Green Screen is Not Just for Video

by Chris Converse

posted on 01-14-2019

Using green or blue screens is an industry standard technique for silhouetting actors and elements from their environment. This allows video editors to replace their backgrounds with anything you can imagine. This technique, however, is not limited to video and filmmakers, nor is it limited to just green or blue.

We can use this same technique in a photo studio and use After Effects to prepare the photo for a print project.

Setting up your photo shoot

When you want to photograph something without a background, it is key (pun intended) to choose a solid background color that does not exist in your main subject. In fact, you want to choose a color that is the most opposite as possible — something on the opposite side of the color wheel.

In the example above, we want to photograph these ingredients without a background. This will give a lot more flexibility to move, scale, and position the ingredients on the book cover. Since the main color in the ingredients is green, we chose a bright pink color as the background. While this is not an aesthetically pleasing photograph, this does make the keying process (background removal) easier and more accurate.

Keying (removing) the background color in After Effects

Both After Effects and Premiere Pro have some amazing keying tools for video production and editing. In the case of After Effects, we can save our work directly to a layered, fully transparent Photoshop file. This allows us to take advantage of keying tools in After Effects for a variety of design projects. To learn more about this process, check out Photoshop + After Effects = Awesomeness.

To begin removing the background from our photo, start with a new After Effects project, and import the photo into a composition. Use the New Composition From Footage button from the Composition panel to automatically import the photo, create a composition, and add the photo to a layer in the Timeline panel.

Open the Effects & Presets panel and search for the effect named Keylight 2.1. Click and drag the effect from the list and drop it onto the photo layer in the Timeline panel, or onto the photo in the Composition panel. In the Effect Controls panel, click the eyedropper tool next to the Screen Color setting. With the eyedropper tool selected, click on an average area of the pink background, an area that doesn’t contain any shadows or bright highlights.

Once selected, you’ll see the background color of the composition showing through. Now, we can tweak the setting a bit to add or remove areas of the color being “keyed out.” Next, we’ll bring the screen gain up a little to 110, and lower the screen balance down to 0. Since we’ll get a good “key” from using such an opposite color, the screen balance is not needed to counteract similar colors in the main image. As you use keying tools in future projects, you may need to make adjustments to the selected color, the screen gain, and screen balance in order to optimize the effect for different images.

Exporting a transparent Photoshop file from After Effects

Now that we have removed the background from the photo, it is time to get the image back into Photoshop so we can use it in InDesign (or any other layout tool that supports PSD files). Select the composition panel in After Effects and make sure the preview resolution is set to full.

From the Composition menu, choose Save Frame As > Photoshop Layers, then name and save your file. If you open the file in Photoshop, you’ll see a layer containing your photo, with the background removed. Now we’ll import the Photoshop file into InDesign, position, scale and rotate the file to the exact placement we need for our book cover.

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