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Vignettes with Layer Masks

A vignetted photograph softly fades into the background at its edge, typically in an oval shape. It is very common to see old photographs that are printed with a vignette and many people would like to be able to recreate this look on their scanned images. It is pretty simple and there are several ways to do it.
The first and easiest way, is to use the elliptical marquee tool in Adobe Photoshop (or an equivalent program) to make an oval selection around the mark of the image that you want to keep. Then feathering the selection (Select: Feather from the menu), inverting it (Select: Inverse), and then filling that selection with white. That is all well and good, but it can be tricky to get exactly what you want which is why I present a more complicated, but satisfying method.
Fig. 1
First, taking as an example a picture of my favorite kid, add a new layer on top of the photo (Layer: New: Layer from the menu or hit the Create New Layer button on the Layers Window) (Fig. 1). Select all of this new layer (Select: All) and fill it with white (Edit: Fill) (Fig.2).
Fig. 2
Next, Using the trusty elliptical marquee tool, make an oval selection around your subject (Fig. 3). You may need to turn off the white layer to get your selection centered nicely, which you can do by clicking the eye icon in the layers window next to that layer. Once you have your selection made (turn "Layer 1" back on if you turned it off), add a layer mask hiding the current selection (Layer: Add Layer Mask: Hide Selection). This will give you an oval cutout showing your picture with a hard-edged border (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3

Fig. 4
The last step is where the control comes in. Select the Layer Mask. You can tell that the layer mask is selected when the paint brush icon next to the layer is replaced with a gray box with a white circle in it. Now you can blur the mask using the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter: Blur: Gaussian Blur) (Fig. 5). The preview will show you exactly how much the image fades to white. Dial in as much or as little blur as you want. Flatten the image (Layer: Flatten Image) to merge the layers together and you are done.
Fig. 5
You may find yourself thinking that this is an awfully complicated method for creating an effect that can be explained in one paragraph, but you will find that this is more useful in many ways. Since the vignette is only a mask, the underlying image can still be moved around, and this same mask can be used with several different images, keeping the effect consistent on all.
Paul Vaughn is the Director of Digital Services at River City Silver, the premiere photographic and digital imaging laboratory in San Antonio and South Texas. Mr. Vaughn is a graphic artist and braved the mall with his niece for the Pokemon festival, he can be contacted at

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