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The Mask: masking techniques > Precise Selections Using the Pen Tool

Precise Selections Using the Pen Tool

Of all the selection tools in Photoshop, this is probably the single-most important one, and if you get good at it, it makes your life so much easier, because you’ll be spending a lot of time making precise selections and no tool does it better. This tutorial is aimed at photographers who haven’t really worked with the pen before, so if you’re a pro with the pen, you can skip this, and I won’t take any offense. Okay, I might be a little hurt, but I’ll get over it. In time.

Step One.
In this example, we’re going to put a path around the door, turn the path into a selection, and then drag the door onto a different background. Start by getting the Pen tool from the Toolbox. Click it once at a starting point within your photo (there is no “official” starting point, but in this case, you can start by clicking once on the top-left corner of the door, as shown). Remember, just click it once—don’t click and drag. (Note: Make sure that the Paths icon is selected up in the Options bar. It’s the middle icon of the group of three icons near the left of the bar. Otherwise, you may end up creating a Shape Layer or filled pixels, which you don’t want for this technique.)


Step Two.
Move your cursor to the top-right corner of the door, then click once more. A straight path is drawn between the two points.

Step Three.
Continue moving the cursor down along the door and clicking on each corner to draw another straight line from the last point. Go down the right side, across the bottom of the door, and back up to the top-left corner where you started. A tiny circle appears on the bottom-right corner of your Pen tool cursor, letting you know you’ve come “full circle.” Click on your starting point to close your path. You should now have a path all the way around the door.

Step Four.
If you need to adjust one of the points to make it fit snugly to the door frame, press Shift-A until you have the Direct Selection tool (the hollow arrow), click on the path to make the points active, and then click on the point you want to move and drag it into place. When your path looks nice and tight against the door frame, press Command-Return (PC: Control-Enter) to turn your Path into a selection (as shown here).

Step Five.
Now, open a different background photo (in this case, it’s a red brick wall), then go back to your door image. Press “v” to get the Move tool, click within your selected door, and drag-and-drop it onto the red brick background (as shown here). Okay, that’s the basic “point-and-click” straight-line method of using the Pen tool. Now, on to making curves with the Pen tool (where the real power of this tool lies).


Step Six.
The previous Pen tool project used straight lines, but this project adds curves. (The ability to draw smooth paths around curved objects is the real power of the Pen tool.) Click on a starting point. In the example shown here, I clicked once at the top-left corner of the club’s shaft for my starting point, then I moved down to the top of the club head’s sleeve and clicked again, and a straight path was drawn between the two points.


Step Seven.
The sleeve (where the shaft inserts into the head of the club) is just a tiny bit larger than the shaft, so click once more, out just a hair from the shaft, then move your cursor to the base of the club head (as shown here) and click to draw a straight line down the sleeve to the base of the club head.

Step Eight.
Now, move your cursor over the top center of the head of the club (as shown), but don’t just click—click, hold, and drag, and as you drag, the path begins to curve and two Curve Adjustment handles appear (as shown here). As you drag, you’ll be actually dragging out one of these handles. The farther you drag, the more your path curves. It takes a few tries to get the hang of how far to pull, and how the curve reacts to your pulling, but in short order, you get a snug fit fairly easily.

Step Nine.
Move your cursor down to the left end of the club head, and do the “click-hold-and-drag” thing again to create another curve (as shown here). You basically use the two techniques you’ve just learned to trace the edges of your club with a path. Here’s a refresher: (1) Click from point to point to draw straight lines, and (2) click, hold, and drag to draw curves around objects.

Step Ten.
Move your cursor around the top-left side of the club head, click, hold, and drag to create another smooth curve around the club (as shown here).

Step Eleven.
Move your cursor down to where the club meets the ball, click, hold, and drag again. (Are you seeing a pattern here?)

Step Twelve.
Continue down the bottom of the ball, then click, hold, and drag again (as shown). You’re about to learn one of the annoying things about drawing curves with the Pen tool—the curve doesn’t always go in the right direction. When you get to the base of the ball, the curve wants to go the opposite direction (that’s just the way curves work, and you’ll run into this again and again, so you might as well learn how to fix this problem now).

Step Thirteen.
Here’s how to fix it: Press Command-Z (PC: Control-Z) to undo the point of curve that went the wrong way. Hold the Option key (PC: Alt key), and then click your previous point. Now click, hold, and drag at the base of the ball just like before, but now when you draw your curve, it will go in the right direction (as shown here).

Step Fourteen.
When you try to change directions, and you click, hold, and drag on the side of the tee, it’s going to happen again (as shown here), but at least now you know the fix. Hold the Option key (PC: Alt key), click your previous point, and then you can continue as usual and the curve will now go in the proper direction.

Step Fifteen.
Once you Option-click (PC: Alt-click) on your previous point, you can try the curve again and it will work just fine (as shown).


To make your path as smooth as possible, try not to add too many points as you’re tracing around your object. If you see an area that doesn’t look right (because you didn’t put a curve in where it was necessary), just get the Add Anchor Point tool. Move it over the path where you want to add a curve point, and click, hold, and drag to add a curve point along the path.

Step Sixteen.
After your path is complete, you can turn it into a selection by pressing Command-Return (PC: Control-Enter) as shown here. If you want to see just the club/ball/tee and not the background, press Command-J (PC: Control-J) to put the group on its own separate layer. Then, in the Layers palette, click on the Background layer, press Command-A (Control-A) to Select All, and then press Delete (PC: Backspace) to remove the background.

Step Seventeen.
The capture at far left shows the result of deleting the background photo from the Background layer. The only problem is that the bright colors from the original photo still reflect in the club. To get rid of those colors, set your Foreground color to black, get the Brush tool, and choose a hard-edged brush. In the Options bar, change the Blend Mode of the Brush tool to Color, then paint over the face of the club and the ball. As you paint, the color is replaced with grayscale (as shown). The next step starts another important path option (outputting to a printing press).

Step Eighteen.
If you’re going to export this photo into a professional page-layout application (like Adobe InDesign or QuarkXPress) for printing to a printing press and you want only the club/ball/tee visible, and not the background, you have to create a Clipping Path. This tells the page-layout application to clip away (hide) everything outside your path. To create a Clipping Path, start by making the Paths palette visible. When you do, you’ll see the path you created (by default, it’s named “Work Path.”) Double-click on this path, and in the Save Path dialog, give it a name (as shown).

Step Nineteen.
After your path is named, choose Clipping Path from the Paths palette’s pop-down menu to bring up the Clipping Path dialog. Make sure your named path is selected from the Path pop-up menu (shown above right). Adobe has fixed it so you can leave the Flatness setting blank and it will work in almost all situations, but if for some reason, you get a PostScript error when outputting to a high-resolution imagesetter, resave the file with a Flatness setting of between 7 and 10 so the paths will be interpreted correctly.

Step Twenty.
Finally, save your file in EPS format (which supports the embedding of Clipping Paths). When you import this EPS file into your page-layout application (shown here in Adobe InDesign), you can position your club/ball/tee image over an existing background and only the club/ball/tee will be visible, with the area around it appearing transparent (rather than white).



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