By Roger (24 July 2014)
Last month, I gave an overview of some of the new features in Photoshop 2014, including a new selection tool for focus areas. The new tool is located under the SELECT menu (Select>Focus Area). I really liked the idea, but I already knew several ways to make selections and didn't spend much time with it. Well, now that I've investigated it a little further, I think I'll be using it fairly often. On the correct type of photo, it works really well. It is fast, accurate, and easily learned.
The tool searches for areas in sharp focus and creates a selection. Like most tools, you can make adjustments to the strength of selections. You can create a mask of the areas you select, and then use the result for further post-processing as you wish.
You can use the other selection tools – the quick selection tool or color range or calculations – to accomplish this same effect, but. for my portraits with lots of bokeh, this tool is faster.
Let me show you two examples.
This photograph is from the Gettysburg re-enactments, last year. The young re-enactor is in focus, but the background is definitely blurred. Once in Photoshop, I bring up the Focus Area selection tool. Photoshop will bring up the tool and, automatically, do a first pass. You can see it has already masked the sky and woods from the photo. I have it on a white background, but there are several different ways to view the masked portion of the photo. You can see the pull-down menu in the thumbnail of the View Mode.
You can move the slider in the Parameters section to vary the amount of selection, but I like the Focus Area Add and Subtract brushes to the left on the menu. The slider just doesn't seem as effective. In the Output section, you can determine how you want the selection to be saved: Layer Mask; New Layer; New Document; etc.
You can see there is a little bit of sky left around his ear. I can take care of that with the Focus Area Subtract brush or the Refine Edge tool at the bottom of the menu. In the Refine Edge menu, you have further tools to improve your selection. I rarely needed to go to this menu in my Focus Area selections, but it's there for you if you need it. Now, I have the soldier with a transparent background.
If I put him in front of the Burnside Bridge from Antietam, I can make the bridge photo a little more interesting. (For me, adding a person or two almost always improves a scene.)
For times when you're happy with the content of your background but want to make some changes to just the background, you can, again, use the Focus Area selection tool.
In this picture of Drew, I felt the background was a little bright. When I use the Focus Area selection tool, it masks the out of focus area. There is no way to invert the mask. This is only slightly annoying because I can save the output as a new masked layer. When I am back in the layers of Photoshop, and I can activate the layer and invert it. You can see the mask below.
I added a new Curves Adjustment Layer and clipped it to the masked layer below. Now, whatever adjustments I make will only impact the out of focus background. I want Drew to be just a little brighter than the background, so the viewer's eye will zero in on him. It's just a natural reaction of the eye to go to a brighter part of the photo before looking into the darker area. It doesn't have to be a dramatic difference; sometimes, a little is all you need to make the photograph better.
This tool isn't right for every photo. Most landscape photographers want to get their photo in sharp focus from edge to edge, so the Focus Area Selection Tool wouldn't be my tool of choice. However, there isn't one tool that I can think of that is right for every situation. You should give this tool a close look the next time you want to select the bokeh in your photo. Have some fun with this great, new selection tool.