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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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7 Steps to More Productive Meetings

I’m not a big fan of meetings, but I also understand how important they can be. Meetings are a great way to share ideas, set goals, and accomplish large tasks that would be complicated to do over the phone or email. But meetings can also be very counterproductive if they are unfocused and lacking executable goals.

Below are seven steps that can help you make the most out of meetings and yield excellent results through preparation, communication and follow-up.

1. Have an agenda prepared. Avoid having the “meeting before the meeting” by creating an agenda covering all topics you want to discuss, any materials or data you would like the attendees to bring with them, goals you want to achieve and a call to action. Send a copy to all attendees noting anything in particular they should be aware of. By notifying everyone of the purpose of the meeting and intended goals ahead of time, everyone can come to the meeting prepared and ready to tackle your objectives.

2. Stick to your time limit. Creating an agenda will allow you to estimate approximately how much time will be needed to accomplish the goals listed so use that as a basis for the length of the meeting. If you are halfway through your allotted meeting time and still on the first point of your agenda, decide if you can still cover all of the topics within the timeframe you scheduled. If not, consult with the attendees on whether they are able to stay for an extended meeting, if they can meet later on to finish the meeting or if the balance can be handled by email or phone. Remember, the longer you keep employees in a meeting, the less time they have to complete their work and the more they feel their schedule has been disrespected. Keep it relevant, on topic and on schedule.

3. Timing is everything. If you work in an office in which employees work different schedules, make sure you are aware of the schedules of those attending as well as what time of day you are scheduling meetings. You wouldn’t want to schedule an action-oriented meeting at the end of the day right before employees go home because they won’t be able to act on the meeting’s objectives until the next day. Meetings right before or after lunch may bring distracted hungry attendees or slightly sleepy siesta attendees, so try to avoid meetings around lunchtime. Friday afternoons can be one of the worst times for a meeting because employees are distracted, thinking about weekend plans and trying to tie up loose ends before they leave for the weekend. Avoid them at all costs. Early morning meetings may prevent employees from being prepared—give them time to get settled in, check email and prepare for the meeting.

4. Be punctual. Since you’ve taken the time to set an agenda and a schedule, make sure you start your meeting on time. This is out of respect to those who were prompt and to you as the meeting setter. If anyone has not arrived by the start time, start the meeting without them and let them catch up on their own time. If you continually blow off meetings or allow late-comers to delay your meetings, attendees will stop respecting the schedule you have set.

5. Stay on topic. Nothing is more stressful to employees than thinking about all the work they have piling up while they are stuck in a meeting. What makes it worse is when others in the meeting go off-topic and the objectives quickly get lost. The meeting has quickly become deemed pointless and a waste of time. Be aware if the meeting starts getting off-topic and nip it in the bud immediately so you stay on topic and respect the time of the attendees.

6. Set clear goals. The whole reason for having a meeting is to discuss an idea, set a call to action and delegate which team members will work to accomplish the goals set at the meeting. Make sure each attendee understands his/her responsibilities and deadlines. This can be written as part of the agenda or created in the form of a checklist, but make sure each attendee has a clear understanding of what he/she is responsible for completing.

7. Follow up. After the meeting, send a brief summary to all attendees re-stating the purpose of the meeting, the goals, responsibilities and deadlines. This reinforces the goals you clearly stated and serves as a reminder of what is expected by all attendees. This also a way to illustrate the big picture of the meeting and how all contributions will tie together in the end.

How do you make the most out of your meetings?

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5 Ways to Improve Your Work Environment

Studies vary on levels of work satisfaction, but most people have been dissatisfied with their job at one point. But just because your job is not as satisfying as you may want it to be, there are steps you can take to make it a better place for yourself and others.

Below are 5 things you can do to make your work environment a more positive place:

  1. Create your own advancement: If there is a skill you would like to learn that is relevant to your current position, suggest taking it on to gain experience from it. This will not only increase your skills in your current position, it can help you advance to newer positions when they open up. By increasing your skillset, you will feel a sense of growth, even if your current job is not currently open to advancement.
  2. Encourage kindness: Chances are you are not the only one struggling to keep a positive mindset at work. Rather than making it worse by joining in rant sessions with your coworkers, perform small random acts of kindness on a regular basis to encourage a more positive environment. Share a cute animal photo, bring in baked goods to share or make an effort to compliment people on a regular basis. Kindness is contagious and will promote a more positive environment.
  3. Focus on your successes: In a negative work environment, there tends to be a major focus on what is going wrong. However, this mindset can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, leading you to make mistakes since that is what is on your mind. Instead, step back and look at your accomplishments each day or week and focus on all the good you have done. If you have the mindset that you do a good job, you will tend to continue doing a good job.
  4. Take breaks: Have you ever had one of those days at work when you realize it’s afternoon and you haven’t even gotten up to go to the bathroom? Studies have shown that people who break up sitting time throughout the day are in better general health than those who do not. Take a short walk outside to give your immune system and mood a boost by getting a dose of vitamin D through a few minutes in the sun. Taking breaks will also allow you to refresh your mind so you can think more clearly, thus allowing you to work more productively.
  5. Make a “happy place”: A lot of offices do not follow rules of feng shui and can be sterile looking or cluttered and not the best visual environment. If you spend more waking hours in your office than anywhere else, you should ensure it is pleasing to look at to improve your mood. Sticking within your company’s decor rules and being mindful of others, decorate your work space with things that make you happy, such as photos, plants, motivational sayings, positive emails, posters or small items. Every time you need a boost of positivity, look at these items and take a break from email and spreadsheets.

What are ways you make your work environment more positive?

Interesting Reads:

7 Methods for Managing Your Email Inbox

I was on vacation for a few days recently missing two days of work. I returned to 123 emails, and this was after notifying coworkers I would be out of the office, using an out-of-office auto-reply and unsubscribing from as many unnecessary email lists as possible over the past several weeks. Email can be overwhelming, unproductive and cause employees to stress about returning from vacation or even lead them to checking work email while on vacation, just to keep up.  However, with a system to manage email, it doesn’t have to be so overwhelming.

So for this blog post, I asked others about their best practices for managing their inbox. Do they set daily goals for the “inbox zero” goal of the ideal state of having zero emails in the inbox as often as possible or have other methods that have helped them tackle the beast that email has become?

Here’s the top 7 suggestions:

1. Handle each email just one time. “When I get an email, I may scan my inbox for an idea of the priority/urgency of an email,” said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn. “If it is truly urgent, and is marked as such, I will usually try to handle it right away, and this involves addressing its content thoroughly in my response, research, or delegation to another person. That way, I know it has been handled, and it can be put in my ‘handled’ file.”

2. Set times throughout the day to check emails. “If email is given a slotted time, it does not interfere as much with productivity, because it is usually a slot of ‘free’ time that it is allocated, meaning that productive time is spent doing more productive things,” said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn. “I have blocked out on my calendar three times in a day when I will review my Inbox for new mail. This way, I have set hours, and have been able to set expectations with others that all mail will be read and disposition handled by the end of the day.”

3. Reduce unnecessary emails. It is very easy to get added to email lists and quickly, you will discover that the bulk of your emails are from these email lists, not genuine emails from colleagues, friends or family. At one point, these emails were relevant but they can quickly take on a life of their own, overwhelming your inbox. “I take my name off email lists if they’re starting to send me too much,” said Lisa A. Nofzinger via LinkedIn.

4. Use alternate methods of communicating when possible. “Email encourages and promotes a ‘fire-and-forget’ culture of passing on responsibility and action,” said Paul Docherty via LinkedIn. “The key to effective corporate use of email is to break this culture and use email as a communication tool, not THE communication tool.” Using the phone instead of email can be the best option when an urgent response is needed. “If something is so urgent that it needs an urgent email, it would seem to me that the sender may even want to think twice about the email as such, and perhaps use it as a follow-up to a phone call, which will normally get immediate attention,“ said Joanne Young, MBA, PMP via LinkedIn.

5. Organize and sort using folders. “I have three folders (excluding the inbox which should always have less than 5 emails in it): Needs reply, awaiting response, archive,” said Simon Barker via LinkedIn. Upon receiving an email, Barker actions it immediately, reading and responding if possible, adding tasking emails to a to-do list and moving the email to the appropriate folder for managing as soon as possible. This helps him keep to his not-quite-as-strict 5 email inbox limit goal. “I also have folders for longer-term follow-up that help me manage the volume of input some days, and allows me to catch up on a later date if still relevant,” said Frits Bos, PMP via LinkedIn.

6. Handle it immediately. “If I get e-mail I instantly deal with it where possible, said Claire Wesley via LinkedIn. “And I deal with my e-mails on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. I hate having millions of e-mails in there!”

7. Minimize email use. “Don’t necessarily look at your emails outside of [your scheduled time] unless you are looking for or waiting for something important that you know is coming,” said Paul Docherty via LinkedIn. “Mobile email is incredibly destructive in this respect. The continual interruption, distraction and temptation can really destroy your productivity. If something is so important that it needs to be dealt with right away, then email is not the medium that should be used to get your attention. People should understand this.”

Several respondents also mentioned not accessing email regularly on mobile devices because it can interrupt productivity and interfere with your life outside of work. “I do not let my emails and smart phone saturated my life,” said Vernita Naylor via LinkedIn. “Life is too short and should be enjoyed as well.”

The underlying theme of all of the responses were to develop a system that works for you, your contacts and your company to maximize the efficiency of handling email. What works for some may not work for other. However, if you have a system in place and stick to it, chances are you will have a better handle of your email.

What has worked for you in managing your inbox?

6 Ways to Encourage Employee Productivity

Every manager wants to have efficient, productive employees, but it’s not a simple task. Employees have different work ethics and oftentimes, companies can get so busy that can be difficult to monitor every employee’s productivity.

However, there are steps that can be taken to improve your employees’ productivity and once you have encouraged them to develop good habits, the rest lies in the maintenance. By following the steps below, you can build up a very powerful, productive, team-focused group of employees that really pay off for your company.

  • Lead by example: Employees have varied motivators, but for most, a manager who does not carry his or her weight is very demotivational. Don’t hold your employees accountable for working harder than you do and commend those who do. Instead, set an example of the ideal employee to demonstrate what is expected and to share your standards with your employees.
  • Communicate regularly and effectively: It is vital to understand your employees’ workloads so do this through regular communication. Set a time weekly to review all of your employees’ projects, set goals and determine a plan of action with them. If you are aware of what your employees are doing on a daily basis, you are more likely to get better results and hold them more accountable for their work.
  • Quantify workloads: Managers are there to manage employees and may not understand the realm of completing employee projects. Because of this, it can be complicated to understand how busy employees really are. Have them calculate how much time each project takes to complete and build a schedule together. You may quickly realize an employee working 40 hours a week has 60 hours of work, so a shift in responsibilities may be needed to even out workloads. This is also very useful for task delegation, so you understand which employees are able to take on more work.
  • Illustrate the big picture: It is very motivating to employees to understand how they fit into a company and how their performance can lead to the company’s success or failure. When you illustrate how each employee’s contributions fit into the company, they can work better as a team because they know how processes are connected.
  • Reward periodically: In busy companies with high stress levels, employees may begin to feel that they only receive feedback when they make mistakes. If they receive enough of that type of feedback, they can tend to dismiss any positive feedback because they feel overwhelmed by the negative. Make an effort to commend employees on a job well done and to let them feel good about their work. When they can maintain a positive attitude about their workplace, they are more likely to perform better, provide higher quality output and make fewer mistakes.
  • Minimize distractions: According to this article, employees spend an average of 2.1 hours per day being interrupted and refocusing. That’s a quarter of a work day! Allow your employees to work with as few distractions as possible by scheduling times to discuss tasks, encouraging a quiet workplace and keeping any interruptions to a minimum. Managers are interrupted once every 8 minutes on average, so by minimizing your interruptions to your employees, encourage them to return the courtesy to you as well so you can all be productive.

Read More About Improving Productivity!

As with any process, it is important to revisit procedures on a regular basis to ensure all processes are progressing smoothly. Following these steps once will not solve productivity programs for good, your program needs to evolve for continual improvement. However, once you have set the initial steps in motion, the follow-up will be much easier and you will find that your employees appreciate the structure and communication.

Recommended Reading

Helpful links:

7 Things on Your Website That Annoy People

With nearly 80% of the North American population being internet users, it is vital for companies, groups and organizations to have an online domain. However, making the below mistakes with your domain can significantly negatively affect your success.

Your website is often the first impression a potential customer has of you and if your site looks like it was made in 1997, there’s a good chance that will be the only impression that customer has of you.

So take a good, long look through your website and if it contains any of these annoyances, you may want to have a re-design meeting with your webmaster.

  1. Pop-up ads: Back in 2002, I interviewed with a company that created pop-up ads. I didn’t get the job, but wished I had for several years, as the company had grown from 5 to 300 employees in a short time and had an awesome office in a swanky location. The company went bankrupt 7 years later because guess what? NO ONE LIKES POP-UP ADS! Okay, that’s not the only reason they went bankrupt, but they helped solidify the general population’s hatred and distrust of pop-up ads because they are annoying and raise the concern of spyware. Bottom line is if you must have ads, keep them simple and embedded on the page; never opt for pop-ups.
  2. Confusing navigation: Have you ever been to a restaurant that labels the bathrooms in a clever way, rather than “men” or “women?”  When you need to use the restroom, the last thing you want to do is have to figure out which door to go through.  This is what it’s like visiting a website and couldn’t figure out where to go or how to get back to the home page.  It seems like common sense, but oftentimes, websites can be incredibly difficult to navigate.  Make sure you have a navigation menu on every page with a clear link to the home page and that your navigation menu is clearly labeled.  Clever can be fun, but when viewers have trouble navigating your site, chances are they won’t come back.
  3. Music: Unless you are a musician or work in a music-related field, it’s not really necessary to have music on your website.  It’s even less necessary to have the music automatically play when the page is opened.  What goes hand in hand with auto-play music is a player that is difficult or impossible to find.  These are both a serious no-no.  Maybe the visitor is already listening to music so your auto-play music will scramble with theirs or perhaps they are in a quiet room or at work and the auto-play music will frighten them.  Either way, auto-play music is usually unappreciated and disliked.
  4. Obnoxious graphics & design: I was recently researching fast pitch clubs and came upon a wealth of sites using some of the most obnoxious graphics known to man.  The sites reminded me of my first website back in 1997 in which I demonstrated every cool HTML and java script skill I had all on one page.  The page was loaded with brightly colored backgrounds, colored text of several different fonts and flashing graphics that could not be stopped.  While I am excited to see my skills have greatly improved over the past 15 years, the sad thing is that pages like my first one still exist.  And they are extremely obnoxious.  People don’t want to be subjected to seizure-inducing flashing graphics or strain their eyes trying to read your funky looking text.  Look at some popular sites such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, or Wikipedia.  What do they all have in common?  They are simple, clean and in the top 10 most popular websites.  Follow their lead and yours will be more popular as well.
  5. Flash-heavy content: So maybe you’ve advanced past the obnoxious graphics phase and gotten a very impressive Flash section on your site.  That’s great, but what if your visitor does not have Flash installed or is browsing on a device that does not support Flash?  You’ve immediately alienated a potential customer or viewer.  In addition, search engines cannot read Flash content so if you are relying heavily on flash to display your content, your site will not get indexed.  If your site relies on Flash for navigation, users may be required to reload and start from the beginning if they click on the wrong link.  When used correctly, Flash can be a great addition to your site, but don’t rely too heavily on it for anything or you will lose viewers.
  6. Lack of content: Websites should evolve, but they should also have some content before going live.  Have you ever navigated through a site only to find that several of the pages you visited were “under construction?”  As a rule of thumb, do not publish a page unless it contains content.  I would rather take the time to contact someone through the site for more information than view page after page of unfinished pages.  If this is your company site, by publishing unfinished pages, potential customers may start to wonder what else you can’t finish.  Leave your best impression by filling pages with pertinent content before publishing any pages.
  7. No contact information: You may not feel there is always a need for a website viewer to contact you, however you should always have a way for them to contact you.  If you have a business site, you most certainly need a contact page so customers can find a way to contact you.  It is also important to provide multiple ways for customers to contact you through business sites.  The easier you make it for customers to contact your business, the more likely you are to get business from them.  Simple as that.

Best Practices

  • Keep it simple.  If users of your site cannot find what they are looking for within a few seconds, they will generally go elsewhere.  Make it as easy as possible for them to navigate.
  • Use Google Analytics to analyze viewer behavior.  If you notice viewers leave your site after a few seconds, find out why and fix it.
  • Keep it up-to-date.  Review your site frequently to ensure content is fresh and current.
  • Test your site.  Have a variety of people test usability and report on what they liked and didn’t like about your site.  Ask everyone from your tech-savvy cousin to your grandmother to check it out.

3 Free Security Software Programs I Recommend

A common mindset is that in order to feel truly secure on a computer, you must use purchased software.  There is a sense of reliability and accountability that is expected from purchased software.  However, I have found several completely free programs that have kept my computers virus-free for years.

Here are my favorites:

  1. Anti-virus: AVG Free Antivirus Software: AVG provides both paid and free versions of their anti-virus software, but the free version has worked wonderfully for me over the past decade or so.  What I like best about it is that it doesn’t wait for you to get a virus—it blocks the virus when it tries to download into your system, warns you, then places it in quarantine, removing it from your system.  AVG also offers a browser add-on to enable safe browsing.
  2. Firewall: ZoneAlarm Free Firewall: Windows offers a free firewall, but for additional security, I have used ZoneAlarm.  A firewall makes your computer invisible to hackers and prevents spyware from sending your information to the internet.  One thing to note about this firewall is when you first start using it, you will receive a lot of notifications about sites.  This allows you to let it know if you trust these sites or not and the notifications go away quickly once you have noted the sites.  It runs quickly without slowing your computer down at all.
  3. Spyware Remover: Spybot Search & Destroy: Spybot is a great program to remove any spyware you may have inadvertently downloaded.  This often happens when you download shareware or programs that have additional programs included that you may not realize you agreed to download.  Run Spybot periodically to keep the database updated, to immunize your computer against attacks and to remove spyware from your computer.  They accept donations, but this is a completely free program.  A file shredder is also included to permanently delete sensitive files.

While paying for security software has added perks, such as increased functionality, full customer support and increased security, free programs can provide just as much.  It can be difficult to decide and trust a free program, so I wanted to share my positive experiences with these three programs.

Also, keep in mind that it is not wise to run more than one anti-virus program at a time—they often view each other as a virus.  When transitioning to a new anti-virus program, install the new one and make sure it is running, then remove the old program.  For extra precaution, it may be wise to disconnect from the internet while doing this to prevent any vulnerability.

As always, be cautious online when downloading files or opening attachments.  One of my most trusted sites to get software is CNET’s download.com.  Software downloads from that site have been tested for viruses and spyware and there are reviews to help you make educated decisions.

What software programs do you recommend?