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Tips & Tricks

Photoshop’s New ‘Focus Area’ Tool Makes For Easy Masking & Great Portraits

By Kishore Sawh on July 2nd 2014


It would seem Photoshop CC, and all that Adobe cloud mentality is here to stay. Now, if that’s not your particular brand of scotch, well you may have chase it with something. I like it for a few reasons, most of which I won’t get into here, but one of which has to be the ease at which updates can be delivered to the entire user base, which one would hope, would prompt the company to do it more frequently. So far, this has been a bit of a blessing and a curse. There are constant updates and most of which aren’t noteworthy to most of the user experience. Some, however, are brilliant.

[REWIND: My 2 Current Favorite & Fast Photoshop Tools]

One of the newer updates can really help to speed up the process of masking, and in turn, can really help your images turn into something better, and do so quicker. Portraits do especially well from the update. It’s a new option called ‘Focus Area,’ and what it allows you to do is isolate the focused area of a photo, or the inverse. Since we often tend to guide a viewer’s eye by selective defocus, naturally that portion of the image is treated differently from the rest, and this tool allows for all sorts of adjustments to be made to either area.

The tool also has a good amount of customizability, so you can tailor the mask with ease. For example, you can use brushes to select areas you want to add or remove the mask from, you do have the ability to soften and refine edges, and you can choose different overlay options to aid you in making said selections. So, without further ado

How To

Last weekend I was with a friend in Wynwood, Miami’s design district, and took this casual photo of her in this rather decrepit little corner full of graffiti as she took refuge from the sun. I’m quite sure I was shooting close to racked out at around 180mm at 2.8 which gave a slight amount of background separation given how confined everything was. The photo had some interest, I liked the designs, but she sort of blended in a bit too much for my liking, and I wanted to tone down the colors and brightness of the noisy background. Perfect, in other words, for this:

1. Open chosen image. No copy necessarily need be made.

2. Go to the menu bar to the ‘Select’ tab and scroll down to ‘Focus Area‘.


3. Once you’ve clicked that, the new window will pop-up and the effect will begin to render. It may take a few seconds. Under the ‘View’ selection tab in that window, I like to choose one which will allow me to see what’s under the mask, but it’s your choice.


4. Most of that can be left as is, but the points to pay attention to are the brushes on the left, the ‘Parameters’ slider, and ‘Refine edge.’ The top brush allows you to add back into focus, and the lower brush removes from focus. You can get as close as you like by using the slider and then refining with the brush. Use Refine Edge when you’re about done to more seamlessly blend the mask to avoid harsh edges, generally using the ‘Smooth’ slider.




5. Once you’re satisfied, you can hit OK, and allow it a moment to render. When it’s finished, go to Select>Inverse to select the defocus area, and from here you can add any adjustment layers and tweak as you please. If you notice some harder edges,work around this by selecting a brush, low flow like around 5%, and brush in or out the areas to blend the layer to what you want.



Finished Examples:


After Edits on Left


After edits, on right


Now of course, as goes my typical disclaimer, it’s entirely your license to goes as strong or soft with these edits as you like. I’ve found that busy backgrounds like this pose more of a masking issue on the auto mode but nothing that some manual labor can’t sort out, and with nought but a little time. If you have any troubles or questions, don’t hesitate to hit me up and I’ll do my best to guide you.


CREDITS: All photographs shared by Kishore Sawh are copyrighted and have been used with permission for SLR Lounge. Do not copy, modify or re-post this article or images without express permission from SLR Lounge and the artist.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Biju Toha

    But now there is Select and Mask instead of Refine Edge. And another issue is when we have a complex background than this auto function is not a proper way to achieve our goal.

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  2. Basit Zargar


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    i love this new feature ‘l have to say photoshop dev team aren’t sleeping they are really working hard to ensure they give a top notch product

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Martin, hi there. I’m a big fan of it myself right now. I just did some product shooting for new clothing line, and it allowed me to easily adjust the background brightness and hue – which gave the flexibility to offer many alternatives in ‘look’. Good on Photoshop… let’s hope Adobe continues the trend

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  4. Servando Miramontes

    Way helpful!

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  5. Ram Iyer

    can’t wait to use this!! exciting feature…

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  6. Ben Perrin

    I have to say that I thought the focus selection tool was going to not work. Kind of like how the de-blur filter was over hyped. But after using on a few different images of the last few days I am a believer. This new tool is fantastic. Especially great for when you want to place text behind a subject or play with the background. What used to take minutes now only takes a few seconds. Although it really isn’t going to work for every image.

    And here is a 30 second example for you Jim.
    It’s not the best image but the focus selection tool worked so well in this case.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Ben. You know I hadn’t thought of using it for the purpose of text, but I can see now how that would play well. Cheers for that. And I agree that it’s wonderful, even though I was a skeptic to begin with. I do find if the photo is a very busy photo, much like mine was, it can be more difficult to work with, but still. Great stuff.

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  7. Jim Johnson

    I’m all about subtlety, but I’d swear that everyone of your “examples” have never even been altered… at all… in any of the articles you post.

    Perhaps it’s because of the way my browser renders it, or your monitor is far superior to my “surfing” screen, but I would really appreciate a little exaggeration in your edits just so they are a little more obvious as to what you did. I mean, no one expects “tutorial” images to be the exact ones you print or release professionally.

    Just a thought.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Jim, Hi. That’s unfortunate that you feel unable to ascertain the differences in the edits. I certainly am in favor of subtlety as I don’t like my images mostly to appear ‘edited.’ I find 90% of retouches to go too far. That’s a personal opinion, and my images tend to be more natural in feel, rather than a heavy handed, obvious alteration.

      Perhaps it’s a monitor issue, or perhaps it’s just an eye, or taste issue. I use a 27inch Apple monitor to edit when at my desk, or Apple laptop on the move which I guess are rather good. The differences in my view are apparent on each platform, but I will consider a more exaggerated rendition for demonstrative purposes. Cheers.

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