One advantage of Adobe’s subscription service is you always have the latest-and-greatest version of Photoshop. As such, you need to be diligent in keeping up with the constant update of new features or else, as in my case, you’ll miss out on a potentially dandy feature. Usually, Photoshop displays a splash screen at start-up to inform you of new features. But I always seem to be in a rush and I more often dismiss the tutorial than read it. In Photoshop CC (2014), Adobe added a new feature called Focus Area, which I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know existed until I stumbled on it. (In my defense, I reviewed the splash screen that listed all the new 2014 features and I couldn’t find anything about Focus Area. I’m sure it’s buried somewhere, but I couldn’t find it.)
“Mask” of the Red Death
Creating masks or selections is often the most frustrating task you’ll ever do in Photoshop. A classic example is trying to create a selection around someone’s frizzled hair. Even if all you do is landscape photography, there'll always be a need to create a mask at some point in time. Fortunately, Photoshop has added features over time to help out with this problem. You have Pen Tool, Magnetic Lasso, Magic Wand, Color Range, Refine Edge and many other ways to reduce the drudgery of making complex selections or masks. Now Photoshop has added a new one: Focus Area.
This new tool is found under the Select menu. It simply selects all focused imagery within an in-focus range that you either specify or let Photoshop do automatically (Auto mode). When the selection is made, you have options to add or delete portions of the selection as well as use the Refine Edge tool.
Though this tool has immense potential in general photography (portrait photography in particular comes to mind), its usefulness in landscape photography may largely depend on the nature of your subjects. The objective of most my landscape photography is to maintain as much sharpness from fore to background as possible. So seldom would I need to select only a focused portion of a traditional landscape scene in Photoshop. However, macro and wildlife photography may greatly benefit from this tool. The reason is you often want to isolate the main subject from any distracting background.
In wildlife photography, you often use a telephoto lens at wide apertures that already blur out the background. But there are times you need to stop down for more depth-of-field and that may increase background clutter. In my case, I don’t do much wildlife photography, but I do occasional macro work and that’s where I often encounter problematic backgrounds. Trying to keep a background that is inconveniently close to the subject sufficiently blurred while keeping the subject in sharp focus can be a challenge at times.
With Focus Area, you can quickly select the sharpest portion of the image, invert the selection (select Inverse under the Select menu), and then run Blur Gallery under the Filter menu. With Blur Gallery, you can now vanquish the background to whatever degree you wish.
Focus Area Example
Below is an example of a cactus flower that competes with a distracting background. This photo is a difficult problem due to the cactus needles, especially those that are slightly out of focus but still part of the main foreground subject. Even if those needles aren’t tact-sharp, I don’t want them caught up in the background blur or else the cactus may look a little “plucked” of its needles.
The background is too busy and competes with the foreground cactus.
To address the problem, I selected Focus Area from the Select menu, which resulted in the screenshot below. To control the selection range, you either adjust the In-Focus Range slider or click the Auto button. In this case, due to the spiny needles, I had to manually adjust the slider for the best results. This accomplished most of the heavy lifting, but I still needed to edit a few small portions of the selection. Initially, I used the Add/Subtract brushes (left of the In-Focus slider) to fix a few of the major offenders (note: to change brush size, use the bracket keys). The Add/Subtract brushes work similar to a Magic Wand in that you don’t need to be exact, just click or roughly paint out the desired area and Focus Area figures the rest out for you.
|Screenshot of Focus Area|
How perfect the selection should be depends on how much background blur you intend to apply. Obviously, extreme background blurring will reveal selection flaws more, but generally I don’t think you need to be too obsessive about it. In the cactus example, I did improve the selection a bit more by selecting Refine Edge. I enabled Smart Radius and applied about a 6.5 pixel radius and 1 pixel of feathering. Refine Edge will likely be a necessity when shooting wildlife and having to deal with the fine detail of bird feathers or animal fur.
If your image is noisy, then under Advance is an Image Noise slider that may improve the selection. Since I always shoot at low ISOs, I didn’t have any noisy images to test this feature out. Leaving it at Auto should suffice for most of my work, but wildlife shooting often requires high ISOs to freeze subjects with fast shutter speeds. In those cases, you may need to experiment with this adjustment to see if it helps.
After I touched up the selection in Refine Edge, I clicked OK. Back in Photoshop, I inverted the selection and then called up Blur Gallery. Using the Field Blur option, I cranked in about 150 pixels of blur, resulting in the third image below.
|Background be Gone!|
Results after applying Field Blur