Make A Complex Photo Mask With A Pen Tablet

Jeff Colburn

This article was published by, PhotoZoom Magazine and Digital Ink Magazine

I recently purchased a Wacom Bamboo pen tablet to use in retouching photographs and doing photo manipulation. The table would make these chores much faster and easier than using my laptop’s touchpad, which is what I’ve used for years. I had my chance to really test my new tablet when I had to create a complex mask for a photograph I made at the Gold King Mine and Ghost Town in Jerome, Arizona.

I made various adjustments in my RAW viewer, and in Photoshop, to have the foreground look like it does below. But I wanted to darken the view out of the window so you could more easily see what’s outside, while keeping the foreground properly saturated.


Image-without-mask-750Image without a mask

I duplicated layer 1, the background layer, to create layer 2. Then I adjusted layer 2 to give good saturation to the view outside of the window. When this was done I needed to merge these layers with a mask, so that the adjustments I’d made to layer 1 and 2 would come together to make the image I wanted.

To do this, I took these steps:

  1. I selected layer 2 and added a layer mask by clicking on the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the panels menu.
  2. Remember, areas in a mask that are white allow the layer to show through, and areas that are black don’t. Usually, I fill a mask with black and then use a white brush to pull out the few small areas that I want to show through. However, in this image the windows were so large, and would be white, that I decided to fill in the layer with white instead of black, and use a black brush to show the adjustments I made to layer 1.
  3. Since much of the frame had straight edges, I used a square brush to quickly paint in black on the mask to block out the window frame and cross bars, and a round brush for curved shapes. I wound up with this mask.

Full-MaskImage mask

  1. Because the edges of the window had peeling paint, and wood that had pulled away, it didn’t have straight edges but edges that were bumpy and jagged. I zoomed into the image and used the square and round brush to refine the edges.
  2. There were still a few edges where the white part of the mask came into the shapes that I wanted covered with black. This created thin 1-2 pixel wide dark lines on the edges of some areas. To overcome this I zoomed into these areas and refined the mask. I did this by selecting a soft brush and reducing the hardness.


Brush-WeightBrush settings

And I reduced the opacity and flow of the brush to between 30% and 50%, depending on the area I was working on.

Brush-OpacityBrush opacity

  1. Now to put the magic of the tablet to work. The advantage of a tablet over a mouse is pen pressure. The Bamboo Pen tablet has 512 levels of pen pressure. Higher end models have 2048 levels of pen pressure. The harder you push on the pen, the denser the line. Adding pressure control to the hardness and opacity settings gives you an almost unlimited amount of control. To do this with a mouse would require you to create a different layer for each change in density. Or you could create the lightest line you want, then start to build up more density by going over different areas many times. That would take a lot of work and time.

    With everything set, I slowly worked my way toward the edge of the mask until the black line disappeared. This resulted in a mask that had some soft areas on the edges.


Mask-CloseupCloseup of mask

These soft edges allowed the two layers to merge perfectly with no hard transitions, resulting in this image. Not only did I like seeing the view from outside the window, but I liked seeing all the crud on the glass. It adds to the feeling of age and neglect.


Image-with-mask-750Final image with mask

The pen tablet allowed me to make the detailed mask I needed with much less effort and time than would have been required with my laptop’s touchpad. I was also able to make minute changes quickly and easily. This saved me a lot of time and frustration. And using the table was just a whole lot of fun.

If you want to take the next step in adjusting your photographs, I suggest you get a pen tablet. Mine was inexpensive, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s already paid for itself.

Have Fun,


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