One of the most common production tasks for photographers or imagers using Photoshop is to isolate a subject from a background, often called clipping or cutouts. Each of the past several versions of Photoshop has attempted to make the process easier and more intuitive. First there was the Extract tool, later the Refine Selection command in CS3 and the Refine Mask tool in CS4. In CS5, the Refine Edge and Refine Mask commands have received an overhaul to try and make them faster and more accurate for clipping difficult images. The question remains, are these improvements good enough to make them ready for prime time?
I tested the new Refine Edge tool on a variety of images, from relatively easy to diabolical, to assess Refine Edge’s usefulness in real-world production situations. Predictably, I had great results with fairly easy cutouts using a combination of the Quick Select tool and Refine Edge. Together, they made short work cutting out this Chef from the background. Another test of a Capoeira dancer shot against green screen worked equally well. Positive signs for sure.
Once I moved on to more difficult selections, the process wasn’t quite as smooth. The Refine Edge was difficult to use when the softness of the edge being clipped varied. For example, in this photo of my dog, the line along the bridge of her muzzle is a distinct line, while the area below her muzzle in the shadows needs to be soft and diffuse. Using the Radius and Contrast controls allows you to balance the contrast and sharpness of the edge, however, I had difficulty finding a single setting that would work equally well for both areas of the image. The Refine Edge had difficulty finding the edge of the image in the shadows. This isn’t much of a surprise, any masking technique tends to fail in this area. Using the Refine Radius and Erase Refinements brushes helped the situation, but not enough to solve the problem entirely.
I encountered similar problems when trying to cut out any image that had the same edge variability or where the subject contains significant colors/tones with the background. Again, this it not unique to Refine Edge, all masking applications stumble in the same situations. With more time and patience, I’m certain I could have improved upon the results with any of these images. But in a production environment like a newspaper or magazine with tight deadline, veteran Photoshop users will still find themselves reaching for the Pen tool more often than the Refine Edge command.
As far as image extraction software tools go, I think Vertus Fluid Mask is still more accurate than Refine Edge, though Fluid Mask isn’t perfect either. From a workflow perspective, Refine Mask is faster and it allows you to output directly to a new layer with a layer mask, which isn’t possible in Fluid Mask.
Ultimately, a savvy Photoshop professional will want to have a variety of tools and techniques at their disposal. Due to the varied nature of images, it pays to have several techniques available, from a simple magic wand selection to channel blending and automated software-based extraction like Refine Edge. Any time you can use these applications to expedite your production routine is time saved in your workflow.