Ahh… clipping paths. Like trips to the dentist, they’re something everyone tries to avoid, but really aren’t that bad once you just accept it and get them over with.
So what is this clipping path you keep hearing about? It’s a vector line description embedded into your image file that tells software where to “clip” the photo. It’s normally used to knock the background out of an image, but really it can be whatever you want – donut shapes, words etc. The path travels inside the image file and can be activated and turned into a standard selection for soft-edge feathering, filtering and all that other great Photoshop stuff. This is an added bonus for people buying your images because you save them the extra work of making clipping paths on their own.
This article is written primarily from a Mac-user perspective. Command short-cuts for Windows users are included in brackets.
Start with an image that has some definite edges to it. There are people (and some exotic clipping programs) out there that can differentiate between chaotic things (like messy hair in front of crazy, irregular backgrounds), but for now choose a defined edge Gap commercial type of image to practice on. Maybe avoid people images altogether until you build your clipping kung-fu.
Open your image and select the Pen Tool and the Paths option located in the left corner of the top menu bar (as opposed to the Shape Layers option, so that you don’t get a color-filled and stroked shape). All you need right now is the path.
Now some of you are saying, “The pen tool? What about all the other options in Photoshop?” You’re absolutely right, here’s a quick run-down of all the time-saving alternatives:
The Magic Wand: uses special magic powers of enchantment to convince the user that they’re somehow saving time by not using the pen tool. Expect magical hours of talking to yourself wondering, “Why does this look so gawd-awful?” Just use the Pen Tool.
Polygonal Lasso Tool: great for making clipping paths of people who are made entirely of squares and perfectly straight lines. Wastes just as much time as the Magic Wand, and still nowhere near as good as the Pen Tool.
Lasso Tool: is a wonderful way to show you exactly how much your hand shakes when you’re trying to trace the edge of something. Note that heavy drinking will slightly dull this phenomenon. Feel free to spend weeks of your life re-editing your selection with the Lasso to make it look half as good as if you’d used the Pen Tool.
Magnetic Lasso: prepare to be amazed by this breakthrough algorithm that uses advanced Russian mathematics to get your hopes up. It’s the bastard child of all of the above, and while super-cool it still isn’t nearly as accurate or as flexible as the Pen Tool.
Your eyes + Pen Tool = perfect. Got it?
Now that we’re all drinking the same brand of voodoo, let’s get clipping. It’s important to zoom into your image at least 200% so you can really see the edge of what you’re tracing. Zoom more if you want, but 200% is usually good enough.
Note that a new “Work Path” shows up in the Paths palette when you start your new path – more about this later.
If you’re tracing a figure, your clipping path needs to slightly shrink the image by staying just inside of the fuzzy pixels on the outer edge. If you include too many of those far-edge pixels you’ll get the dreaded “halo” around your figure when the background pixels are included inside the clipping area. Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect – you can always tweak your path later to tighten the selection.
Start in the middle of a flat section and click-drag in the direction that you’re drawing to bring out the point’s curve handles – for some reason I always go clockwise around the figure. If you want straight lines, just shift-click between points. You can adjust a point by CMD-clicking (CNTRL-clicking) it to move it, OPT-clicking (ALT-clicking) it in the center to evenly move both curve handles, or by OPT (ALT)-clicking each handle to adjust only that side of the curve. To add a point in the middle of a section, just move your mouse over the line until you get the (+) on the cursor and click to add a point. To continue drawing your path, CMD-click (CNTRL-click) the end point and continue along the edge.
Trace all around your figure until you re-connect with the starting point.
Curved Sections: work better when you put points on either side of the corner instead of just one in the middle, but this is up to you. Try different placement to get the most accurate line with the least amount of points. Simple is better.
Hollow Sections: If you need a “donut hole”, for example, if it’s a person with their hand on their hip, and the background shows between their arm and body, start a new line using the same Work Path (selected in the Paths palette).
Okay, now you path is done and looking tight. First thing is to go to the Paths palette and select Save Path. from the little options arrow pop-up. Give your path a name (because you can have lots of different paths for different objects etc.) and click OK.
If you want to test the awesomeness of your path, click the “Load Path as a Selection” button from the bottom of the Paths palette. Invert your selection (CMD-Shift-i) (CNTRL-Shift-i) and fill the selection with a color on a new layer. Feather the edge a few pixels (Select Menu / Feather…) to make it look a little more natural. If you see areas that need adjusting, highlight your path in the Paths palette and go back and move things around with the Pen tool to eliminate halos etc. Repeat the above color fill to test your adjustments.
Once you’re happy with the path, choose Clipping Path… from that Path palette pop-up menu and select the name of your path (this is the Working Path that you just saved). I usually leave the Flatness: ___ device pixels box blank, but you’re welcome to research the effects of different values. Click “OK”. Save the file.
That’s about it. Load this path over and over and use it to make selections and masks or whatever else in Photoshop. Take your file into InDesign and use the path for text wrapping, layering, and drop shadows. Or save the file as a TIFF and use it in a limited fashion on good ol’ Quark Xpress.
That should be just enough rope for you to hang yourself. So get practicing, and make sure you don’t blame me when everybody thinks you’re a clipping genius.