Mask like a BOSS

Image mask, applied to digital images to “cut-out” the background or other unwanted features, created by using clipping paths.

Thanks Wikipedia!

Now, why do we need to mask? Quite simply to make subjects appear cleaner or to use them on backgrounds for which they were not intended. I mask a lot of product photos. Often the background of these photos is not the best. Poor lighting, odd placement and other quirks lead to an useable photo. Luckily, we can mask all of that unwanted ugliness, and be left with an image perfect for an online store.

When I first started my career in graphic arts, I was trained in the techniques of paste up. That is, physically cutting and altering artwork to fit your needs. I guess it was needed for all of that old hardcopy artwork that was lying around that never made its way to the computer. Beyond becoming proficient with an X-Acto knife (to the point where I prefer it over scissors), I saw little to no benefit from it.

I guess it could be said that the training did benefit me in the skills of digital image masking. It’s not quite different… you just happen to be using a mouse instead of a knife and glue.

So how do I mask? I’m not sure how others do it, but I have a preferred method that produces remarkable results. With a mix of Photoshop and Illustrator, you can create masked images that dazzle your clients.

For the purposes of this tutorial, our desired result is a transparent background. This is beneficial in both online and print materials. If a client sends me artwork in high resolution, I will keep the image’s original size, and mask to transparent backgrounds. This saves me from having to re-mask if the client wants to use that image in future print materials.

Step 1: Get your image ready.
After receiving the image from the client, open it in Photoshop to verify resolution. If the image is high res, but set to 72dpi, set the resolution at 300dpi at the same pixel dimensions. Select the entire canvas and cut, then paste. This will create a new layer with your image. Delete the Background layer. Save your image as a Photoshop file with layers.

Step 2: Fire up Illustrator
Create a new Illustrator document that is larger than your image. Place your image onto the page. Set your zoom level to 300%, choose your path tool, and set the border and background colors to none.

Step 3: Create your clipping path
Using the path tool, outline the part of the image you want to keep. Make sure to stay very close to the edges of the piece you are masking, removing any shadows that might be present from bad lighting. After you have outlined all parts of the image you want to keep, set the fill the white with no stroke. Also create a small white box, with no stroke and align it at the top left corner. Select your paths and the small white box and copy that to the clipboard. Note: I have increased the transparency of the image to better show the clipping mask.

Step 4: Get back into Photoshop
Open the same Photoshop file (the one you placed into Illustrator) in Photoshop. Paste your clipping paths from Illustrator, creating a new layer. They will be pasted centered in the canvas area. Using the white box in the top left corner, move the layer so that the white outlines snap to that top left corner, perfectly covering what you want to keep.

Step 5: Select Inverse
Select and delete the white box in the top left corner, it has served its purpose. Select the entire canvas and hit your up then down arrow on the keyboard. This will make a selection of just the white areas. Choose Select > Inverse. Go to your Layers palette and choose the original image layer and hit the delete key. Choose the clipping path layer, and delete that layer. What you are left with is a perfectly masked image with a transparent background.

Now you can do whatever you want with that image. You can place it on a different background, collage it with other products, or apply image effects such as drop shadow. There is no limit to the possibilities.

So there you have it, what I consider the easiest, cleanest, fastest way to mask a product image.

This has been today’s Clarified Butter.

Color Correct Printing

On two recent occasions I’ve had clients contact me with concerns they’ve had with the printing of artwork we’ve designed. In both cases, it’s been offset business card printing. The first client had been using a printer for years, successfully getting a brushed steel background to appear as a, well, brushed steel background, without the use of metallic ink. However, on a recent run, the background appeared more like a muddy green color. Certainly not what was expected, and nothing close to desirable.

After contacting the printshop, it was determined that they had changed their press since the last run. I had asked about color matching, and their response was pulled from their Terms & Conditions:

Color Proofing
Because of differences in equipment, paper, inks, and other conditions between color proofing and production pressroom operations, a “pleasing color” variation between color proofs and the completed job [as determined by generally accepted trade technical methods] is to be expected. When such a variation occurs, it will be considered acceptable performance.

The problem here is the phrase “pleasing color” that is considered “acceptable performance.” That is certainly up to interpretation. The good news, however, is that they have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. The client received all of their money back, including shipping, and took their job elsewhere.

With the other client, they had a background that appeared more purple on the newer cards, and color-accurate blue on the previous cards. Again, after contacting the printshop, they admitted that they too had changed their press.

This seems to be a widespread problem with these “online” printshop… offering incredible prices on business cards and other stationary items, with sometimes horrific results. Of course, true color accuracy could be achieved, but not by any of these more affordable printshops. Your best bet is to find a local printshop that will guarantee color correct printing. It’s going to cost you, but if having color accurate results is important to you, then it’s certain worth it.

This has been today’s Clarified Butter.