design

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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Combining Text and Images to Increase E-Blast Deliverability

When I create a marketing email, I make a point of combining text and images.  One reason this should be a standard practice is to decrease your SPAM rating.

Email clients have become very intelligent over the past several years and have been trained to filter out messages containing particular words.  However, spammers stepped up to the challenge by omitting those words from the email and instead, embed them as an image.

Because spammers started relying on images rather than text, email clients increased the SPAM rating on emails containing a large percentage of images.  So the higher percentage of images you include in an e-blast, the greater chance it will be marked as SPAM and never read.

Additionally, relying on an image versus text can be risky because if the image does not show up correctly, or your audience is viewing as text only, they will not get your message and will likely unsubscribe.

The below image is a screen shot of an e-blast I received today that relied on images to provide the message:

As you can see, there is no message, only an apology and a frown face, which doesn’t do me  or any viewer any good.  Wait, I just received this message, why isn’t the image available and why is it referred to as a page? This makes me question their planning.  If this was a scheduled email marketing message, they should have tested prior to sending to ensure all links were working correctly.

Their biggest saving grace in such a situation is the message at the top that reads “This message contains graphics. If you do not see the graphics, click here to view.”  This allows the viewer to see the intended message, but should not be relied upon for the viewer to click the link to see the message.

To ensure your customers get the message you are intending for them to receive, make sure your e-blast is mostly text with minimal effective images added where necessary.  Viewers prefer images over text, but as far as email deliverability a primarily text message will get your e-blast in their inbox.

7 Steps to Increase Usability

Whether you are sending an e-mail, designing a website or setting up a store, the easier you make the experience for your customer, the more likely they are to be a repeat customer and refer your company.  This also goes for anyone with a website they want others to view.

Using the following steps, you can create increased usability and a more positive customer experience:

  1. Determine the call to action and create a clear pathway to the end result.  What do you want your customer to do?  Whatever end goal you are intending, make it as easy as possible for your customer to get there.  If you’re sending an e-blast and you want them to purchase a particular item, link directly to a place where they can purchase the item.  If you want customers to request a quote from your website, place links in very visible places.
  2. Create a layout prior to designing. Sketch a basic layout of everything you want to include, create category headers that make sense and start designing from there.  That way, you have a clear idea of how everything should fit together and it will make sense to your audience as well.
  3. Keep it clean and concise. Use short paragraphs, bullet points and limited words so viewers can easily skim to find what they are looking for.
  4.  Break sections into chunks with headers. There are times when you need to have a lot of information on a page, but you can make it easier on your viewers by breaking it down.  For example, on a health website, perhaps someone has been diagnosed with a condition and only wants to know about treatment.  By breaking the condition article into smaller sections, the viewer can quickly skip to the treatment section.
  5. Test and observe. The best way to determine usability is to give it a test run.  If you are getting ready to launch a new website, get a group comparative to your target audience and have them test it and provide usability feedback.  Adjust as needed to make the website easy to navigate.  Another option is to use a website heatmap to see precisely where your viewers are clicking.  Integrating Google Analytics is also an excellent way to track trends, clicks and time spent on your website.
  6. Use bullet points and text formatting. Rather than write a paragraph that will likely be skimmed, try breaking the information into a bulleted list for easier reading.  Bold important keywords that your viewers may be looking for.
  7. Make links (and non-links) obvious. It may look cleaner to not underline links, but we have been conditioned to understand that underlined text is usually a link.  That being said, be cautious when underlining non-linked texts because it can be confusing to the viewer.

By making your website, e-blast, store or whatever easier for others to navigate, you are increasing your chances of them returning.  What other ways have you found to increase usability?

Increase Your PowerPoint Efficiency Using a Slide Master

One of the easiest ways to streamline your PowerPoint presentation is by using a Slide Master.  Slide masters are the skeleton of your presentation where you can define the complete design of your presentation and make universal changes to your presentation by altering one slide.  The slide master enables you to tell PowerPoint exactly what you want your presentation to look like and should be used every time you create a presentation.

How to Access the Slide Master
In current versions of PowerPoint, you can access the slide master by clicking on the View tab and selecting Slide Master.

Accessing the Slide Master

Accessing the Slide Master

What to do with the Slide Master
Once you are in the slide master view, you are presented with the slide master (the top slide, labeled with a 1) and a variety of layouts to customize.  Start customization with the  slide master:

    • Master Layout: use to add place keepers header/footer, date, slide number, title or text.  This will place boxes on the slide that you can customize, such as adding your company URL to the footer.
    • Themes: use to change the colors and background image.  You can also add your own custom background.
    • Colors, Fonts, Effects: use to customize the appearance of your text

Customizing Layouts
Once you have customized the master slide, you can customize the layout of the other slides.  You may not know exactly what your slides will need to look like, but chances are, you know you will have a couple slides with bullet points and one image, a slide comparing two images with bullet points and so on.  The layout slides allow you to customize how each of these slides will appear.

You can move the text boxes to fit better with your background, select where images will be placed or set a place keeper for a chart you will be inserting.

Using the Slide Master & Layouts
Once  you have edited the slide master and are ready to work on your presentation, click on Close Master View from the Slide Master tab to return to your presentation.  Add new slides by clicking ctrl + M and select the layout by right clicking on the slide, click on Layout and selecting the layout of your choice.

If at any time you need to make a change to the slide master or a new layout, go back to the slide master, make your adjustment, then return to your presentation.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Don’t stick with the default.  If you’re trying to impress, sticking with the default Times New Roman font and standard colors tell your audience that you didn’t put a lot of effort into the design.  Take a little time to choose a design that matches what you are presenting to give a more tailored feel to your presentation.
  • Keep it clean and simple.  Make sure your presentation is easy to read, the font color contrasts with the background for ease of reading and the font size is large enough (but not too large) for all to read.  Be sure to keep your presentation on the eye-catching versus distracting side or you will quickly lose your audience.
  • Mind the file size. Graphically-heavy presentations quickly build up to large file sizes and if the file size is too large, your or your recipient’s email client may reject it for being too large.  Use a cloud or drop box to easily share files over 10MB (some clients don’t allow over 5MB) and compress images using the Compress Pictures feature on the Format tab. Note compresses images can greatly decrease the quality so try re-sizing prior to inserting in the presentation.
  • Mind PowerPoint version compatibility.  What looks incredible on PP 2010 can look awfully strange on PP 2003 or XP.  Granted, by now, most companies should have more current versions, but for those who do not, your incredible presentation could look terrible to them.  If you are sending your presentation to a client, it may be a good idea to save it as a pdf so you know exactly how it will appear to them.  (Need a pdf writer? Try CutePDF free pdf writer!)

Using the slide master is one of the easiest ways you can make a professional looking presentation with ease.  For more information, check out the Microsoft PowerPoint Slide Master Page.

10 Reasons Why This E-Blast Sucks (and how it could be improved!)

E-blasts can be effective ways to engage the interest of your customers or to gain new customers.  However, unless they are carefully planned out, they can be a disaster like the one I received today.

Here’s an image of the e-blast pieced together.  It was so long and rambling, I had to cut it into multiple pieces.  I circled the 10 offenses outlined below.

Awful E-Blast

Here are 10 things that ruined this e-blast for me:

  1. There was a misspelling in the subject.  That is my number one reason to instantly dismiss the legitimacy of an e-blast.Misspelling in Subject
  2. The logo is blurry.  Hopefully, an advertising piece such as this would be created by the marketing/promotions department and they should have quality versions of your company logo.Distorted logo
  3. Strange choice of words.  “We most likely handled…” This isn’t horrible, but it is awkward and could have been worded differently.  It also doesn’t make me feel valued if I was a customer last year—don’t they know who their own customers are?Strange word choice
  4. Broken image link, the most obnoxious offense in e-blasts.  Need I say more?Broken image link
  5. Unorganized rambling list of both cities and entire states as serviced locations.  A better way to have handled this would be to either omit it completely since there’s already a map illustrating general service locations or to list cleanly in alphabetical order, and choosing either cities or states.  Unorganized rambling list of both cities and entire states as serviced locations
  6. “Just to name a few…” Last time I checked, 37 was not just a few.  I get what they’re trying to say here, but in this case, I’d even accept 10 as a few.  But 37 as “just a few” is obnoxious.Just to name a few
  7. Inconsistent capitalization combined with centering and odd sentence splitting makes it confusing to read this simple sentence.  This is a sentence, so don’t write it in heading format.Inconsistent capitalization
  8. Extra spacing between lines.  There is a random extra space in this paragraph that is highly distracting and unnecessary.Extra space
  9. Unnecessary abbreviation.  With all the space the rest of the email took up, they choose to abbreviate the contact information.  It took me a minute to try to figure out what w or e stood for.  Either spell out phone, fax, email and website or omit it so I don’t get distracted trying to figure out what they’re saying.Abbreviation
  10. Incoherent sentence.  It looks like maybe the sentence had previously read “Click here to unsubscribe, or reply…” but that’s not what it says now and it doesn’t make much sense.  Kudos for offering an unsubscribe option (as required by CAN-SPAM law) but strike for the odd way of wording it.Unsubscribe

Here’s how I re-did the e-blast to show an example of a clearer, cleaner message.  Click to view the fully functioning html version.

Better-E-Blast

What are things that annoy you about bad e-blasts?

Editing with Blending Modes Part 2: Evening Out Colors with Layers and Blending Modes

When working with photographs of products, sometimes the colors are uneven, especially when working with rubber items, such as basketballs.  That’s been my project lately, making rubber basketballs look their best.

In learning more and more about blending modes, I discovered a great method using our good ol’ friend the paint bucket mixed with a new layer and blending modes to really even out the colors in a product.

Here’s how I did it:

  1. Open image in Photoshop
  2. Save PSD file
  3. Duplicate original layerDuplicate original laye
  4. Adjust color using Image –> Adjustments –> LevelsAdjust color using Levels
  5. Crop out unnecessary backgroundCrop out unnecessary background
  6. Select object using the Quick Selection or Pen ToolSelect object using the Quick Selection or Pen Tool
  7. Hide the background layer then create a Mask to remove balance of backgroundHide the background layer then create a Mask to remove balance of background
  8. Refine Mask to smooth the edgesRefine Mask to smooth the edges
  9. Make any major cosmetic edits (i.e. uneven lines, folds in the logo) on a new layer. It can be helpful to circle all the flaws so you are sure to fix all of them.Make any major cosmetic edits (i.e. uneven lines, folds in the logo) on a new layer.
  10. Duplicate the color edited layer and merge with the editing layersDuplicate the color edited layer and merge with the editing layers
  11. Select the first color to even out using Select –> Color RangeSelect the first color to even out using Select --> Color Range
  12. Adjust the color selection with the Quick Selection ToolAdjust the color selection with the Quick Selection Tool
  13. When color is selected, create a new layerWhen color is selected, create a new layer
  14. Make a Mask of the selection on the new layer (make sure the image is selected, not the mask by clicking on the image on the layer list before moving on to the next step)Make a Mask of the selection on the new layer
  15. Using the Paint Bucket Tool, click alt to use the eyedropper to select the correct color (or, if you have a PMS color, select that color from the color library).  Click on the image to flood the masked selection with the colorUsing the Paint Bucket Tool, click on the image to flood the masked selection with the color
  16. Select FX –> Blending Options to select a blend modeSelect FX --> Blending Options to select a blend mode
  17. Review the Blend Modes to see which has the best effect for your image
  18. Work with the Advanced Blending options until satisfied with the re-coloring
  19. Repeat from step 11 for the balance of colors if needed
  20. Review for additional cosmetic editing required
  21. Trim to desired sizeTrim to desired size
  22. Save for Web & DevicesSave for Web & Devices

Check out the difference between the original photo and the edited image!

Before & After

Before & After

NOTE: When working with multiple color adjusting layers, it is helpful to name them specifically, i.e. Red Layer, Blue Layer

Was this helpful to you?  Let me know how you have used blending modes in Photoshop!

Staying Organized in Photoshop

If you’ve ever had to work with a Photoshop file someone else created, you may notice they have a much different way of organizing the layers than you do. If you have to make multiple changes, you may find their organization or lack thereof can really delay your progress.

Don’t be that person.

Working with layers can be great, but it can also be maddening, especially if you’re working with several layers. The good news is that Photoshop offers some great ways to stay organized so you can work efficiently. The two best organizational tools for me are layer names and grouping layers.

Take the time to label your layers. Chances are, you’re not going to remember what Shape 3 copy 5 is offhand, so labeling it “footer blue box” will ensure you don’t confuse it with “header red box”. If you’re like me, you create duplicate layers while working, then delete unneeded copies when you are complete. Labeling can also help remind you which layers to keep and which to delete. Sometimes I’ll even name a layer “footer blue box delete” so it’s there if I need it while I’m working, but I remember to delete it at the end since it is unnecessary.

Group layers. Maybe you didn’t feel up to committing to putting layers in a group, but it is an incredible time saver! Say you have an information box consisting of a headline, text, 2 photos, 2 photo captions, a bounding box and 2 photocorrection layers—that’s 9 layers that you probably won’t need to mess with much once you have completed them and 9 layers you are likely to have to move multiple times across your document. By grouping layers, you preserve the location of each facet and can easily minimize and mazimize the layers for editing. You can add or remove layers by dragging and dropping and by highlighting the group layer, you can move all at once.

I usually start by creating the first couple layers of the group, highlight the layers I want grouped, then click ctrl + G to group them. If I have one of the grouped layers highlighted, the next layer I add automatically gets added to the group, which makes it very easy to add to the group.

Another way this comes in handy is with my templates. If I am creating multiple designs on the same background or product, I can leave the constant layer ungrouped, then create new groups for each different design. This keeps a consistent look and makes it incredibly easy to create multiple designs in a short time frame.

Ungrouping layers is just as easy as grouping: click on the group and press Shift + crtl + G or just right click on the group and select Ungroup Layers.

Lastly, before I got into grouping, I always made a point of organizing my layers by where they appeared on my document. Header items were at the top of the layer list and footer items were at the bottom. This way, if I want to make a change, I know approximately where I can find the layer on my list.

By staying organized in Photoshop, you not only save yourself time, but if you need to send that file on to someone else, they can quickly pick up where you left making you more of a pleasure to work with.