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Post Production Tips

3 Ways To Remove Backgrounds In Photoshop

By Max Bridge on April 27th 2016

Being able to remove a background in Photoshop is an important skill for all photographers to learn. Even if you don’t regularly create composites or have any other need for this skill, there is bound to come a time when an ability to create accurate masks around your subject is required. After all, that’s what we’re really doing when we remove a background, isolating our subject. Rather than using the selection to remove a background, you might, for example, use it to apply some very precise local adjustments. Here’s 3 simple techniques to get you going.

Method 1 To Remove Background In Photoshop

Refine edge is not so much a method as it is a step, but it’s an extremely important one which can be used in all sorts of selections. The image below was shot on a pure white background, but we’re going to remove and replace it.

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To do so we first need to create a rough selection. In this example, I used the magic wand tool. There are, of course, many other methods which would also work. Having made a rough selection with the magic wand (it doesn’t need to be perfect) we head over to the Refine Edge / Mask dialog.

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Within this dialog you’re presented with many options, and the Edge Detection options are excellent for selecting hair. Adjust Edge is a quick and easy way to manipulate your selection and most options will probably sound pretty familiar to you. The results of Smooth, Feather and Shift Edge are self-explanatory. Contrast, on the other hand, may seem a little less obvious but is in fact just as simple as all it does is sharpen your edge. If you had a very soft edge and set contrast all the way up it would become hard.

[REWIND: HOW MUCH DO YOU KNOW ABOUT MASKING IN PHOTOSHOP? YOU MAY BE SURPRISED]

At the bottom of the dialog we have the Output options which include Decontaminate Colors. Decontaminate Colors will attempt to remove what Photoshop deems to be a color bleeding from the background. That may be green if your image was shot on green screen, or, as is the case here, white. As you can imagine, removing white can become a little problematic if there are bright tones already present on your subject.

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The Output To drop-down menu allows you to select whether your adjustments are applied directly to the selection / layer mask or are copied to a new layer etc. I often find that an image will require a few rounds of Refine Edge. Not every edge is the same and hence we shouldn’t treat them as such.

I usually paint over the area I want to adjust (see image above), make my adjustments, and then export that to either a “new layer with mask” if using decontaminate color (other options are greyed out), or Output To > Selection and paint on the adjustments I have made to the original layer mask. I rarely apply my adjustments directly to the original layer mask as I like to paint them on afterwards and control where those adjustments will appear.

[REWIND: 5 LAYER MASK TIPS YOU MAY NOT KNOW]

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Having made various passes with Refine Edge, I fairly quickly arrived at the result you see above. Now, I could have placed this subject on an entirely different background, an outdoors scene for instance, or a composite I’m working on, and so on. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination, though it is important to note that if you wish to place someone into another scene altogether, special attention MUST be paid to things like direction of light, color temperature, and intensity of shadows. It is never as simple as cut and paste.

Method 2 To Remove Background In Photoshop

The second method to remove our subject from the background utilizes one of my favorite tools in Photoshop: the Pen tool. The Pen tool was not always one of my favorites, in fact, I regularly did all I could to avoid using it. It’s something that requires practice but once you master it, it will become an indispensable tool. I’ve tracked down an excellent video from the guys over at Phlearn which will show you exactly how the Pen tool works.

As you can see, the pen tool seems complicated but really isn’t, and worth the learning curve. But why use the Pen tool if the Magic Wand and Refine Edge will work? The simple answer is that they won’t always do a good job. There are many many instances where the Magic Wand simply cannot make a decent selection, or you may find that the Pen tool comes in handy to further refine a selection you’ve already made. Say, for instance, the Magic Wand was almost good enough but couldn’t quite figure out one area. Use the Pen Tool to do that part and apply that to your mask.

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In the photo above, I used the Pen tool, as well as many other methods, to make selections of every aspect of the can; from the logo to the lettering. I could have used the magic wand for the can itself but it would have struggled to select all the intricate areas of the label, the second ‘L’ of ‘Bull’, for example, would have been an issue due to its tone.

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Method 3 To Remove Background In Photoshop

The last method I’ll be covering today is Luminosity masks. I’ve spoken about luminosity masks with some frequency before, so hopefully you’re fairly familiar with them by now. Luminosity masks allow us to select various areas of our images based on their luminance. We can select very precise areas of darks, midtones, and highlights. In terms of removing backgrounds, we could use those selections to remove skies, make precise masks of hair, remove a white background etc. Check out this video from Jimmy McIntyre which explains what Luminosity masks are and how you create them.

Using another headshot, I quickly created a selection of the white background using a luminosity mask, you can see the initial selection below. Using Jimmy’s Photoshop Panel, Raya Pro, it took seconds to create a number of masks. It was then simply a case of choosing the best one and adjusting it.

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To adjust the mask I used a number of techniques such as inverting the mask with Ctrl + I (CMD I on a Mac), and adjusting it as a whole by selecting the mask and hitting Ctrl + L (CMD + L on a Mac) to bring up a Levels panel. I darkened the shadows and brightened the highlights which corrected some of the nasty edges you can see above. To fill in some of the areas the mask missed, it was a simple case of selecting them using the Lasso tool and filling in the selections. A final round of Refine Edge left me with the mask you see below.

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Final Thoughts

As you would have by now picked up, removing backgrounds in Photoshop can be quite difficult, and it completely depends on the image. You will rarely find that one technique will work for every photo, which is why it’s important to master multiple methods. Once you do, it will open up a whole new realm of possibilities; creating stunning composites, precise adjustments, replacing skies, removing people, all sorts, which makes it applicable to essentially every genre of photography.

Editor’s Note:  If you have a big volume order or don’t want to do it step-by-step in Photoshop, you could also hire freelance pros or professional product retouching services to remove backgrounds and make basic photo retouching for anywhere from $2 and up depending on the complexity.

If composites are your thing, or you’re looking for a way to replace dull skies in your photos, make sure you check out the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack. It has tonnes of skies which are suitable for all kinds of scenarios. You can find it here.

About

Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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2 Comments

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  1. Biju Toha

    Luminosity ! I think it would be a great one for me and my job. Max! You showed a selection of the white background using a luminosity mask. Could you please explain more about it?

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  2. Antonio Zavala

    Definitely going to be trying the luminosity technic. Thanks, great read.

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