The Art and Science of Clipping

Clipping. Cut Outs. Knock Out. Outlining. Pathing. It’s called a lot of different things but if you’ve spent any time working in Commercial Retouching - at any level - you know that it’s pretty much job one. That’s because Clipping is the absolute foundation of any real high res retouching job.
At face value it might seem like the easiest thing in the world - you're just outlining shapes. But with time you'll come to understand that a high quality path is the result of a million tiny decisions made along the way.

The analogy I like to use is that of a house painter taping off a house before starting with the paint. It’s time consuming, somewhat painful and certainly less satisfying than the actual painting. But if you don’t do it right you’ll be looking at considerable added time spent fixing up all the mistakes along the way, and you’re going end up with a visibly unfinished product. With a job of any complexity, that’s almost guaranteed.


3 Reasons Why a Good Set of Paths is Essential

1. You can easily isolate adjustments to any area of the image by turning them into Masks
2. Those Masks are reproducible, as you can always return to the Paths
3. Unlike Masks, Paths are Vector objects that can be infinitely scaled or modified without loss of quality

The Art

There's quite a bit of art to it. I talk to many Retouchers who have experienced Clipping that was outsourced to a dedicated outlining service (aka clipped by people who only clip, not professional Retouchers) and they consistently say how terrible it can be. That’s because there is a very conscious intention required to create these lines with quality. For someone who does not have a blueprint in their mind of why and how these shapes will be used to bring about change in an image, it will be impossible to produce a refined and useful set of clipping paths.
The Good:
Clipping - as we know it - cannot be done by robots. It also can’t be done by really smart monkeys. It can’t even really be done by smart people who don’t have experience and a good eye. We won't be replaced, for now. Mark my words and be sure to slap me as hard as you can if I'm wrong anytime soon.
The Bad:
Again, it can’t be done by robots or smart monkeys. Because I’d really like it to. Not monkeys though, they belong in their native habitat. Clipping is the grand equalizer - in the scheme of retouching it is grunt work, digging ditches. But the seasoned veteran and noob both have to get their hands dirty and clip.

Idealizing the Shape

Clipping is part of the cleanup process. While drawing a Path, an experienced Retoucher is thinking both micro and macro. While basically tracing the outline of something, you’re also thinking about how the shape will look as a whole. Especially in apparel and fashion, part of the beautification process is making a nice silhouette. In a garment, we want clean lines and smooth shapes, so while you Clip, you’ll be mindful of this and trim off any distracting or imperfect edge features.


Where to Place the Path

This seems to be the biggest question - that and how far to zoom in. The answer is it depends. If you zoom in too far, you’re not going to have that bird’s eye view of the entire shape to make that idealize pass. If you zoom out too far, you’ll probably make some errors in placing the path along the edge carefully. So the key is to find a nice middle ground and zoom in and out as needed.
Pro tip: If you need to dramatically speed up your Clipping time, zoom out to 50% or more. You’ll be less accurate, but at higher zoom degrees it’s almost impossible to move fast.
Where to place the Path along the edge also depends. If the element you’re clipping is going to go on a new background, it’s best to Clip a little inside the shape and trim off a little bit of the edge pixels. If the element is staying in situ, Clip along the transitional pixels. With practice these decisions will become second nature.

The Science

Learning the Pen Tool is top priority, and the modifier keys. As you’re working, you’ll need to add and delete anchor points, move them, change them from curved to corner, and adjust the bezier handles. So learn what the Alt, Shift, Command, and Control keys do. Clipping is a physical practice that requires muscle memory and motor skills that can only be built through practice.
The Paths palette is your library of the major shapes in the image. Start with the silhouette, often called Silo. Then add Paths that outline the shapes within it, starting a new Path for each shape and labeling it accordingly. It’s important to not repeat any Path edges during this process, instead building upon the previous Path you’ve made.
The real science starts at the planning stage and ends when you use your Path library to create masks. With experience, you’ll learn to outline every element in your image without repeating any edges and output a set of layer masks by loading and subtracting Paths.

Alternatives to Clipping

There are none.
Seriously. None of the automated tools (magnetic lasso, quick selection tool, magic wand) or channel mask tricks will be able to take you to a truly finished, commercial grade product as reliably.
I have tested this time and again.
When my lazy self takes over and says “this is a quick thing I need to mask, I can just rough it out with a brush with Quickmask on, don’t need to spend all that time clipping it out...”, I then cut to ten minutes later - the same damn time it would have taken to just draw out a clean path - where I’m still fussing with the edges of the janky little mask I created. I then curse, throw it away, and hit ‘P’.
Now I know of at least one Retoucher out there saying right now “no way bro, not if you know how to do it…”. And he's right to a degree - in a deadline pinch where you have to mask out 75 curtains and comforters, ain't no way in hell you're going to clip them all.


Clipping takes exactly as long as it takes

Do not expect to speed up a Clipping job dramatically by trying harder. Doing it right takes just about the same amount of time every time. Do not press your team to Clip faster. If you want a good Path, they really cannot. Clipping is physical. And draining. I don't have hard data - but if I had to guess I'd say it's the biggest contributor to Carpal Tunnel in this discipline.


Seriously. I'm not kidding. If you are Clipping a lot, you need to pay attention to your posture, muscles, and breathing. It might sound strange but trust me, with a mindful approach to long periods of Clipping you can dramatically reduce your strain and fatigue.
Follow these 3 tips:
1. Sit back from the screen, don't tense up and hunch over the tablet/mouse
2. Notice as you go along how your hand and arm will begin to tense. Practice relaxing them.
3. Pay attention to your breath - as you tense up and concentrate your breathing will become faster and more shallow. Breathe deep and slow.
Return to these Zen Clipping tips regularly and find inner peace.
What do you think?
     Does Clipping drive you crazy?
     Do you have alternatives that work in a pinch?
     Have you got good results from outsourced Clipping?
     Are there any good tutorials for Clipping, or did you learn from a mentor?

The Day You Gave Away Your Layered File...



... is the Day You Gave Away Money

Has a client you’ve been working with suddenly asked you to send over your full working PSD? Yeah? Did you do it? It’s ok. But you probably got screwed.
If you refused to hand over your layered files, were you worried that maybe you should have, and that you unnecessarily soured the relationship?
It took me years of experience, thousands of jobs, and a few missteps to understand all the nuances of this subject and write my own rulebook on it. It seems pretty simple now. Read on and I’ll tell you my complete manifesto so you’ll be able to negotiate like a pro the next time you get asked to provide your working files to a client.

Here’s an experience of mine from years ago. See what you think.

Client: “Please do these product cleanups for us, there are 15 to begin with, and 50 will follow in a few phases. K thx bai"
Me: “OK” (This was a nice ongoing job)
One week later, I deliver files on the first 15. Shortly after, I get paid as agreed.
Two weeks later.
Client: “Oh hi, my name is New Client, the Client you were working with is no longer with us."
Me: “OK hi."
Client: “Remember those 50 files that Old Client said we were going to send you?"
Me: “Yeah."
Client: “I’ve decided to keep those in-house now to reduce costs, will you please send me over all your layered working files so that my designers can see how you did the retouching and do it ourselves?"
Me: *images in my head of dollar signs with little wings on them flying away*
Me: “Of course, though my working files contain proprietary information and techniques, and are not created in a way that would allow other users to manipulate them or apply them to other files, which is beyond the scope of work agreed upon in our initial contract. I would be happy to a) restructure these working files in a way that their contents can be used with the additional product shots, or b) come to you and train your team, and also provide them with a set of tools to complete the retouching themselves. The cost for a) is $XXXX.xx (the initial fee for the job, again) and b) is $XXXX.xx (a reasonable consulting fee).

And crickets...

If a client is asking you for layered working files, they are trying to pull a shystie one on you. They think their internal team can do it, they’ve found a gollum sitting in his playstation cave who said he’ll do it for half, or the photographer wants to keep all of the work and do it. Chances are you’re seen as too expensive.

Your layered files contain proprietary information.

You have developed techniques over time that are uniquely yours. They are most definitely built upon techniques learned from many sources, combined and adjusted to fit your own workflow. But they are yours because you put in the time, money and sweat to learn them. Due to the structural nature of the Photoshop document, a lot of these techniques are contained in modular components that can be opened, read, and applied to other files. That’s nice because we love non-destructive editing, but it also allows others to jack your work with relatively little effort.
We often have to match a certain look or feel as directed in an initial retouching brief. We’re given a reference image to match mood and grade - no problem. We do that using our own techniques and processes, and it should be expected of other Retouchers who we are asked to hand our files off to. We don’t give our working files to other Retouchers to just drag our work layers over and tweak them unless we have established it as a deliverable - what I call a toolkit.

Your layered files are a valuable product.

Your layered files should be a lot more expensive than your final flat artwork. They provide others with tools to make the money you would otherwise be making. They are your Source Code and should be priced accordingly. It’s tricky to have this conversation with someone who doesn’t understand the nuances of Retouching. A lot of people out there just think we run NIK filters on everything and call it good. Being armed with the knowledge about why layered files are precious things will allow you to better negotiate the terms under which you’ll hand them over.
For an analogous and interesting discussion of pricing source code, check out this Ars Technica article.
The motivations behind a layered file request will vary, but the bottom line is that somebody else wants your intellectual property on the cheap. Your client might not understand it that way, maybe they do. They probably just want to cut costs. Fair enough. But it’s up to you to protect your interests, property, and future paychecks.

What Are The Industry Standard Deliverables?

Just to be completely clear - at least in high-end retouching - it is NOT industry standard to supply layered working photoshop files, no matter what some pushy producer might be telling you. It IS common to provide layered simplified files that allow another team to move elements around.
We normally provide:
     Flattened final artwork (w/Clipping Path optional)
          RGB + CMYK as needed
     Simplified layered final art

We Can Work This Out

We all want to provide our clients with the best quality product. If part of the initial agreement involves added assets or tools for future production on the client-side, that’s totally cool and we can work it out in the original quote and timeline. If it comes up later in the process then we need to address it immediately as a deliverable that is outside the scope of the initial work and renegotiate.
Many clients will not have even thought for a minute about what they’re asking you for, and will think that it was just a given as part of the initial agreement. These can be tricky conversations. The important thing is to keep it professional and really understand what the client needs. Often they are really just asking for simplified layered files because their design team needs to move some stuff around to give flexibility for different layouts. 

Photographers’ Settings

On a related note, it’s pretty common for us to receive a photographer’s Lightroom or Capture One process settings along with the files from a shoot. This IS a pretty standard delivery but isn’t guaranteed. That is also up to the photographer and whether they want to share those settings. Sometimes they see their initial processing as very distinct and proprietary - their signature “look” - and will choose only to share flat process files for reference. Cool, we just match their look and continue the retouching process on top of it, which is often a much better way to work given that a photographer’s heavy initial pass could very likely destroy detail or add unwanted artifacts that we are asked to remove later.

The Takeaway

I hope this article has given you the tools and understanding you need to negotiate with your clients so that there are no surprises, and you can communicate the subject in a way that makes sense to a layperson. Having the vocabulary to describe the value of digital products is a new thing for a lot of us. The best step you can take is to lay all of it out clearly as to what you’re delivering in the initial contract so that you never have to have a painful discussion like this with someone who really doesn’t care and just needs to make a deadline.
So don’t feel bad if you gave it away - some lucky individual who didn’t have your chops got a nice package of tools to work with, saving them time and the project budget.
The client in my story - of course - never came back to me. It was clear to me that they weren’t going to anyway. And the way I look at it is that I gave some lucky designer the opportunity to develop and find the techniques for themselves, and maybe become a Retoucher some day. :)
I'd love to hear what you have to say - leave your story in the comments below.

Top 7 Photoshop Hangups That Make You Want to End It All, with Quick Fixes

Goodbye There are so many modal settings in Photoshop that it can seem like a virtual mine field of things to accidentally click that will screw up your day. When you're in the flow of work it can be a painful productivity hit when you get thrown off by something that is just not working. Here are 7 of the most common hangups that I've found bring me to a standstill. Check it out and join in the discussion if you've got some of your own.

1. All of your palettes are missing. You hit Tab.

OK, I know. Duh. But it happens. Especially if you haven’t been working in Photoshop for a long time this one can have you restarting.
Hitting the Tab key hides all the palettes in Photoshop. Which is nice if you quickly want to clear your screen of any clutter and get a full-frame view of your image.

2. You are trying to enter Transform mode (Cmd + T), and nothing happens. You have an empty path selected in the paths palette.

This has had me shaking a fist at the sky.
You have an empty path selected, and Photoshop thinks you want to Transform it. But you can’t. Because nothing’s there.
Go to your Paths palette and see if one of them is highlighted. To deselect, click elsewhere in the palette, or Cmd + click the active path.

3. You have a selection up, but can’t delete anything. Your Brush only paints light red. You have Quickmask on.

Just hit Q to exit Quickmask mode. You can see it active in the document name:
It can be extra confusing because when you’re in Quickmask mode, you can still set a selection. The ruby color of your brush or fill will normally tip you off.

4. Your brush and clone cursor are now crosshairs. You’ve hit Caps Lock.

But it’s set to brush size in the Prefs!!!!
Don’t trash your prefs file - when you have Caps Lock on it will turn a lot of your Brush based tools to a Precision cursor.


5. Color looks weird. You have Proof Colors turned on.

Both fists in the air, cursing the gods.
Cmd + Y turns on Proof Colors. Also in the View menu.


This feature is essential for anyone working for printed outputs, but if you accidentally have this turned on your image is going to look very different than what you’d expect. Chances are you’d be viewing your image as what it would look at in a CMYK gamut if you’re working in RGB.
Personal story - I actually did a full color pass on an image the other day with this turned on to soft proof in CMYK without knowing it. I kept pushing all of these Saturation moves and just couldn’t get it to budge any hotter. My eyes had actually adapted to the smaller gamut after a while, and after I realized I had Proof Colors turned on and switched it, the image was so bright it made my brain bleed.

6. You are trying to use the Brush, and nothing is happening. You have a selection that is hidden.

Pffft! Stupid. F’ing. Thing! Won’t Paint!!
Shit ok, you hit Cmd + H, did a little work, stepped away to get coffee and forgot.
Hit Cmd + H to unhide or Cmd + D to drop the selection.
This one gets me at least 3 times a week.

7. Photoshop crashes on Save or ‘Cannot Save Because of A Program Error’. Crop your canvas.

This is the most critical one of all. If not for Photoshop CC’s background saves feature this one would have had me jumping off balconies.
Chances are you have been doing some funny things with masks in your file and created mask information outside the canvas bounds that Photoshop does not like. I don’t know what the hell is really going on with this but it has consistently occurred throughout multiple versions of Photoshop.
Simply Select All (Cmd + A) and Image>Crop.
You will lose all pixel information outside the canvas bounds but it will allow you to Save your file. Try this if you’re getting random file crashes too with a single file.
Hope this helps you to more quickly regain your sanity when you are about to trash your prefs, reinstall Photoshop, or just push everything off your desk and onto the floor. Please share any of these soul crushing problems you may have had in the comments!

Better Grain using the Camera Raw Filter

Wheat ears in the hand. Harvest concept

99% of retouched files are going to have a grain layer sitting right at the top. It ties the elements together and provides a unified surface. If you’re doing a little slap-dash compositing, it can really help to hide any soft spots that may have been left behind. The Camera Raw Filter provides much more flexibility with the look of the grain, and you can go back to adjust it later with ease. Here’s how.

The classic technique for a top grain layer is with the Add Noise filter on a 50% gray pixel layer set to Overlay or Soft Light. The Camera Raw Filter will give you a lot more control over the quality of the grain, and if you apply it to a Smart Object, you can go back and change the settings later.
Start with the standard approach. New pixel layer, Edit>Fill (Shift+F5) with 50% Gray.
In the Layer palette, set that layer to Overlay, or Soft Light if you want a softer touch.
Right click on the layer and convert it to a Smart Object.
Drop down Filter>Camera Raw Filter and apply it to the Smart Object. In the Camera Raw dialog, switch to the FX tab on the right side, and increase the Amount to active the Grain.
Adjust the settings to taste. Make sure you are viewing at 100% to really see what the grain looks like
Now, since your pixel layer is a Smart Object, your Camera Raw Filter is applied as a Smart Filter. Double click on it, and you can go back in to adjust the settings whenever you want.
Anytime I see a trick to preserve the ability to edit, I'm all over it. Put this one in your toolbox.
Comment below if you like this, and how you think it stacks up to other grain methods.

Warp Zone - Set up an object for maximum warping

WarpZone02Getting the most control over your warps can be a puzzle if you haven’t figured out a good system to use every time. The good news is there is one, and it involves embedded smart objects so your warps are editable. The key to ultimate flexibility that many people miss though is the alignment step. I’ll show you how.

For this example let’s assume you’ve been asked to swap out a shoe on a shot of an athlete. You’ve shot a new shoe on model in studio and need to composite it into the athlete image. The first step is getting it into place. Even the most meticulous setups in studio to get the new shoe shot in the exact same position will be off by a bit. And often they’ll be off by a lot. Here’s how to set up the new shoe to easily warp in.
1. Open the shot and rough clip around the shape of the shoe.
2. Now duplicate the layer (Cmd + J), set the path as a selection, inverse the selection (Cmd + Shift + I), and hit Delete to knock out the shoe
3. Now for the alignment step.
For a warp to be most effective, the bounding box for the warp should align with the shape of the object as closely as possible, meaning that you need to rotate the shoe to align as closely to a horizontal or vertical axis as possible.
Cmd + T to enter Transform mode, and rotate the shoe as shown below. I added some guides so I could see the axes better. Hit enter when you’re happy with the alignment.
4. Now convert your aligned shoe layer to a Smart Object so that all of your future warps will be editable. Right click on the layer, and select Convert To Smart Object in the drop down.
Now to demonstrate why we’re so concerned with aligning the object to an axis.
Below you can see the same shoe in 3 different positions in Warp mode. The shoe on the left is the one we’ve just prepped to be aligned, the other 2 are not. Notice how tightly the warp bounds and grid align to the shoe we’ve prepped, and how much looser it is around the other 2.
When I need to align the shoe onto the athlete shot, if I had to choose, it would be the one on the left every time. I know that I can control the toe, center, and heel of the shoe with much more precision than either of the other 2.
And since you’ve converted this to a Smart Object after it’s been aligned, you can go back into the Warp as many times as you like to adjust.

The other Layer Group Blend Mode - Normal

blendNormalBy default, new Layer Group folders are set to Pass Through blend mode. If you've never thought to ask what that's all about, you're not alone.


Here’s an alternative that will become a really useful tool in your high res workflow.


Pass Through isn’t really a Blend Mode per se, it more describes how the adjustment layers inside a Layer Group behave. It means that any adjustments you create inside the Layer Group pass through the group to all Layers below.


Enter the Normal


We’ve got different methods for constraining adjustments to specific areas in the image - masks, clipping masks, blend if, etc. Seems like the one that flies mostly under the radar is Normal mode for Layer Groups. In Normal mode, all Adjustment Layers above one or more Pixel Layers within that Layer Group will be bound to the area of those pixels. Let’s check it out.


Here's a new Layer with 50% Gray:


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_01 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_02


In a new Layer Group, create a H/S Adjustment Layer with Colorize clicked. This could in fact be any Adjustment you choose.


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_03 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_04


On a new Pixel Layer, draw something cool like a dollar sign.


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_05 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_06


Drag this new Pixel Layer under the H/S Layer. It acts as expected - changing the color of pixels both in and out of the Layer Group.


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_07 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_08


Now, set the Layer Group Blend Mode to Normal. See how the H/S Layer only affects pixels inside the Layer Group.


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_09 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_10


Add more pixels - bling marks and diamonds for instance. The Adjustment Layer will continue to affect any pixel layers that are placed below it.




Now V-birds and a soft brush vignette.


folderBlendModeNormal_steps_12 folderBlendModeNormal_steps_13


Now for kicks, shift the Hue slider on the H/S Adjustment layer.




This method of isolating adjustments is an important addition to the standard methods. It eliminates the need to create masks, and is more flexible than clipping adjustments to individual Pixel Layers because you can stack multiple layers up within the Layer Group.


Try this with photographic elements and realize the full power of Normal mode.


Download my working file here.


Quick and easy mask extensions with Content Aware Fill

One of the painful steps in doing image extensions - aside from extending the picture - is redoing all of the masks after the canvas size changes. Masks are usually going to contain gradients, and they're almost to impossible extend seamlessly without putting in a lot of time. Let Content Aware Fill help.

I've found that Content Aware Fill does a really good job of magically continuing mask gradients. It must be something about the simplicity of analyzing grayscale pixel information. Who knows, but here's how it works in the most basic form.

1. Here's your mask after the canvas extension.

Content Aware Mask Fill 01

2. Using a marquee, select the areas you'd like to extend

Content Aware Mask Fill 03

3. Edit >Fill (or Shift F5), select Content Aware

Content Aware Mask Fill 02

4. Boom

Content Aware Mask Fill 04

The example here is clearly the simplest gradient extension possible. Try it out on more complex grads and you'll find that it works really well.


Free your layer effects by dropping Fill to 0%

mmmDropLayer Effects are a really powerful set of tools for creating quick effects applied to pixel information. Most people think of them in terms of typographic or design-y uses, but they're an absolutely essential component of a high-res photo realistic retouching workflow. Follow this trick to free them from your layer stack and add endless flexibility.

Drop that Fill

My preferred method is to create a masked Color Fill Layer based on whatever shape I want the layer effect to be. Reduce the Fill - not the Opacity - to 0%, and watch as the Color Fill disappears and the Layer Effect remains.

Color Fill w/Layer Effect & 0% Fill


By reducing the Fill to 0%, you're telling Photoshop that you don't want to see what's IN the layer, but you're cool with retaining the Layer Effect that's been applied TO it.

By applying the Layer Effect to a mask, you're keeping all of the flexibility that comes with a mask - the ability to Refine Edge, change the shape of the Layer Effect by painting on the mask, and smudging or feathering the mask edges manually.



Image Processor Pro - A better tool for batch file output

Russell Brown has a great collection of scripts for Photoshop CS5/6/CC. He's taken the Image Processor script and extended it with all the features you'd wished were in there...

... such as the support to OUTPUT TRANSPARENT TIFFS!!! If you've had to build batch action workarounds for this then you understand my caps...

I use Image Processor Pro for all of my batch output. It's better than the Image Processor that ships with Photoshop.

Download and watch the tutorial for Dr. Browns Services here: