5 Ways to Remove a Background Using Photoshop

Oftentimes, the need to remove the background of an image will arise, whether it is editing a photo for an online store, Photoshopping a model into a different environment or creating a collage of images.  The method you choose to complete this task may depend on your skill level, the background and subject appearance or your software.

Below is my starting photo, my pug Mushi at the ocean last summer.  I chose this photo because the background color blended at some points with her coloring so this would be a somewhat difficult task for a novice.  I also picked a pretty radical background to lay behind the photo to show the effectiveness of my background removal options.

Here are 5 ways to remove a subject from a photo using Photoshop:

1. Magic Eraser: I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of the Magic Eraser tool and the photo below is exactly why.  Photos in which the subject has a similar color as the background just will not erase well using the magic eraser because you need to set the tolerance quite low so you end up getting really blotchy results.  Even using the regular eraser tool requires a lot of work to clean up the mess you’ve created using magic eraser and by the time you start cleaning up the photo, chances are you’ve already erased part of your subject.

When should you use it?  Use the magic eraser when you have a very sharp contrast between subject and background and aren’t too concerned with the smoothness of the edges of the subject.

Notice a chunk of Mushi’s head got erased because the coloring blended in with the sand. Also notice all the speckling by her legs (the whole image looked like that, so I cleaned it with the eraser, but left this to demonstrate how messy the results look without a lot of work).

2. Eraser Tool: So if the magic eraser tool isn’t the cleanest, the eraser tool is a good option, right?  Well it is an acceptable option, but not one of my top options because of all the work it requires to do a good job with it.  I am also hesitant to erase part of a photo because of the likelihood of erasing too much and not being able to easily fix it.  For all the work that goes into using the eraser, you’d be better off using one of the other methods below for a much nicer result.

When should you use it? Use the eraser tool if you are not confident in your skills to remove the background using one of the below methods or if it is a simple eraser job.  For more complicated background removals, I would suggest one of the below methods over the eraser.

This is quite a clean result, but notice I missed a couple of spots. It requires a lot of erasing and close attention to detail. Also, the cutout might be too harsh for some, but it works out okay in this example. You may want to smooth the results, which are difficult using this method.

3. Lasso Tool & Mask: This was actually one of my first times really working with the lasso tool.  It is a little intimidating at first because it encourages you to lasso the entire subject in one move.  I was unable to do this, but because of that, I was able to learn the tool better.  I would recommend getting a rough outline of your subject to the best of your ability with the lasso tool.  Then, you can change to the add and subtract lasso tools to refine your selection.  If you missed a spot, simply circle it with the add lasso and it will be added to the selection.  Do the same with the subtract lasso to remove a section.

When should you use it? I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about this option, but at the same time, I like to have options.  This would be great if you had a pen & tablet so you have better control over your drawing.  Also, it may be a great choice for strangely shaped subjects or if you have multiple small objects to remove.  I prefer the next two options over this right now, but I’m sure I will use the lasso tool in the future.  I just didn’t find it to be as accurate as I prefer in relation to all the work it required to use it.

Mushi’s head & body look pretty good, but you can see the difficulty I had around the legs. The good thing about the lasso is the ability to zero in on sections, but it is very time-consuming and can be difficult to get the precise results you’re looking for.

4. Quick Selection Tool: The quick selection tool is one of my favorites for a quick background removal, however its challenges increase when the background somewhat blends with the subject.  One of my favorite tricks with this tool is selecting the background if the background is mostly solid then inverting the selection to the subject then using the mask.  For example, if I have a photo of a colorful bird on a blue sky background, it’s easier to select the sky then invert the selection to the bird rather than try to select all the different colors of the bird.  The same goes for a model in front of a white background.

When should you use it? I would recommend using the quick selection tool when there is a big enough contrast between the subject and background that making the selection is quick and easy.  If you are having trouble getting the subject separated from the background because there are just too many similar colors (i.e. a colorful butterfly on a similarly colored vegetation background) I would suggest the next method for the most precise results.

Notice Mushi’s nails were cropped a bit because they blended in with the sand, but overall, a very clean look.

5. Pen Tool & Mask: Unlike its name, the pen tool is not used to draw.  Instead, it is used to select points around the subject to get the most precise result.  It can be time-consuming, but if you have a complicated subject to remove, the pen tool and mask will yield the most accurate results.  You’ll want to zoom in closely and set points all along the edge of your subject as well as point out sections you want omitted.  This works great for jewelry photos or very detailed face or model photos.

When should you use it? Use the pen tool when you want the most accurate results and the quick selection or lasso options can’t capture the subject from the back ground accurately enough.

Notice that more of the detail shows up in this image and the subject is sharply cut out with a very light feathering to blend her in well with the background. This is the most accurate result of the 5 options.

What methods have worked well for you in removing the background from a subject?

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