How to Create a Soft Fade Vignette Effect in Adobe Photoshop CC

The Mask Properties dialog box is shown.
Adjust a vignette by using the sliders in the Mask dialog box.

A vignette, or soft fade, is a popular photo effect where the photo gradually fades into the background, usually in an oval shape. This technique can also be used with a dark fill to simulate a camera vignette which is a darkening around the edges of a photo that was commonly produced by older cameras. By using Photoshop's layer masks you can create the vignette effect flexibly and non-destructively.

This technique is one of the fundamentals of Photoshop because it requires layers, masks, brushes and the masking-properties panel. Though this is a basic technique it can be used as the jumping off point for some more advanced creative projects in Photoshop.

Technique One: Add a Layer Mask

  1. Open a photo in Photoshop.
  2. Convert the background to a layer by double-clicking it in the Layers palette. When an image is opened in Photoshop it always opens as a locked background layer. When you double-click the layer the New Layer dialog box will open and you can either choose to name the layer or leave the default name—Layer 0—as is. A common alternative practice is to convert the layer to a Smart Object. This non-destructive technique preserves the original image.
  3. With the layer selected in the Layers panel, select the Elliptical Marquee tool and drag a marquee selection around the area of the photo you want to keep.
  4. Click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the layers palette. The Add Layer Mask icon is the "box with the hole" at the bottom of the Layers panel. When you release the mouse, the layer will sport a chain and a new thumbnail. The new thumbnail is the mask.
  5. Double-click the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers palette to open the Properties panel for the mask.
  6. If it isn't open, twirl down the Global Refinements area to fade the edges of the mask to create the vignette effect. Four sliders help you get things just right:
    • Smooth: This slider makes the edge transition less sharp.
    • Feather: Moving this in or out will increase or decrease the fade at the edges of the mask.
    • Contrast: Moving this slider makes the edge of the selection sharper and more defined.
    • Shift Edge: Sliding this in or out increases or decreases the diameter of the selection area set in Step 2.

    When you're finished, click OK to return to the Layers panel. Add a new layer under the photo and fill it with the desired background color.

    Technique Two: Use a Vector Shape as the Mask

    The great thing about working with a vector is you can use or create any vector shape and then apply it as a mask for the image.

    1. With an image open, select the Ellipse tool and draw the mask shape.
    2. When the properties window opens, click the fill color and select Gradient Fill.
    3. Set the gradient fill type to Radial and make sure the colors are black and white.
    4. When you return to your layers you should see an ellipse layer above the image. Drag the layer below the image.
    5. With your Command or Ctrl key pressed down, drag the ellipse layer onto the image layer. You will see a mask icon and when you release the mouse the shape has been applied to the image as a mask.
    6. Double click the mask to open the Vector Mask Properties panel.
    7. Drag the Feather slider to the right to add the vignette.

    The neat thing about vectors in Photoshop is they can be edited. To edit the shape of the mask, select the mask in the Layers panel and ​switch to the Path Selection tool. You can drag points out or add points using the Pen tool.

    Tips

    Paint in the layer mask with shades of gray to adjust the overall effect. Just click the mask thumbnail in the layers palette to activate it for painting. Default the foreground and background colors to black and white, then select the Brush tool and—with the mask layer selected—paint over the mask area. Be careful with this technique, given the old adage that "black hides and white reveals." The shades of gray between them control opacity.

    If you decide you don't like the effect, drag the mask thumbnail to the trash icon on the Layers palette and then click Discard.

    To reposition the vignette, click the link icon between the layer thumbnail and the mask thumbnail to move the mask independently of the layer. Don't forget to relink them when you're done.

    You don't have to use just the Elliptical Marquee tool. The Rectangular Marquee or text can be used as a mask in Photoshop, too.