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

Create a Soft Fade Vignette 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.

Instructions in this article apply to Adobe Photoshop CC 2019.

Technique One: Add a Layer Mask

  1. Open a photo in Photoshop.

    An image in Photoshop CC.
  2. To get the soft white frame, you'll first need to create a white (or any color of your choice) background. In the Layers tab, select New Fill or Adjustment Layer denoted by a half black and white circle, then select Solid Color.

    Selecting a Solid Color Fill in Photoshop CC.
  3. In the Color Picker, to get a solid white background enter R: 255, G: 255, B: 255. You should see the new window change to white. Select OK.

    The Color Picker in Photoshop CC.
  4. Select the Color Fill layer thumbnail (right image) which will be labeled something like Color Fill 1.

    A solid white Color Fill in Photoshop CC.
  5. 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.

    Converting the background to Layer 0 in Photoshop CC.
  6. Select Layer 0 (image) and move it above your Color Fill layer so that you can see your image again.

    Moving Layer ) to the top in Photoshop CC.
  7. 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.

    Drawing an elliptical around the image in Photoshop CC.
  8. Select 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.

    The elliptical is applied in Photoshop CC.
  9. Double-click the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers palette to open the Properties panel for the mask. If it isn't open, expand the Tab Group area to view Properties.

  10. To fade the edges of the mask to create the vignette effect. There are 4 sliders to 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.
    The Mask Properties window in Photoshop CC.
  11. When you're finished, select OK to return to the Layers panel.

    A picture of a rat terrier with the fade vignette applied.

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. Open an image 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.

    Converting a background into a layer in Photoshop CC.
  3. Select the Elliptical Marquee Tool and draw the mask shape.

    Drawing an elliptical around an image in Photoshop CC.
  4. At the bottom of Layers, select New fill or adjustment layer, then select Gradient.

    Selecting a gradient fill in Photoshop CC.
  5. In Gradient Fill, set the gradient fill Style to Radial and make sure the Gradient is Black and White, the select OK.

    Setting up the gradient fill options in Photoshop CC.
  6. When you return to your layers you should see an ellipse layer above the image. Drag the layer below the image.

    The image layer has been moved to the top in Photoshop CC.
  7. 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.

    Adding the mask to the image in Photoshop CC.
  8. Double-click the mask to open the Vector Mask Properties panel.

    Viewing the vector mask properties in Photoshop CC.
  9. Drag the Feather slider to the right to add the vignette.

    The finished product after applying the vector mask in Photoshop CC.

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.

Helpful 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 re-link 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.