• Price When Reviewed: 299

  • Pros: Effective on difficult subjects, with automatic analysis aided by a range of manual adjustments, plus a forced edge tool for small areas where automation fails.

  • Cons: Pricey compared with rivals. Not particularly easy to use, though rivals aren’t necessarily easy either.

  • Expert Rating: We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10We rate this 8 out of 10 We rate this 8 out of 10

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The market for still-image cutout masking applications has slowed down since Adobe built the Extract tool into version 7 of Photoshop. You can often do a better job with manual mask brushing for simple hard-edged objects, but Extract isn’t very good with complex edges such as hair, or challenging subjects involving transparency or unfocused edges. In these cases, Photoshop can fall short (or take you ages to perfect), and a dedicated application is often the only way to get natural-looking cutouts.

Vertus’ Fluid Mask plug-in for Photoshop uses a new ‘heligon’ technology to automatically analyze image content. The company claims its system is three-to-six times faster than rival methods when handling difficult edges and backgrounds. The Mac version is available now, while a Windows version of the software is due in the autumn.

Fluid Mask processes images in a similar way to the human eye and brain, with automatic detection and analysis of colours, gradients and textures.

When you fire up an image into the application, the heligon technology analyzes the content, and builds a model that divides it into regions representing objects, backgrounds, and ‘transitional’ sections of the image. This analysis is used to create a data set called the Image Information Layer, which can be modified by the user to fine-tune the result.

At the basic user level, you apply brush and selection tools to define ‘keep’ and ‘delete’ areas, after which Fluid Mask recalculates its own model for the transitional edge areas. However, you can edit the results, as there are plenty of manual refinements and adjustments available through the program’s menus. You can zoom in and preview the mask effect on small selected areas to check progress as you go along. You can choose a temporary backdrop colour to contrast with the foreground.

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The eventual goal is for the final result to only contain a final colour, detail, and texture from the foreground object, with clean, semi-transparent edges that allow seamless compositing onto plain backgrounds, or any other background image. 
Compared to rivals from Corel and onOne, Fluid Mask looks expensive, though the £299 price does include six months’ free upgrades.
Fluid Mask takes a lot of practice to use effectively. There are five QuickTime tutorials to accompany sample files, and the manual is good. However, you can’t just use it out of the box. When you do get the hang of it, though, the results are worth the effort. The ability to adjust for transparent or even unfocused objects is really impressive, and Fluid Mask handles difficult subjects with ease.
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