The Quick Mask Mode

update November 13, 2017: you can save yourself all the trouble learning this technique in this tutorial and the other selection tutorials and at the same time save a lot of time and be more accurate by just creating selections with the new Quick Mask Pro panel.

Using the Quick Mask Mode in Photoshop is an excellent way to create or alter selections. As you might know, selections are an important aspect in my work since it forms the basics of my iterative Selective Gradient Masking (iSGM) method. This is something I discuss in my Black and White photography Masterclass. Creating selections is also very time consuming. Depending on the image, creating selections can take anywhere between 4 and 40 hours. In the weeks to come I’ll explain some of the basics of selections and go in detail about my selection methods. This week I’ll start with the Quick Mask Mode. The general idea is to make a rough selection at first and then refine it manually by using the Quick Mask Mode. However, this technique can be incredibly time consuming. There are much easier and faster ways to make a selection, like using Channels or software like Topaz Remask, but knowing how to use the Quick Mask Mode is essential (at least it is to me). No matter what tool or program I use, I always end up manually fine tuning my selections in the Quick Mask Mode.

Today is about understanding how to manually create and adjust your selection. Next week I’ll cover more advanced techniques that’ll make selections much easier. So keep an eye on this space!

Step 1: prepare your image for selection.

When it comes to making selections, it helps when the image has enough brightness and contrast. Raise the brightness and contrast just for the sake of the selection. I usually do this in a duplicate layer, so I don’t destroy or alter the original image if I mess up.

Preparing the image

Preparing the image

Raise the brightness and contrast in the duplicate layer. Use whatever tool you’ re most comfortable with. You can use the Levels tool or Curves, I usually use CEP4. Remember, this duplicate layer is just used for making the selection. So don’t worry too much about the looks of the image. I don’t begin the real post-processing until I’ve finished making selections. When I’ve finished the selection I delete the duplicate layer.

Ready for selection

 Step 2: make a rough selection

Secondly, I make a very rough and quick selection by using either the  Quick Selection Tool  or the  Magic Wand.  You could also draw the selection freehand with the Lasso Tool or the Magnetic Lasso Tool. I actually prefer the Quick Selection Tool. The  Magic Wand usually makes dozens of little selections, that can’t be seen unless you zoom all the way in. Here’s an example, zoomed in 500%.

Magic Wand Artifacts

 Making a rough selection should take only a couple of minutes and the selection doesn’t need to be perfect at all in this stage.

Quick Selection On The Bridge

 Refine edge

In some cases it might be useful to use the Refine Edge Tool. For example: look at the railing of the bridge. I just want to select the railing and not the sky. Selecting it manually can take up some time.

Before Using Refine Edge

Before using Refine Edge

After Using Refine Edge

After using Refine Edge

It isn’t perfect by any means, but it certainly isn’t bad for a couple of seconds of work.

Use Refine Edge by brushing over the part of the image that you want to refine. You can play with the sliders a bit to try and improve the selection. Usually I just check the Smart Radius box and increase the radius a bit.

Refine Edge affects the entire selection. Let’s say you spent the last 5 hours creating a perfect selection, except for the railing on the bridge. If you use Refine Edge now, you’ll probably mess up all different parts of the selection that you’ve created earlier. If you’re making a selection, look closely on where to begin. Railing, hair and trees should be your starting point.

So: it’s perfectly fine to use Refine Edge in the early stages, but be extremely careful to use Refine Edge in the finishing stages of creating a selection (I actually never use Refine Edge near completion).

Making the rough selection should only take a couple of minutes, even when using Refine Edge. The hard part is manually selecting the image and making fluid lines.

By the way, if you want to learn more about Refine Edge, you should definitely watch this video by Terry White.

Step 3: Going in to Quick Mask Mode

Press Q or go to Select and Edit in Quick Mask Mode. Now you’re in Quick Mask Mode. On your toolbar is an icon that sort of looks look a camera. Double click this to open the Quick Mask Options. In this menu you can select the color of your mask and the transparency.

Quick Mask Mode Options

You can change the color and the opacity of the mask in the Quick Mask Options


Quick Mask Mode where the brigde is masked out

I like to use a color that gives a contrast to its surroundings. In this case I use a lightred color against a blueish environment.

 You can go in or out of Quick Mask Mode by pressing Q. When you’re out of this mode you get the marching ants selection.

Step 4: Making fluid lines within Quick Mask Mode

Using the Quick Selection Tool is great for a fast and easy selection, it gives you a base to start off with. It isn’t very accurate though. Lines that are supposed to be straight, usually end up crooked or otherwise misshaped.

Marching Ants

You can fix this by going in the Quick Mask Mode and use the brush tool to brush away certain parts to make the line straight. Make sure you select the white brush to delete parts of the mask and use a black brush to add to the selection. You can easily switch between black and white by pressing X.

Here I deleted some parts of the selection by going over it with a white brush.

Quick Mask Mode zoomed in

You can toggle between the Marching Ants selection and the Quick Mask Mode selection by pressing Q. I toggle constantly between these two to get a good view of what the effect is of adding or deleting parts of the mask.

Here is the same selection as above, but now viewed as Marching Ants. This gives a more accurate view of your selection.

Marching Ants zoomed in

You could use just your mouse for this, but I highly recommend a tablet. This way you can actually draw your selection.

The problem with trying to draw a straight line is that it’s sort of impossible. That’s why we use rulers. The equivalent for that in Photoshop is the Rectangular Marquee Tool.

You can use this selection tool only when you’re in Quick Mask Mode. When you’re in the Marching Ants mode, you’re already looking at a selection. If you try to use the Marquee Tool there, it simply starts a new selection.

Draw a square in the Quick Mask Mode with the Marquee Tool and select Transform Selection. Don’t click on Free Transform, this transforms the area within the selection. You just want to transform the selection.Drawing a square in Quick Mask Mode

You can now transform the selection however you want. You can also right click on the selection to view some transformation options.

Now line the selection up in such a way that it gives you a straight line. And then fill the selection where it needs to. In this case I only brush it in on the right side. When you’re done, simply deselect with CMD+D (or CTRL+D on Windows) and you’re back in the Quick Mask Mode.

Making a straight line in quick mask mode

You can also use the Elliptical Marquee Tool in the same way when you want a smooth circular/elliptical selection.

These things help making the selection more accurate, but in the end most of the work is being done by manually drawing the selection in the Quick Mask Mode.

Important note about saving selections

Remember to frequently save your progress. When I’m creating a selection I usually save the selection every 5-10 minutes. I also save the entire file. When you’re creating multiple selections, the file gets bigger with each selection. Bigger files means a less stable Photoshop. It wouldn’t be the first time PS crashed on me while working on a selection that I didn’t save yet.

Just go to Select and choose Save selection.

Saving a selection

In the Channelbox you can either save the selection as a new selection or overwrite an earlier saved selection.

Save as new or overwrite an earlier saved selection

You can always work on an older selection, by loading and selecting them from the Channelbox.

Loading a selection

Did you know you can view all of the selections that you’ve made under the Channel menu?

Channels menu

You can click on these selections to view them as a layer mask.

Channels - Layer Mask

You can click on the layer mask to view it. Click on the box next to the selection. An eyeball will appear in front of the selection.

Viewing the selection as a layer mask

This is how the selection looks like as a layer mask. White reveals, black conceals. You can actually adjust the selection by adjusting this layer mask, but more on this next week.
If you want to switch back to the regular view, simply click on the box before RGB on the Channels menu.


Making manual selections can be incredibly time consuming, but they are necessary steps in my workflow. I’ve been searching for ways to make quicker selections and I’ve found some methods that work. Like using Channels to create selections. Depending on the image it can generate a brilliant selection within minutes. This is a topic I’ll discuss next week.

There’s also the option of using software to make your selection. For instance Topaz Remask. Or Perfect Mask by onOne Software. However, since these methods only create masks and not a selection that can be saved it seems that this method is not usable for the iSGM method. However I have found a way around this and have now integrated iSGM with the creation of masks with Topaz software into my workflow. This is something I’ll discuss in the coming weeks.

No matter what method you’ll use, this basic easy method or a more advanced method like Channel masking with calculations and dodging and burning, there are always parts of an image that needs manual selection. I use the Quick Mask Mode for manual selections, but there are other ways. You could use the Pen Tool, which is actually quite a great tool. This is something I will discuss in the weeks to come.


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