This Strobe Feature Lets You Instantly Create a Mask for Your Product Photos

For many photographers, separating your subject from the background can be a time-consuming nightmare. What if you could just click your camera's shutter once and have a perfect mask ready in your camera? Freemask by Hensel lets you do that.

Fstoppers recently released “The Hero Shot: How To Light And Composite Product Photography,” an in-depth tutorial with Brian Rodgers Jr. teaching the techniques he uses to create some of the best product photographs that we've ever seen. Rodgers uses a lot of light painting and compositing. He uses the pen tool a lot. Though the process is meticulous and the results are jaw dropping, his process can be quite time-consuming.

There are certain niche photographers out there that don't have as much time to spend in post-processing. Their jobs require hundreds of images for catalogs or online galleries, and, though the results need to look good, these don't need to be all-star images which they spend hours on. For these photographers, or for any other photographers that simply do not want to spend a lot of time penning out their subjects in Photoshop, there is a simple solution built into many of Hensel's strobes called Freemask. 

Freemask

The concept behind Freemask is to light your subject and your background separately in two back-to-back images taken moments apart. The first step is to set up lights on your background to make it pure white. It's important to minimize the amount of light spill that comes off the background and hits your subject. This may require you to move your subject farther away from the background. The second step is to light your subject as you normally would. Finally, you want to set up your camera to shoot two frames in rapid succession. We suggest putting your camera into high-speed shooting on a two-shot bracket mode with your exposure dialed in manually. 

To activate the Freemask functionality, attach the trigger to the top of your camera, set your background lights to one Freemask channel, and then set your foreground lights to another Freemask channel. When you push your shutter, two shots should fire in rapid succession. The first shot will have a white background and a black subject, and the second shot should produce a well-lit subject. 

Once you have these two shots, you can stack both as layers in Photoshop and, following the instructions in the video, quickly and simply mask out your subject from the background. 

The best part about this system is how quickly products can be swapped in and out with masks. We used a few random objects from around our office and took all these shots within 30 seconds. 

It should be noted that Freemask is only available in certain Hensel lights including the following: Hensel Expert D 250Hensel Expert D 500Hensel Expert D 1000Hensel Integra 250Hensel Integra 500Hensel Integra 1000, and the Hensel Cito 500.

In addition to shooting products, Freemask can be used to mask out people as well. Again, it's important to separate your subject from light spill off the background if you want a clean mask. If you do have light spill, the mask will start to fail around the subjects edges, like the hair, and it will be obvious the image is a poorly executed cut out. We took a quick shot of Lee as an example below. 

When shooting live subjects, you also have to consider movement. Since the shutter needs to fire twice to capture both these frames, no matter how fast it can accomplish that, there is time for movement. Any movement between these two frames will give you an incorrect mask. Therefore, it's important for your subject to stay relatively still as you are shooting. 

For the fun of it, we grabbed one of these quick cutouts and "improved" one of Mike Kelley's architectural images. 

What I Liked

  • Efficiency - Hensel's strobes are ideal for a fast past studio environment. They have a fast recycle time and enough power to light just about any job. 
  • Effectiveness - With a proper light setup, the Freemask functionality built into Hensel's lights work wonderfully and with it you can create quick masks of any still subject.

Needs Improvement

  • Price - With how expensive Hensel's strobes are, buying these lights for Freemask alone is probably not worth the cost.

Concluding Thoughts

Though we were impressed with functionality of Freemask in Hensel strobes, it seems like this functionality is meant for particular photographers who produce a high volume of studio images. The strobes function great whether you're using the Freemask option or not, but they also come with a fairly high price tag. Though Freemask is a nice add-on, purchasing these lights for this feature alone may not be worth the extra dollar when compared to other strobes. With a little extra time and effort, it's possible to produce the same lighting and masking results with other radio triggers, at least for still life shots.

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23 Comments

You can do a similar effect with Pocketwizard TTL/Flex transceivers. Basically the transmitter is set to move between different groups with each shot. So if you have a multi-shot mode going on the camera, even at just 5 or 7fps, it's enough to do that same effect.

Brian Rodgers Jr.'s picture

This trigger system is an interesting concept, I've never seen this before. I definitely won't be leaving my Einstein/Cyber Commander setup for Hensel though.

Looks like there's a trial of the masking software here if anyone is interested: https://www.picture-instruments.com/products/index.php?id=3

David Love's picture

Seems like you could just turn off the front strobe, snap a pic, then turn it back on and still get the same effect on a tripod.

Adam T's picture

This is interesting, I would just turn off the keys but this a nice time saver.

Chad D's picture

Godox has masking ability for those curious that have them which are a lot of folks these days :)

Very cool feature from the Godox and rebranded lights.

Spy Black's picture

Where can I find more info on this?

Chad D's picture

two good google terms to search
alt mask godox
mask function godox

godox has a vid but no words :)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRQX0e5jULQ

if you are on the godox fb page you know scott shom from all his model work he also did a good vid
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkbQ-P03B3I

Spy Black's picture

I see, you can only do it with certain models, although good to see it on the AD600, and I'm sure on the new AD600 Pro as well. I was hoping I could do it with any Godox strobe, like my Godox Li-on speedlights. :-)

I am actually doing that on every product shot I do. Nothing new. Except for subjects that could move, but again you got pocket wizard speedcycler for that.

FYI - This feature is also available in the Broncolor Siros line with their app (using it's Freemask function). Not that it's any cheaper than the Hensel.

fred lefeuvre's picture

That a very good trick that can probably be acheive with any strobe
I need to try it ASAP

broncolor has this capability on Siros monolights and Scoro powerpacks - you can mix and match monolight and pack/head combinations. Options are near limitless. With integrated WiFi and bronControl, you set everything on your phone, tablet or computer. For production work, it's superb. bron lights in Speed mode work fairly well for some shots with movement, whereas Hensel and Godox are more challenging for that use.

Guy Daudelin's picture

I use this technique often on e-commerce product shoots with my Elinchrom ELC Pro HD and ELB400 strobes. They have this feature called "Sequence" which is basically the same thing as this freemask mode with no special trigger needed. I know Godox and Broncolor also have this mode.

There are pros and cons of using that system.

Pros :

Quick
Good for fine details (hair, etc.)
Can be really practical for items with transparencies as you can somewhat keep it in the final mask

Cons :
Need a really good setup studio to do it properly. Any white reflection on your item can be a pain in the ass
Won't really work for moving subjects (although a photographer associated with Hensel found a way to do it and explained it on Youtube, but it's so complicated as a setup that nobody will ever use this)

It's a very useful technique, but as with any tool, it's not the best for everything.

Sergio Miranda's picture

you can do this with any flash, right?

If you use the separate Hensel Freemask trigger / receiver units, yes.

Hensel's Freemask capabilities are also built into their Porty 1200 L and Nova generator products.

Matt Rennells's picture

Lifetouch has been doing this for years with their "school" photography. Always wondered how they could effectively mask out every single one of their portraits and this is it.

Freemask receivers and transmitters can be purchased separately, which will work with almost anyone's strobes. While a Freemask receiver is built into most of Hensel's strobes (including the moderately priced, indestructible Integra Plus), the Freemask trigger is sold separately.

Hensel Freemask is not new, it has been around for about 10 years.

Quality comes at a price. Something that does not seem to get a mention about Hensel generally is that with the ExpertD heads you get the shortest flash duration at about 2-stops down from full power and that can be up to 1/10000 second. Other short flash duration units do so at their lowest power settings.

'To activate the Freemask functionality, attach the trigger to the top of your camera, set your background lights to one Freemask channel, and then set your foreground lights to another Freemask channel.'

No, the background is set to Freemask channel and the motif / subject lighting is set to a normal Hensel channel. Subject / foreground flashes first, background flashes on the Freemask channel second.

The Mask Integrator software automates the masking process. Not only no Photoshop to generate a mask but you can also do background replacement automatically. This software also preserves transparency in objects such as glassware.

Tomek Fryszkiewicz's picture

Hmm.. is this really that helpful? If you get a perfect exposure and your background is pure white, you don’t need the object to be pure black in order to cut it out using channels or even the magic wand or quick selection tool ;) This might be better for very complex objects but as someone said, you can always use a tripod and turn the flash off instead of buying new gear ;)

When combined with the Mask Integrator software you can produce images against any background file that you have - automatically. https://youtu.be/_o6UzUobAbQ

Mark Mclean's picture

Hello product photographers. Mark McLean owner of Pamco-Imaging. We have a dual hot shoe system to allow photographers to trigger two sets of strobes to create that silhouette needed for a good mask. I'm looking for a tester of our system as we just now have put it out there. If you are a working product photographer and interested please visit out web page and use the contact us form. pamco-imaging.com

Thank you, Mark McLean.