Mastering the Apply Image Tool in Photoshop

If you are just starting out with Photoshop and commands like Apply Image make you confused then this tutorial is for you. Besides Apply Image it will give you an understanding of how Channels work and also some advanced application of Blend modes.
Final Image

These are the final images that we’ll be creating:

Resources Used In This Tutorial




Introduction to Apply Image

There are a few tools in Photoshop that are often overlooked or misunderstood, either because they’re hidden away or because their use isn’t immediately apparent. Yet these tools provide smart and useful ways to perform various tasks in Photoshop. The Apply Image command is one of them, which doesn’t get used very often, even by users who have been using Photoshop for years.
In this tutorial we will explore Apply Image and its many time saving applications.
Before you start

I have given the links to the images, if you want to follow along. My advice will be, use your own images to get a clear understanding of the principles and their applications. But remember this tutorial is more of an exploration than rather being a process or steps tutorial. So don’t concentrate on the process or steps only to achieve a specific effect, which may be possible to achieve by some other techniques also. But think more about it, why are we using Apply Image? How can we use the same principles in some other projects? What are the advantages? Now let’s start!
Apply Image at a glance

On the surface, Apply Image is useful for blending images, for working with layer masks, and for image editing. But then if you dig deeper you will find that the real power of Apply Image is its capability of blending, enhancing and modifying Channel data.
Following is a list of various applications of Apply Image:
Compositing – Blending or super imposing one image on another image.
Channel Data – Enhancing, replacing and modifying individual channel data. Replacing corrupt channel information with a good one.
Creating Masks – Creating Masks from channels. Also creating a fast base mask for selection of complex objects like hair.
Luminance Mask – Creating complex luminance mask from the image itself.
Non-Destructive editing – Using or rather borrowing information from another layer or file.

Now let’s take a look at the advantages of using Apply Image:
File size not increased, as there is no new layer.
Apply Image offer two additional blending modes not available in the Layers panel—Add and Subtract. In Photoshop CS5 Subtract is also available in the Layer blend modes, but without the Scale and Offset parameters of Apply Image.
Much faster than copying and pasting channel info on layers and blending them.
Blending of images that use different color modes, such as RGB with LAB or grayscale, which is not possible with any other command.

Never use Apply Image command directly on the layer itself. Always duplicate the target layer and then apply the Apply Image on the newly created duplicate layer. The advantage is later we can reject this layer and go back to the original layer. Moreover we can also apply a mask on that duplicate layer to control the effect.
Exploring the Apply Image Feature

The Apply Image command can blend two images together. Before starting to work with it, you need to understand these important rules about using this tool:
Both images that you will blend together must be open, and they must be of the same size.
The Add blend mode will lighten the resulting image. If the result is too light, you can set a negative offset value to darken the image.
The Subtract blend mode will darken the resulting image. It also has an Offset setting, and you can lighten the result by using a positive offset value.
Blending of images that use different color modes, such as RGB with LAB or grayscale, which is not possible with any other command.


Case Study 1: Channel Data modification

You download an image from a stock photo site for your project. You like the image, but the problem is the photographer lightens the image too much. You check the channels and find that the red channel is almost white. You don’t have the time for a new image search. You try the usual procedures like level or curve adjustment and playing with the blend modes. Although the image is getting dark but the detail is not coming back. Another example is in the channels palette, you noticed one channel’s data is corrupted. You thought that if I could anyhow replace the channel data with data from another good channel, then this image would be fine. One more example is you are working with a small size or low resolution image without any choice. You are thinking if there is any process through which you can improve the quality of the image. So let’s try our first exploration with Apply Image.
Step 1

Open the “Female Rep” image in Photoshop. Click the channels palette and check individual channels. The red channel is almost white or blown up. Green channel a little better than the Red channel though there is scope for improvement. Blue channel is better than Green based on the contrast factor, but with some sign of data corruption. The corrupted areas are patchy looking.

Step 2

Click the Layer palette tab and Duplicate the background layer. Rename it “Red data”. Go back to the Channels palette and target Red channel by left clicking on it.

Step 3

Then from Image menu, Image> Apply Image and use the settings from the below screenshot. What we are doing here is blending the green channel data with the Red channel in Multiply mode. As Multiply blend mode darken the image, the resulting Red channel is dark with the good data from the Green channel. Now the Red channel is showing good amount of contrast, which is the sign of a good channel.

Step 4

In the Layers Palette change the blend mode of the “Red data” layer in to Luminosity. In Luminosity blend mode “Red data” layer is taking only the luminance (or Contrast) data from the top layer, but omitting the color shift data due to the previous channel blend. As a result the detail of “Red data” layer is increased. Now duplicate the “Red data” layer and rename it “Green data”. Let’s use the Apply Image on the Green channel associated with the “Green data” layer to increase the detail of the contrast data more.

Step 5

Go back to the Channels palette and target the Green channel. Then again apply Image> Apply Image and match the below settings. Now we are blending the Green channel data with the Green channel itself in Multiply mode. The Green channel is showing now much better contrast due the Multiply blend mode. This process is also known as Self-blending.

Step 6

Go back to the Layer palette and check the image again. As we duplicate the “Red data” and create the “Green data” layer without changing the Luminosity blend mode, the detail of “Red data” is more increased.

Step 7

The resultant “Red data” layer is looking a little dark though. So change the opacity of the “Red Data” and “Green data” to 20% and 60% respectively. Now the image is looking perfect. You can control further by adding separate masks to the “red data” and “green data” layers to hide selective areas. This way you can perfectly control that how much data your final output image is taking from them.

Case Study 2: Mask creation workflow

Creating masks for complex objects like hair or fur is always a dilemma to Photoshop users. We are always looking for the next fastest or simplest method. Apply Image works as a great mask making tool also. With this tool it is possible to rapidly generate a base mask, which you can refine later with other tools. So let’s take a look at the mask making capability of Apply Image. First we take a look at how to create a mask by combining data from two existing channels. Then we will create a mask directly in the layers palette with the Apply Image.
Example 1: Step 1

Open the “Girl Dancing” image in Photoshop. First duplicate the background layer and rename it “Hair mask”. Click on the Channels tab and check individual channels. Here Red channel is showing the best contrast between the dress and background, where as the Blue channel is displaying good contrast between the girl’s hair and background. So we will use data from both these two channels to create the final combined mask.

Step 2

Click on the Layers tab and create a new layer below the “Hair mask” layer and fill it with black, which we will use later for the mask quality check. Now click on the Channels tab and target the Red channel. Right click on the Red Channel and select Duplicate Channel. Target the Red copy channel and from Image > Apply Image and use the settings from below. Here we are blending the Blue Channel information with the Red Channel copy. After selecting the Subtract blend mode the Red copy channel will become almost black. Only the skin and hair (Light areas) area will become light to medium grey. As the Subtract blend mode darkens the output, so the result is predictable. Check the invert option. Now the background area is again white and light areas (skin and hair area) looking much darker. So now the target is to make the hair and skin area black. Then the figure will be a black silhouette. Let’s change the Offset value into -175, but keep the Scale value as 1. This will darken the girl figure into a complete black silhouette and the background will also become medium grey. Now the target is to use another blend mode which will make the black more strong as well as change the grey into white. The Overlay blend mode is capable of all these. Overlay Blend mode lightens or darkens depending on the base color. So light-grey and dark-grey will become white and black respectively. But for that Overlay Blend mode has to be used more than once.

Step 3

Again use Apply Image on the same Red copy channel. But this time uncheck invert and change the blend mode to Overlay Blend mode. Use the screenshot below as a reference.

Step 4

Repeat this process two more times. So after using the Overlay blend mode for 3 times the background is fully white. Though there are a few areas like the upper part of the hand which require further work. Though the objective of this example is to create a quick base mask, but still explore a little more. Select a hard brush and change the blend mode of the brush from the Option Bar into Overlay. Fix those areas by painting over them either with black or white. Overlay Blend mode will ensure that only light-grey and dark-grey will change into white and black. Change the Overlay Blend mode into Normal Blend mode and to fill some white (shiny part of headphone etc.) area within the black figure.

Step 5

Invert the Red Copy channel from Image > Adjustments > Invert to change the figure to white silhouette. Still Red Copy channel targeted, click on the Load channel as selection button (leftmost button), below the Channel Palette.

Step 6

Selection still active, click on the Layers tab and target the “Hair mask” layer and click on the Add Layer Mask button (3rd from left) below the Layers Palette.

Step 7

You can still tweak the mask by using Select > Refine Mask command. Check Smart Radius option and experiment with Radius, Smooth and Shift Edge options.

Example 2: Step 1

In this example we will directly create the mask on the layer itself with Apply Image. Thus omitting the Channel based mask creation process. Open “Kitty” image in Photoshop. Click the channels palette and check individual channels. Blue channel is showing the best contrast between fur and background.

Step 2

In the Layer palette duplicate the Background layer and rename it as “kitty mask”. Press D key to change the foreground and background colors to black and white. Then create a new layer below the “kitty mask” layer and fill with black. We will use this layer to check the quality of the mask. Now click the Add layer mask button below the Layers palette to apply a white or Reveal All type mask to the layer. You can also use Layer> Layer Mask> Reveal All to apply the same white mask.

Step 3

Target the mask thumbnail on “Background copy” layer by clicking on it and then, Image> Apply Image. Self-blend the “Mask channel” (blue channel copy) with the Blue channel and select Exclusion as the blend mode. Exclusion blend mode will make the background black and kitty in light grey. Actually Exclusion Blend mode subtracts either the blend color from the base color or the base color from the blend color, depending on which has the greater brightness value. As a result the white background is now black with the kitty rather dark. But if you check the mask thumbnail you will see that this step creates a grayscale mask in the thumbnail. All we have to do is to increase the brightness of the mask so there is only pure black and white and nothing else.

Step 4

Choose a soft brush and color black. Then start to paint in Overlay mode to change the white shadow area below the kitty’s paws into black. Do not rub; try to paint with even, individual and separate strokes. Otherwise the white fur edge will look very “pixel-sharp” and rugged because of the overlay mode.



Step 5

Again use Apply Image on the “Kitty mask” layer, but blend mode will be Linear Dodge (Add). Apply the same Linear Dodge blend twice more.

Step 6

Press Alt key and click on the Mask Thumbnail to check the mask only. Take a brush with white color and fill all the areas within the Kitty figure where some black is still left. You can still fine tune the mask if you want by using Select> Refine Mask. After finishing painting the mask, Alt-click again on the Mask thumbnail to go back to the masked image display mode.

Step 7

The image is ready for the final phase, which is color and contrast tweak and finally sharpen filter to sharpen the image.

Case Study 3: Creating Luminance Mask

Luminance mask is a kind of mask where we create the mask from the image itself by utilizing the luminance data of the image. Typically, we look for the brightest channel and use that channel data as a mask. It’s good for the selective application of filters like sharpen or blur. First example is quick glow creation process where we will use the Apply Image command to create the Luminance mask to control the glow amount. In the second example we take the Sharpen data and use the Apply Image command to blend that data with the same layer, where Sharpen filter has been applied.
Example 1: Step 1

Open the previous “Female Rep” image in Photoshop again. Go to the Channels palette and notice that blue is the darkest channel. Now go back to the Layers palette and duplicate the background layer. Rename it as “Glow” and change the Blend mode to Screen.

Step 2

From Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur with an amount of 6 pixels.

Step 3

Now target the “Glow” layer and click on the Add Layer Mask button from below Layers Palette. Then click on mask thumbnail and from Image > Apply Image. We will use the Blue Channel in the Normal mode to create the mask image, which will act as the Luminance Mask. Alt-click on the mask thumbnail and check the grayscale mask image to notice that only the bright areas are showing the glow.

Step 4

Let’s further control the glow amount by applying the Apply Image command once again. But use Multiply as the Blend type to darken the grayscale mask image more. This is the final look.

Example 2: Step 1

We will use the same “Female Rep” once more. Open the file and duplicate the background layer and rename it as “Sharpen”. Apply Filter> Sharpen> Unsharp Mask. Use very high values like, Amount 500 and radius 1. Now if you look at the edges carefully, you will see a “halo-effect” around them. This is a common problem of high value Unsharp Mask. One solution is to apply Luminocity Blend mode. But let’s explore another method with Apply Image command.

Step 2

Target the “Sharpen” layer and click on the Add Layer Mask button from below the Layers Palette. Click on the layer mask thumbnail and then Image > Apply Image. Select Green in the Channel field and check invert option. We will blend the green channel in Multiply mode. But we also want to protect the edge and remove that common “halo-effect” associated with Unsharp Mask. Invert and Multiply mode will take care of these two issues. Now the “halo-effect” is gone and then replace by dark color, which is making the edges more prominent.

Step 3

To make the effect much stronger let’s duplicate the “Sharpen” layer. Below is the final image.

Case Study 4: Image Effects

We will explore two creative applications where Apply Image could be used effectively. First example is creating a complex blend between two images. In the second example we will see, how we can use an image as a mask for another image with Apply Image.
Example 1: Step 1

Open “Paint texture” and “Woman” image in Photoshop. We will blend the “Paint texture” with the “Woman” image to create a textured look. Click the “Woman” file tab to make it active. Now to use Apply Image both images must be of same size. Target the “Paint texture” file and Image> Image Size. Then keep the Image size dialogue box open and go to Menu> Window. You will see that at the bottom of the menus both the open files are listed and the active (or focused) file with a check mark before that as an indication.

Step 2

Now click the unchecked file name (i.e. woman.jpg) and notice that in the open Image Size dialogue box width and height values are automatically changed to match the exact size of “Woman” file. This is a handy trick to make two file equal in sizes quickly. Click ok in the Image Size dialogue box to accept the change.

Step 3

Then duplicate the background layer of “Woman” file and rename it as “Texture”. Target the “Texture layer” and Image> Apply Image and match the settings from the screenshot. We are blending the “Paint texture” file by using the Screen blend mode with the “Woman” file. The advantage of this Apply Image based process is that we are not creating a new layer.

Step 4

Now duplicate the “Texture” layer. We will further blend this “Texture copy” layer with the “Texture” layer. Change the Blend mode of “Texture copy” layer to Hue to create the final image.

Example 2: Step 1

Open the same “Woman” file. Now create a new blank file with transparent background, but with same settings matching the “Woman” file. Select Brush form the Tool box and open the brush type pop-up panel by clicking on the brush sample thumbnail to the right side of Tool Preset thumbnail. Then click the panel option arrow at the right side of the pop-up panel and load Wet Media Brushes from the list. Then select the 24 pixel Heavy Scatter Flow brush.

Step 2

Select black as the color and paint in the middle of the transparent layer to create an abstract shape like the screenshot below. Avoid painting at the edges to keep them transparent. Keep this file open for now.

Step 3

Target the “Woman” file and duplicate the background layer. Rename the layer as mask. Now create another layer between these two layers and fill it with white.

Step 4

Target the “Mask” layer and click on the Add Layer Mask button below the Layers Panel. Click on the layer mask thumbnail to target and then from Image> Apply Image. In the Apply Image dialogue box use the newly created Brush paint image itself as a mask. Select the Merged in the Layer field. Select transparency in Channel field. Keep the Blending field as normal, because we want to apply the blending through a mask. Select Mask and choose the image and layer containing the mask. Select the Woman.jpg in the Image field and “Mask” layer in the Layer field. In the Channel field select Blue. Select Invert to reverse the masked and unmasked areas of the channel.

Step 5

Observe that, the painted black area is acting as the mask now. As a result the white filled layer below that is the background now because of the Mask layer’s (the brush painted file) edge transparency. Below is the final image.

Conclusion

I hope that now you have gained a considerable amount of knowledge regarding Apply Image command and its various applications. Looking forward to see your own creative applications of Apply Image command.