switches the whole layer on and off. In case you just want enable and disable the mask Shift+click on the mask.

Since we had overdone the saturation effect just for demonstration purpose double-click the Vibrance icon in the layer (the triangle) and move the saturation slider further to the left again, lowering the strength).

As another option of fine-tuning the strength of the effect you can lower the opacity of the layer.

Refine Color Mask with Brush

Unfortunately a color we chose might show up several times in an image. For example blue can be on a car as well as in a shop window in the background, and also in a coat of a person.

If we don’t want to increase saturation in all of the subjects but just the car’s color, then we have to get rid of the other subjects in the mask, means making them as black as all the other things not being affected.

Pick the brush tool (“b”-key), choose black as color to paint, make sure the brush opacity is 100%, activate the mask by once clicking on the mask in the Vibrance layer. Then paint over the areas in your image you don’t want the effect to be applied. Some white areas in the mask should disappear. In our made-up example only the car would be left white in the mask.

Tipp: If you discover to paint black and white areas into your image you might not have activated the mask but the whole layer instead. Make sure to click on the mask once before starting to paint the effect away. 

If you want to work in the full size mask directly (which actually often makes sense when refining a color mask), then Alt+click on the mask.

All of the brush part here is similar to the previous tutorials where this technique was explained in much more detail already.

Hide Our Steps

Mostly we want to hide our steps after working on a mask, especially when using the brush. Then simply double-click on the mask for access to the properties panel. As in previous tutorials, use the feather slider for smoother transitions.

Tipp: In the special case of color masking sometimes the effect works better without feathering the mask in the end. So just test and have a look whether a smooth or sharp transition is more desirable.

Pros and Cons Color Mask

Color masks are an extremely fast way of masking things if the image allows.

This special technique often works well for masking skin in a portrait or for making adjustments to things we can clearly separate by color, e.g. the featured image of a green wall and a red chair.

On the other side if colors are not clearly separated in an image, color masking can drive you crazy.

Tipp: Instead of working with the Saturation slider for more saturated colors better try the Vibrance adjustment layer. Vibrance treats your image much more gently.

I personally often take the extra step of increasing saturation in the Lab color mode instead of in RGB mode, and then masking this change after having added the lab layer to my original image again.

Read my earlier tutorial “Mastering the Curves Tool” for learning the method of increasing saturation in Lab Color mode.

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