What is clipping path ?

During working with two dimensional images, sometimes we need to select part of an image. There are several tools available in Adobe Photoshop® for this selection process, namely – Rectangular Marquee, Elliptical Marquee, Single Row Marquee, Single Column Marquee; Lasso, Polygonal Lasso, Magnetic Lasso tools and Magic Wand tool. There are many other techniques available, among them, the most popular techniques is clipping path. In this article we will discuss about this essential technique.

So, what is clipping path? Clipping path is a vectorized shape created in Photoshop to distinguish between selected subject and background of an image. Even though there are several available tools, but clipping path is most preferable because it is easy to use, can be resized after selection is made, less sensitive to errors and less time consuming. Clipping path is closed aged vector path. That means the path is drawn according to the direction of the designer (not by the color matching logic of the software), as like vector drawing done in Illustrator®. Anything inside the path will be included after clipping path is transformed into a selection; anything outside the path will be omitted from the output.

You might ask why the clipping path is so popular among the graphic designers. First of all, the user can make his or her own judgment in selecting an area of an image, not depending on wizards like magic wand tool. Moreover, the vector selection can always be modified or changed with little effort. All these process takes little time. Clipping path is scalable within the image.

Where to affect clipping path?

When a portion of an image need cutout; Photoshop provides different tool. Designer has to know which tool is effective depending on type of image, on the background to which the cutout portion will be placed. For example when we need to select rectangular or circular portion of an image we use Rectangular Marquee or Elliptical Marquee tools. But these two are not effective for selecting complex shaped object. Clipping path is used to select complex shaped object which is distinctly aged or distinctly identified in an image. It is a vector graphic defining the ages of an image using Bézier Curves. After applying a clipping path results in a nice hard edge. Clipping Path works well in combination with InDesign®, Quark®, Illustrator® as an EPS file. Only an EPS (encapsulated postscript) image file can contain vector data. In Photoshop you can select an area using vector path tracing over the photograph. Create a Mask using the vector lines. Photoshop saves this path so that the part of the image contained within path (Masked area) can be used in layout programs (Quark or InDesign). Selections made by different selection tools can be converted into a path or vice-versa (will discuss in next section of this article).

Many suggest Magic Wand tool is the thing to select a portion of area from which a clipping path can be created. But it is a totally wrong idea. Like many other tools in Photoshop, each tool has its own purpose. No single tool is applicable for all situations. Magic Wand works well when the object has distinctive color compared to its background and do not have complex shapes or complex edges. But still it has some drawbacks.

For example, we can use the following image to demonstrate good Magic Wand tool, for it has a large portion of white background to select. To create a (poor quality) clipping path, click the white area surrounding the ornament with Magic Wand Tool. An area with similar value of white will be selected. Then, while holding down the Shift key (to add to the existing selection), click the slightly darker area surrounding the ornament. The result is shown below (right). All white area selected. Now go to Select/Inverse in order to select the ornament instead of background.

To create a vector path, go to the Paths Palette, click the little sub-menu arrow top tight and select ‘Make Work Path’. You will be prompted what Tolerance to enter. The higher the figure, the more points will appear in the path, and the closer (but more unevenly) it will surround the image. The lower the number, the fewer points will appear on the path, and the smoother (but less accurate) the path will be. Let’s enter 2.0. The work path has been made. Select ‘Save Path’ from the Pallet’s sub-menu.

Now zoom in the path just created. By using tolerance level of 2.0, the image below left shows how inaccurately the path created. If used a lower value, say 0.5, the right side image below shows how ragged the result become.

Now convert the image to CMYK and ensure that it’s 300 DPI, actual size. Now save the image as a Photoshop EPS file using the default values. Now place the image in InDesign. Quark Express also can be used. Select View / Display Performance / High Quality Display in order to get the best on-screen redraw. You’ll see that the tolerance level of 2 gives us a more smooth result, but some areas of background also appears, and cuts into image were we don’t want it to. With tolerance level of 0.5 gives us a more rough edge and poor result.

How to act on clipping path?

So, the next obvious question is how to act on clipping path? When high quality Photoshop Clipping path is needed, the quickest way is to manually draw and achieve a good cutout. More use of the Pen Tool in Photoshop, the quicker and more accurate you will become.

If you click and hold the Pen Tool in the Photoshop Tools Palette the Photoshop gives a list of all its additional tools. The Pen tool, Add Anchor Point Tool, Delete Anchor Point Tool and Convert Point Tool is mostly used. You can also get those additional tools by click on pen tool by holding the Alt key. Also Path selection tool and Direct Selection Tool on Tools Palette are useful to adjust the Path and Anchor Points.

As shown bellow, the trace should be done on the image so that the path is roughly in the center of the anti-aliasing. Anti-aliasing occurs when the computer blends the hard edges of an image object with the background color to soften the difference between the foreground and background objects. In other words, put the path half way between the brown and white. This will minimize chance of appearing the white background with the final image cutout. To fine tune the selection use the Convert Point Tool, Path selection tool and Direct Selection Tools.

Once the path is completed save the path, make sure the image is CMYK with 300 dpi, and save the file in EPS format similarly as mentioned earlier. Now when you put the file in a layout program you will see that the result is much more accurate with much less error of bring in the previous background.

Photoshop clipping paths are great for creating cutout images, but there may be more complex areas that may cause trouble, like hair for example. This tutorial assumes that the background is very plain. Clipping path may not be applicable on more detailed or uneven background.