One of the skills that sets pro imagers apart from the average photography buff is quick, precision masking-cutting the subject out from the background so it can be pasted into a new background and look as though it belongs there. Masking requires great hand/eye coordination, an intuitive understanding of the software (which is usually Photoshop), and, often, a great deal of patience. But even the top pros have difficulty with certain types of subjects, such a person with flyaway hair. How do they mask out the background without cutting away the wispy strands of hair? Some use Vertus Fluid Mask ($149, 14-day free trial).
On opening, Fluid Mask analyzes your photograph, looking for depth of field, texture, hue, saturation and contrast. From this information, it jigsaws the picture into interlocking geometric shapes, based on the program's best guess as to what portions are foreground or background. The outline of the shapes is in blue. Click on a shape with the red fill tool, to set it as background. The green fill tool is used on the subject you want to keep. Depending on your settings for the Edge Threshold and Number of Objects, these shapes can be very detailed (lots of small ones) or more general (larger and fewer). The real magic in Fluid Mask happens when you draw a blue line around the edge of your subject, which helps the program find smoke, wispy hair, and other airy, usually difficult-to-mask areas.
The basics of Fluid Mask are easy to understand. But mastering can be frustrating, especially if you start out with a tough picture. One trick is to realize that Fluid Mask can't work miracles. It needs to have some differentiation between the background and foreground to work on. "If your eye doesn't see an edge, the software won't see it," explains Mike Elliott, Vertus's resident Fluid Mask guru. But the one big advantage that Fluid Mask users have is Mike himself. He claims that he personally picks up the phone and calls everyone who downloads the program, to see if he can help them with it. In addition, he conducts free live Webinar classes five days a week-at 2PM Eastern Standard Time for novices, and at 3PM EST for advanced users. Plus he gives out his e-mail freely, inviting folks to send him files and ask questions. Users who have taken advantage of Mike's help and taken the time to learn the tricks of the program swear by it, for speed, ease and high quality masking.
Fluid Mask works as a plug-in for Photoshop-like software, including Photoshop Elements, or it can be used as a standalone. If you are serious about doing top-notch masking and are willing to put the time into mastering the program, Fluid Mask may be a worthwhile investment for you. If you are just looking to have some fun with cutting out people and objects and putting them into new backgrounds, Vertus Play with Pictures ($40, free trial) would probably be a more appropriate program.