Selective Digital Masking Part II

A Versatile Method of Darkroom Printing Control

By Alan Ross Back to

Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique Dusk, Alabama Hills. The final, “straight” print utilizing digital Selective Masking techniques. All dodging and burning for this print are incorporated into mask layers.

Today the most logical and practical approach to making graduated masks for traditional printing is through using the computer. A classicist in my own work, I like to work in black and white with view cameras. I tray-develop my film and make gelatin silver prints, but I don’t consider myself a “purist.” I enthusiastically embrace the creative potential afforded by the growth of digital technology as tools I have available to further my aesthetic. I currently have no personal interest in using the computer to create new visions, but I use it as a tool to enable me to make better prints of images I already have on film. The graduated-burn masks made with the computer can be used in conjunction with all the basic selective masking techniques. In many cases, the computer may afford a more efficient means of achieving the effects of penciling or cutting holes in mask material.

The Layers feature, among others, in Adobe Photoshop or Elements is what makes these programs so perfect for Selective Masking. A color inkjet or laser printer capable of printing on transparency film is also necessary. As with working with most darkroom printing techniques, the process is one of trial and refinement. All the equipment mentioned below should be placed in close proximity to your darkroom to facilitate making adjustments to masks without undue running around.

What You Need:
1) Computer. Mac or PC. Laptops can be brought into the darkroom to make adjustments while looking at a wet test print.

2) Photoshop or Elements with Layers capabilities.

3) Scanner.Load the image into your computer. While a high quality flatbed scanner is a good investment for most serious photographers, a scan by the simplest of scanners will suffice for this process. The scanned image must be the same size as the negative. Fiber-base paper swells when wet and shrinks in drying and will most likely end up smaller than the film’s size.

4) Printer. You will need a printer capable of printing on inkjet transparency film or other printable transparent media. If you are making masks for contact printing of negatives larger than 8×10, you will need suitable media and a printer capable of printing the same size as your negative.

5) Transparent media. Printable film for overhead-pro- jection “slides” is available at office supply stores in 8.5 x11 inch sheets. For larger sizes, an excellent option is HP Clear Film available in 24-inch by 75-foot rolls.

Pixels and Dektol can coexist! Each technique can be used in combination with every other technique! Maybe not always on the same piece of mylar or inkjet film, but different problems can be dealt with on separate pieces of material — create a multi-layered “package.”

Remember, Selective Masking is controlled dodging. If you want to burn an area, hold back everything else, then increase the exposure time to compensate. The extra exposure in the area that is not held back results in a burn.

In using Photoshop for Selective Masking, we use it as a painting tool rather than for image manipulation. The principal function of a scan of the negative is to serve as a guide as to where to paint.

To get acquainted with the most basic techniques for such a burn, we need to know how to create what amounts to a custom graduated neutral-density filter. Rather than using actual images, practice using just whites, blacks and grays.

Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 1)
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 2)
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 3) The Black layer in Figure 2, with its opacity set at 60% and 25%.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 4) Screen capture on the left shows pertinent control boxes and direction of “cursor-drag” for the white gradient. Capture on the right: the result.

The two primary concepts to grasp for maximum control are:

• White prints as clear

• Black can be any gray you want. Launch Photoshop and go to File > New. In the dia- log box that appears, give it a title and make it 8 x10 inches in size, 72 pixels/inch, grayscale with White background (Figure 1).

Create a new Layer and call it “black,” Normal Mode. Go to Select > All, then Edit > Fill > Black (Figure 2). We now have what appears to be an entirely black file — but here’s where real control comes into play. Click the arrow on the Opacity box for this Layer in the Layers Window and a slider will appear. Drag it to the left, and the black becomes a paler and paler gray (Figure 3). With my printer, an opacity of about 37% is 1/3 stop, 50% is 1⁄2 stop and 70% is about a full stop. Now for the Burn.

Create a new Layer as we did above and call it “burn 1.” Go to the toolbar and click the Gradient tool, then go to the Gradient options in the top left corner of the screen. First, select the Linear gradient, then click the Gradient Picker. A small dialog box will open. From it choose “Foreground color to Clear.”

Make sure your foreground and background colors are set for default black and white. Click the curved double-arrow so that white is the foreground color. The Gradient tool should still be selected. Our new “burn 1” Layer should be active and at the top of the list in the Layers window. Place the cursor at the top of the “image” and drag down to where the horizon would be. We now have a neutral- density “filter” that goes smoothly from pure white (clear) at the top down to whatever gray we might like for our base density (Figure 4).

Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 5) A more abrupt gradient.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 6) Using the Elliptical Marquee to create a curved corner burn.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 7) (1) Dragging the Elliptical Marquee for an outside curve. (2) Using the eraser to clean up selected area – pre “Select Inverse.” (3) Final burn fill.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
Figure 8 The effect of independent control of several layers. Top left burn is set at 100% opacity. Black is set at 50%, meaning the top left will get stop of burning. Top right is set at 70% meaning that it will get probably about stop burn.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 9) A straight full-scale print before masking

To experiment with a more abrupt transition from White to Gray, turn the previous sky burn layer off and create a new Layer, calling it “burn 2.” This time, start closer to the middle and click-drag down to the “horizon.” The length of the “drag” is the length of the gradient (Figure 5). Corner burns are done exactly the same way. Start at a corner and click-drag to where you want the gradient to end. The Radial Gradient tool can be useful in this case (at right of the Linear Gradient button).

For more flexibility with the shape of a curved burn, use the Elliptical Marquee; however, since it wants to select complete ellipses or circles, you need to start dragging from well outside the image area into the image. To do this, Zoom Out on the image, making it fairly small on the desktop. Grab the Resize corner on the lower right and drag out until the image is surrounded by a large working field. You can then drag in to the image to select the desired area. The Marquee tool, however, selects a hard edge rather than a gradient, so to have a smooth transition from white to gray, feather the selection: Select > Modify > Feather. A dialog box appears asking how broad a feather you want. This requires experimenting, but if you do anything you don’t like, you can go back by deleting the action from the History Window. In this case, I chose a 100 pixel feather and could preview the effect by clicking on the Quick Mask tool. The area shown in red is the area not selected. If you like what you see, exit the Quick Mask and fill your selection with White (Figure 6).

Next try an outward curve in the top left corner rather than the inward one just described. In a new layer, take the Elliptical Marquee and drag from outside the lower right corner toward the top left. Note that the Quick Mask shows that it is the corner area that is not selected. In this case, choose Select > Inverse, and now it is the corner that is the active selection, and you can proceed in the manner of the top right burn (Figure 7). [Tip: while in Quick Mask mode, you can use the Eraser tool to add or subtract from the selection. If Black is the foreground color, the eraser adds to the selection; if you toggle so White is foreground, it will subtract.]

Finally, keep in mind that all of the burns done so far are each on their own separate Layers, and consequently can be managed independently of other layers. Figure 8 shows both “curved burn 1” and “curved burn 2” as visible, with burn 2 at 100% Opacity and burn 1 reduced to about 70%. If we printed our mask with this view, we would have one film with two burns — the top left getting more burn than the top right.

Local Burns–Using Image Elements To Guide Us
A few basic manual and digital masking techniques can transform what once was a fairly difficult image to print into a “straight,” simple, press of the timer’s Expose button. Figure 9 shows a straight, full-scale print of Dusk, Alabama Hills. This is pretty much the scene as it appeared, but not how I visualized it. I wanted quiet drama, but this is just plain quiet. To get more vibrancy in the foreground, I needed to use a higher than normal contrast. This, in turn, made the clouds very white, requiring extensive burning-in. Even though basic exposure times with a mask package in place are necessarily longer than with no mask, the total exposure time is almost always a good deal shorter. The reason is that all of the dodging and burning controls occur simultaneously.

Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 10) Selecting the sky in Quick Mask mode.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 11) A sky burn layer with the Black layer set at 50% opacity for a burn of about stop.
Alan Ross, selective masking, digital masking, photo technique
(Figure 12) The final masks for Dusk, Alabama Hills.

Making a Digital Mask

The first step in making a digital mask is getting the image into the computer, with a direct scan of the negative at 100% size the preferred method. Grayscale mode is fine, as is comparatively low resolution. For 8×10 films, I often use 72dpi, 150dpi for 4 x 5 and 300dpi for smaller films. If I’m working with a negative I’ve never printed before, I make a scan of the film before I put it in the enlarger. This way, if I get into it and decide I want to work with a digital mask, I don’t have to remove the film from the enlarger after setting everything up.

Once the scan has been made, the first step is setting the file up for accurate alignment of multiple masks. I create a new layer I call “reg marks.” Since I often use more than one layer print-out, these marks make it easy to keep each transparency aligned with the rest. Using the pencil tool, I draw a small outline at each corner of the image (or use the Line tool, but each stroke creates a new Layer to be flattened later). I also always draw the letter “F” at the top. Some masks are so subtle that without some indication, it would be difficult to tell which way is up. The letter “F” only reads correctly in one orientation.

Next, create the black layer, just as in the earlier exercise. A white layer between the scan Background and the black layer is optional. The “reg mark” layer should always be the top-most layer since we always want it to print.

I started by making a burn layer. I wanted to isolate the foreground from the sky, and decided the best way to do this was to take advantage of the light clouds immediately above the horizon. Making the image layer active, I took the Magic Wand tool, and after some experimenting with its sensitivity, I was able to shift- click the clouds until I had a pretty clean break between the foreground and sky. I used the Quick Mask to verify my selection, and while still in Quick Mask, I used the Rectangular Marquee to select large chunks of sky area, then used the eraser to complete the sky selection and feathered it slightly so the edge would be a bit fuzzy (Figure 10).

With the sky now fully selected, I created a new Layer named “top burn.” In this case, I wanted to burn the entire sky down relative to the foreground, so I filled the still-selected sky with white rather than using a gradient as in our earlier practice (Figure 11).

Now was time for the first test in the darkroom. Rather than use a whole 8.5×11 sheet of transparency film for a 4 x 5 negative, in Page Setup I created custom paper sizes to accommodate various sizes of film. I use 5.5 x 8.5 for 4×5 and 4.25×11 for 6×7 and smaller. I position the image at the leading edge so I can cut off the mask and keep using that film until it’s too short to run through the printer.

With the negative in the masking carrier on a light table, I positioned the inkjet mask, aligning the registration marks with the corners of the negative, and taped it in place. I may want to do some pencil masking as well as the digital, so I taped a blank piece of artist’s mylar on top.

The first test print pointed out several things that required adjustment:

• The sky was too dark relative to the foreground. I could reduce the Black opacity and reduce the exposure time, but the bright clouds were still too light, so I opted to decrease the White opacity instead. This allowed me to create another layer above the Top Burn where I could paint some white over the too-bright cloud areas. I increased the Black opacity a bit so the clouds got comparatively more exposure.

• The whole dark mass of clouds in the top left corner and a bit of darker clouds in the top right were darker than I wanted relative to the lower sky, so I created yet another layer called “TR dodge.” I wanted the bulk of the clouds to be lighter, so I made an abrupt gradient in black, as in Figure 5, this time dragging the cursor diagonally. I did the same thing in the top right corner.

I made guesses at various opacities, printed a new mask with all layers except the Background layer visible, and replaced the original mask on the carrier. The next test was almost just right, needing only a bit of a burn in the central foreground and some hand penciling to balance out various areas.

I used the Elliptical Marquee to select the area I wanted to burn and feathered it, checking the appearance in Quick Mask mode. It was what I wanted, so I created yet another layer called “foreground burn,” filling the area with white. It didn’t need much of a burn, so I chose an opacity of about 30%.

All of my preferred dodging and burning for this negative was now embodied in just two pieces of transparent media. To make positioning the films easier for future printings, I put tiny snippets of double-stick tape between the top corners of the two films, holding them in position relative to each other. See Figure 12 for the finished masks.

This last exercise may have seemed too easy to be true, but like many other things, the more you do something the more likely a “hunch” will turn out to be pretty close to the mark. One big advantage to masking is consistency from print to print — but if you are only going to be making a few prints from a negative, you might just as easily do some traditional dodging and burning. Likewise, a mask package might get you 90% of where you want to be, but it might be more efficient to simply add an easy sky-burn rather than another mask.

About the Author

Alan Ross
Photographer and master printer Alan Ross has been Ansel Adams’ exclusive printer for over 36 years. His experience includes operating a commercial studio with projects ranging from ad campaigns to murals for the National Park Service. Since 1993, he has devoted his energies to his personal work, teaching and work for select clients, including Boeing, Nike, IBM and MCI. His photography hangs in collections and galleries throughout the country and internationally, and he has lectured and led workshops in locations from Yosemite to China. For a more in-depth discussion of Ross’ masking process, visit his website,