Tutorial Tuesday! Removing Backgrounds in Photoshop CC


In this post we’re going to start with a Photoshop basic: how to remove the background behind the subject of your photo using the selection brush and the quick mask feature. You know,



This is technique useful for a lot of reasons. Maybe the background is ugly and you want to replace it. Maybe you’re making a fun composite. Maybe you want to swap your head onto Will Graham’s in that ladder scene in S1 Hannibal. Hey, I don’t judge…

I’m going to show you two ways to get rid of unwanted backgrounds, or, to look at it another way, extract a subject from a background to place in another image. This is a beginner level tutorial, and hopefully in-depth enough to not just follow along, but actually help you understand the tools.

Ok, let’s do this.We’re going to start with this image that I got at the awesome free stock photo website, Gratisography.


Seriously. I love this site’s stock photos

The only tool we’ll need for this method is the Quick Selection tool, It looks like this:


The quick selection tool is sometimes hidden under the magic want tool. The buttons above it allow you to add or subtract selection areas.

Quick selection is basically the magic wand, but controllable like a paint brush. Use the default brush (on the left), or the +brush in the middle to paint over your subject. Try your best to stay within the border of your subject. Increase or decrease the size of the brush as necessary using Ctrl + [  and  ].

Your selection will now be shown as marching ants around your subject:


Looks pretty good, but if you look closer, I didn’t quiiiiiiite get it all in some places, and in others, the brush grabbed a little more than I wanted:


I was lazy in this area, but it’s an easy fix!

Now change over to the + or minus version of the brush and touch-up the areas, adjusting brush size and zoom as necessary to get a good, clean selection. You can really zoom right in in and get pixel perfect. Once you’re happy with your selection, hit the Refine Edge button on the palate at the top of your workspace. This will trigger a dialog box for your adjustments.


The Refine Edge feature helps your selections looks more natural

This is basically a preview of your selection, outside the context of the current background. You can choose the view mode, but I prefer to use the black background because it gives the best contrast. Obviously if the image’s final destination is a white or light background, use the white background view mode. You do you.

Now, fiddle around with the settings. Honestly, the best way to learn what they do is to slide each one allll the way to one end, then the other and observe the result. This is true of most adjustment features.

refine_boxEdge Detection:This auto-refines your line a little for you. If you have a good initial selection, sometimes this adjustment is all you need.
Smooth: Self-Explanatory
Feather: This blurs the edges. Depending on how you’re going to use your image will determine the amount
Contrast: How hardcore the selection line will be
Shift Edge: This shifts the selection in or out, giving you a little wiggle room.
Output: When working with color images, check this box and choose how you’d like to recieve your shiny, newly refined selection. New layer? New Document? It’s up to you! For this tutorial, I’ll pick the New Layer option. This outputs it to, you guessed it, it’s own new layer.

Our final selection on a new layer.

Our final selection on a new layer.

Now you can grab this and drag it into any image you want, or add a new background to this one!

Just grab and drop to a new background!

Just grab and drop to a new background!

OKAY… So, that’s one way to do it, and that way works well when the background is relatively solid and the subject is well-defined. But sometimes your photo is more like this:

This is where the Quick Mask feature comes in handy. This little button is tucked away at the bottom of the left sidebar and looks like this: quickmask You can also access it by just hitting Q. With the quick selection tool, we can grab selections, but with Quick Mask we can paint them on so you only select exactly what you want. How sweet is that?

Before we start going at it with the mask, select what you can with the Quick Selection brush tool, just like we did in the previous photo. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect,  but the better your selection, the less work in the next step. One you have your rough selection, go ahead and hit Q to activate Quick Mask mode. The selected area will now be overlaid with red, like this, which highlights the selected area:

Whoops, even missed some inside! Not to worry!

Whoops, even missed some inside! Not to worry!

Once you’re in Quick Mask mode, select the Brush tool and set it to a soft brush. Set your colors to black and white by hitting D (for “Default colors”). Now, paint on your selection!

Painting with black will ADD to your selection. White will REMOVE it from the selection.  (Use X to quickly switch back and forth between black and white while working) Zoom in as you work to get accurate selections.


No, I mean REALLY zoom in. Get in there. It’s the only way to get little stuff like the antennae or the tiny little spaces between the flower petals.butterfly5

Looks awesome! Now, hit Q again to exit Quick Mask mode, and you’ll have the marching ant selection again.

From here, it’s exactly the same process as the first method. Switch to the Quick Selection tool as before, which will give you the Refine Edge button at the top again.  Refine the edge to your satisfaction, and you have yourself a perfectly cut butterfly!

Drop into a new background and you're good to go!

Drop into a new background and you’re good to go!

That’s it!

There are about as many ways to do this as there are to de-fur a feline, but I have found these to be the quickest and most effective ways to extract images from their backgrounds. But what about hair? I hear you ask. Hair is really floopy and thin and a TOTAL PAIN!

Hey man, I hear ya. This method words well to an extent, but when it comes to hair, it’s close, but not perfect. I’ll be putting out a tutorial on that soon, but it’s a bit beyond the scope and difficulty of this one. But soon, kay?

Thanks for checking out my tutorial. Hope it’s been helpful! Feel free to comment with any questions!

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