One of the most desirable functions of Photoshop seems to be the ability to remove backgrounds from an image. Now, like most processes you can pull off within the software, there are several ways to go about it and every seasoned pro has their own way of doing it. I’m here to share my methods, so whether you need to chop out some product images for a website or you just always wanted to see your grandmother riding on top of a velociraptor which happens to be breathing atomic explosions, you’ll know the ropes thanks to this tutorial. Read on!
First thing’s first.
First off, like anything in a raster-based application (look it up) like Photoshop, the quality of your finished product greatly depends on the quality of your images. Resolution is key here, as cutting something out of a very small image makes the result look just as ugly and pixelated as the original image. Start with an image that is at least 800 pixels both top to bottom and across (hopefully it’s much larger, though). Whatever you’re looking to cut out should also have it’s edges in focus to make things easier on yourself if you’re still learning to composite images.
As a quick note, you should open your image in Photoshop now. In your Layers Panel, you’ll see that the image is most likely locked (assuming you’re opening a jpeg). Double-click on the only layer that appears and give it a name in the dialog box that appears. You’ll see that the name went from “Background” to whatever you named it and that the little lock icon next to it’s name has disappeared.
This allows us to cut sections out of the image through to transparency, whereas if the layer was locked, pressing the Delete key would just try to fill the area in with a solid color. Technical explanation aside, you want your main image layer unlocked before you begin chopping!
The (un-)Magic Wand Tool
The first tool beginners go to when trying to remove a background is the Magic Wand Tool. If you don’t know what that is, here’s a pic of it in the Tools Pallet.
The idea is that this tool will select areas of color variation within an image, so if your background is flat white, for example, it’ll select all the white which you can then delete from your image by pressing the Delete key on your keyboard. If it’s selecting all the elements of an image that share the color you clicked on within your document, you need to click the check box next to the word “Contiguous” in the Tool Options bar below the Menu Bar in Photoshop when you have the tool selected. There’s plenty more options to change the behavior of this tool up there, but I’m not going to get too specific about it. Simply put, this tool isn’t really meant for this purpose. Rarely will you have an image where you can get a clean cut using this.
However, if you insist on using it, how do you get the results you want? By using your brushes, of course. BRUSHES? To erase?!? Yep, that’s what I said. Take my example below:
With my Contiguous option on, I’m able to hold Shift and click on several colors, one after the other, to select a large area of my background. But my selection has cut into the part I’m cutting out and the whole background isn’t selected! I’ll now refine my selection with the Quick Mask mode of Photoshop.
After your selection is made, click the large button at the bottom of your Tools Pallet.
Everything but your selection will turn red. You can now select a hard brush (one without a “fade”) from your Brush Pallet and, using black, paint onto your image. It will turn red like the rest of your selection. Remember, the red area is what will be PRESERVED, not deleted. You can also use the color white with your brush or the Eraser tool to delete the red from your selection. Click the Quick Mask button again and see that your selection has been modified. By using your brushes, you can make a very defined selection, and can then press the Delete key on your keyboard to remove your background!
Do I use this method? Not so much, but I do use the Quick Mask mode for very similar tasks, and that’s what I really wanted to share. But this is by no means the only way to do it.
The quicker, dirtier way to accomplish the task: The Eraser Tool
The method I use most frequently, seeing as how I do a lot of concept work and need to cut images out quickly, is the Eraser Tool method. Basically, I select my Eraser Tool and choose an area of my image to start cutting something out. It takes some practice to know the right size eraser to use (you can modify the size to be smaller or bigger by using your left and right bracket keys on your keyboard respectively). I usually start with something that I know will get most of the details, and then go back with a smaller eraser to get the more intricate sections.
I click once, then hold Shift and click again further along the edge of the image. For an object like a raptor, I’ll usually create a bold, erased outline in about 50 clicks, give or take. Again, I’ll go in and get the details of the object with a smaller sized eraser after the main outline is done. Here’s a shot of that process as I’m doing it:
I’ll then use the Polygonal Lasso Tool, selected by clicking and holding the left mouse button over the Lasso Tool and selecting it from the small menu that appears.
Using this tool, I can go around and click in the erased outline around the grandmother image. I then click outside of the outline once to the side of my last click, and then double-click closer to the first click I made with the Lasso tool. This creates a closed section which I can then delete with (you guessed it) the Delete key on my keyboard. I continue doing this until the immediate area around the object or raptor, in this case, is removed. If this is confusing, check the image:
I can then use my Marquee Tool (the bounding box) to select large areas of the outlying background to delete, or to make a section around my object and inverse the section as before. If the object needs more intricate cutting, I’ll use the Quick Mask mode to select and take out the final bits. Booyakasha! Background gone!
Some quick final thoughts.
After I cut an object out, I like to crop it down to the bare minimum that I need before saving the file. I do this because sometimes the selection tools like the Marquee don’t get all of the background and it ends up showing a little sliver of it when I move my cut out object into another document. The Crop Tool removes all of that information from the document, which is a helpful trick in and of itself.
Also, most professionals would agree that one should use the Pen Tool when cutting out an object or removing a background. This much is true, but if you know how to use the Pen Tool efficiently, you surely know how to remove a background. Now, here’s yet another fun image thanks to Photoshop and the magic of my patented background removal techniques!