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Extensis Mask Pro 3

Masking plugin for Adobe Photoshop By Dave Nagel
Masking is one of those chores that only the most ascetic of us can appreciate, and then only when we have something really awful to atone for. It's laborious. It's time-consuming. And it's sometimes futile, a fact many of us discover only after hours of attempting to mask out individual strands of hair at 800x magnification. If only a piece of software would come along that could help alleviate the pain....

Well, in fact, if you haven't already guessed, there is such a piece of software. Actually there are several. But today we're going to take a look at one that I consider not only to be an outstanding masking product, but a stellar example of how productivity tools for designers ought to be made: Extensis Mask Pro 3.

Some basics
Mask Pro has been around for quite a while, and I'm sure a good number of you are already familiar with it. So you know what I'm talking about. Version 3 builds on the features in previous releases in some pretty significant ways and also now, for the first time, is available for Mac OS X. (Incidentally, the Windows version of Mask Pro 3 is not available yet. It's expected later this year.) I'll get into the new features later.

First, for those of you who are not familiar with past versions of this software, Mask Pro 3 is a plugin for Adobe Photoshop that drastically reduces the amount of effort that goes into masking images. It provides tool for masking objects quickly and with almost no effort, as well as more advanced features for dealing with difficult image elements, such as semi-opaque subjects that need to be extracted from backgrounds that share much of the same colors. To give you an idea of the basic, semi-automated masking functionality of Mask Pro, let's take a look at a fairly obvious example that's not too terribly difficult to mask out. Below you'll see the before and after images. (Note that I've placed the "after" masked image on a black background simply to show off the detail of the mask in the light fur areas.)

"That's pretty good," you might say, "but it's nothing amazing. I can do that myself." True enough, I say, but that example above was done in about 30 seconds. Just a launch of the filter, a quick adjustment to the "Magic Brush" tool and a few strokes, and that was it. Everything else was automatic. I just dragged the brush across the image without even telling the filter what I wanted to mask--it assumed I wanted to mask out the area I started brushing on--and the mask happened effortlessly.

In fact, here's a movie of the process. You just can't appreciate it until you see it in action. (Click "Play" to watch.)

"All right," you say, "that's pretty good. But I can see parts of that image where the mask cut into portions of the image itself, especially around the whiskers. And there are some edge artifacts and other imperfections."

True again. But even after you apply the mask, you can go back in and restore lost detail simply by switching the mode of the Magic Brush from "erase" to "restore," and you're back in business.

Before restoration of missing detail.

After restoration.

In other words, Mask Pro remembers the image as it was before you made your mask. And, in fact, no matter how many times you apply the mask, you will always be able to restore original detail. And this includes in between sessions. Close the document, quit Photoshop and restart your computer, and Mask Pro will still remember the lost detail. Photoshop itself can't do that! And you can always go back and clean up any imperfections with some of the other tools included with the plugin, which we'll hit on below.

So these little examples should give you an idea of what I mean when I exclaim that this software is not only powerful, but remarkably well designed. Next we'll look at this software in a little more detail.

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