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The first time I went to college, I had the good fortune of being put on a one-semester academic leave of absence. The one semester turned into eight years, during which I delved into photography, worked in many aspects of the restaurant business, and traveled throughout Europe. When I returned to college to study photography, I was a thirty-year-old freshman with a deep passion for imagemaking that kept me in the darkroom and studio late into the night. In those first years at the Rochester Institute of Technology, I realized I couldn't adequately express my perceptions within the mechanical blink of a camera shutter, and I began to combine and composite images with scissors, tape, glue, and multiple exposures in the darkroom.

One night as I was leaving the darkroom, I passed by a small computer lab, where a few students worked in the weak glimmer of 13-inch Apple monitors on images similar to the ones I had struggled to create in the darkroom. The images were crude, yet exciting, and the energy in the room was contagious. At that very moment, I turned away from traditional photographic materials and processes and toward the future discoveries and potential that the digital realm offered.

I hadn't planned on “flunking out” of school the first time and I hadn't planned to walk down that hallway late at night, but in looking back I see that both moments were probably among the best things that happened to me. As imagemakers, we need to be open and ready to experience life, to learn from the world around us, and to be willing to take risks. Making art entails asking questions, challenging perceptions, and working with our craft to create compelling images.


This book is right for you if you have ideas to express and love images, or if you work with photographs as a dedicated amateur or full-time professional. This book is right for you if you're excited by the possibility of staying up late at night to finesse a perfect mask or to combine images in new and unusual ways. Masking and compositing requires flexibility and dedication—there is no “make great art” button on your keyboard, and it often takes a few attempts and approaches to get an image right.

This book is not for you if you don't have the time, curiosity, or patience to read through the examples, try them out and then—just as I push my students—take the techniques further by applying them to your own images.

You have three ways to learn the techniques in this book:

  • By reading the examples and looking at the images.

  • By downloading the images from the book's Web site, www.photoshopmasking.com, and with the book in hand, re-creating my steps.

  • By taking the techniques shown here and applying them to your own images. As you work, you'll need to adjust some of the tool or filter settings to achieve optimal results. It is exactly at that moment, when you are working with your own images, that you're really learning how to mask and composite.

This is not an introductory book. To get the most out of it you should be comfortable with the fundamentals of Photoshop, know where the tools are and what they do, and know how to execute common tasks, such as how to activate a layer or color balance an image. I've been working with Photoshop for more than 14 years, but I still learned a lot just by writing this book. I tried to write a book that I would want to buy or that would interest the many intermediate and advanced Photoshop users that are looking for in-depth and challenging learning materials.

As you flip through the book, you'll see that all of my screen captures were taken on a Macintosh. If you're a Windows user, don't let that deter you from this book. Photoshop functionality, for the most part, is identical on the Macintosh and Windows platforms. All the features discussed in the book are available on both platforms, and the interface is nearly identical. When offering keyboard shortcuts, I give you both Macintosh and Windows commands. The command for Macintosh appears first, in parentheses, followed by the command for Windows, which appears in brackets, like this: (Cmd + Option + X) [Crtl + Alt + X].


Creating art is part craft and part imagination—one without the other gives you lifeless and banal results. With this book, I address both—sometimes with words, but many times more quietly and effectively by featuring images created by professional photographers, creative artists, and a number of my students. I am fortunate that they trust me with their work and that we all can benefit from the insights that the images reveal. Please refer to the Contributor List at the back of the book to learn whose work is featured in my book and what inspires them.

This book should really be called Photoshop Selections, Masking, and Compositing, but that title never appealed to me. Besides, it would be too long to fit on the spine of the book! However, the four sections of the book reflect how important and interrelated selections, masking, and compositing really are:

  1. Selection Tools and Techniques

  2. Working with Layers and Masks

  3. Selecting and Preserving Fine Detail

  4. Subjective and Objective Compositing

The first part of the book is aimed at helping you build a solid foundation in making accurate selections, followed by information on how to efficiently work with layers and masks. The second part delves into the professional techniques used to separate the finest details, including hair, translucency, and smoke, and continues with photography and advanced compositing techniques.

Each chapter starts with a brief overview of what will be covered in the chapter. I always start with a straight forward example that leads to more advanced examples. You may be tempted to jump to the more advanced sections right away, but I don't recommend it. The introductory examples serve as the foundation for the advanced examples, building on the same tools and techniques.

Although this book was an ambitious project from the very start, there are a lot of Photoshop aspects I do not cover. Throughout the book, I refer to additional references and books, including my other books Photoshop Restoration and Retouching and Real World Digital Photography. Rather than taking a general approach to Photoshop, I have opted to specialize, and now each one of my three passions has its own book. With this one, I concentrated on the most exciting aspects of imagemaking—combining, juxtaposing, and blending images to express new ideas and explore new worlds.

I did concentrate on the latest version of Photoshop CS when writing this book. If you are still working with version 6.0 or 7.0, you will still learn a lot, because the most important tools for masking and compositing—layers, alpha channels, and blending modes—are a part of those previous versions. And this book will also be useful long after the next release of Photoshop.


I designed and maintain a supplemental Web site where you can download many of the tutorial images featured in the book. Please visit and bookmark www.photoshopmasking.com to download images, view the reader gallery, follow links to additional resources, and contact me. Each chapter (except Chapters 1 and 11) has up to 12 JPEG images that you can download to work and learn along with as you read the book. In the book, images that are posted are signified with an icon and name, such as



The images on the book's companion Web site are for your personal use and should not be distributed by any other means. If images are not posted on the Web site, it means that I do not have the copyright permission to post them and, therefore, I cannot legally make them available.

Many of the images in the book originated from my or my husband's own image and photography collection. The image stock collection Dynamic Graphics, Inc. and numerous professional photographers also have generously shared some of their images, many of which are also posted on the Web site. However, I was not able to procure permission to post on the Web site all of the images featured in my book—I would be breaking copyright agreements if I did. The copyright of all images used in the book and posted on the Web site remains with the originator, as noted throughout the book. On images for which it is not noted, the copyright belongs to me.

In the cases in which I didn't have permission to post specific images on the book's Web site, you can use similar images from your own photo collections to follow along. Although you won't be using the exact image I am using, the issues being addressed are so universal that I am sure you'll be able to learn the techniques using your own. After all, you'll probably be branching out to your own images sooner rather than later.


This book was built around the techniques that I have taught over the years to the numerous students in my digital and creative imaging classes. I hope that this book can help you teach Photoshop, and that the examples and images I have provided will help you learn and demonstrate the concepts and techniques of masking and compositing. As a teacher, I'm sure you know how much time and work is involved in creating exercises and preparing materials that fulfill all the needs of a classroom. I ask that you respect my work and the work of the many contributors and imaging professionals featured in this book by not copying pages of the book, distributing any images from the Web site, or otherwise reproducing the information, even if paraphrased, without proper attribution and permission. Of course, if students own their own copies of the book, they can freely download and use images from the Web site in the classroom.

I would love to hear from you. Please email your comments about the book and Web site to me at Katrin@photoshopmasking.com. Show me how you've taken the techniques in these pages and gone further with them. If you send me flattened JPEG files of the composite image (please keep them small—no more than 1 MB overall), I'll post them in the reader's gallery. Be sure to include information about how I can contact you; great examples of masking and compositing may be featured in the next edition of the book.


It is the experience of life that the passionate visual artist reaches into to find the creative spark of self-expression. We create images to explore, discover, reveal, and express ourselves, and they often end up being more profound than our words. I hope this book inspires and encourages you to discover, create, and express your own images.

Best regards,

Katrin Eismann
The Big Apple, New York City

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