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Mask Plugins

by Dunc Petrie

Any digital image artist has experienced the tedium of creating a mask - no, not for Hallowe'en! As an example, creating and using a mask within an image editor allows an artist to remove digitally a distracting background. If the foreground and background are easily discerned, then the job is comparatively easy. However, consider the concentration, effort and time necessary to mask the brightly backlit long hair of a model - perhaps your worst nightmare. Another scenario: images that lack contrast between subject and background are tedious to separate but would yield readily using these filters. Rushing in to save you are two surrealistic image editor add-ins.

Extensis Mask Pro

To use version 1.0 you must first create a target layer for the mask by adding a layer (actually, one of several options) to the Photoshop image. Then create the mask by building two palettes; using eyedropper tools choose the colours (or range of colours) that you wish to retain for one palette and those that you wish to discard for the other. You can also define the colour tolerance and multiple sets of colours; each one could contain multiple definitions. Flexibility is the order: switch sets on and off or use more than one at a time. Another reviewer suggested defining many sets - each containing only a few colours - and switching among the sets to address different areas of the image. To refine the mask you have an array of auxiliary tools (including, for example, a Spray Gun and a Magic Wand) that are "clones" of their Photoshop counterparts. Once completed, the filter - in this paradigm actually a layer - is applied to the image.

Granted, there is somewhat more to the procedure than this; however, the tedium has decreased precipitously.

Mask Pro is not a stand-alone program. Although the Adobe standard for plugins is integrated into a wide range of programs - for example, Corel PhotoPaint version 8 and Paint Shop Pro version 5 - according to Extensis' literature Mask Pro will initialize only with Adobe Photoshop, version 3.0.5 or later.

Visit Extensis at their web site: for more information.

Chroma Graphics' Magic Mask

Chroma Graphics ( offers a less expensive alternate: MagicMask. At $100 (US) it is one-third the price of Extensis' offering and is compatible with any application that supports the Adobe Plugin standard. Instead of "keep and drop palettes" the MagicMask paradigm uses a color brush. Sweep the brush across an area to make a selection of colours automatically; unswept areas represent the raw material to exclude. A range slider can be used to expand or contract the selected range and allows fine-tuning of hue, saturation and value. Also included is a tool to create variable density masks; it responds to a colour's opacity.

Now, I am not an expert. That said, I found that both tools offered improvements to the traditional approaches: in speed and ease. I felt that Chroma Graphics' Magic Mask was somewhat easier to learn to use, particularly for someone with limited experience in creating masks. Extensis' Mask Pro seemed to have more inherent power; however, this is mitigated by a need for more practice to utilize this power and its much higher cost. With adequate practice, I believe that both programs would deliver very acceptable results. Both sites offer tutorials (in Adobe Acrobat - PDF - format) and full-function, time-limited demos: 30 days for Extensis and 15 days for Chroma Graphics. I expect that both would support the use of a graphics tablet (certainly a lot easier than a mouse); however, I did not evaluate this ability.

Time's up!

Alas, all these superlatives have a downside: price. Extensis' Mask Pro lists for $300 US - more than the price (in Canadian money) of many sophisticated image editors! The Chroma Graphics offering is more reasonable and will work with a wider variety of image editors; however, this must be placed in perspective. Realistically, I personally do not require these capabilities often enough to justify the cost of even the less expensive filter. However, if your job description appeared above - and time is money - then I expect the increased productivity would justify a masking assistant.

Bottom Line:

Mask Pro (Proprietary)
(US $300)

MagicMask (Proprietary)
(US $100)
Chroma Graphics

Originally published: November, 1998

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