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Remove Complex Backgrounds from Images in Photoshop

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While tools like the Magic Eraser can sometimes remove your backgrounds, the fact is you’re going to have to get your hands dirty with the eraser if you have images with complex backgrounds that need removing. While this can be time consuming, you can save yourself a lot of time with a little Photoshop wizardry. Let’s take a look.

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Right click your Background Layer in your Layers Palette, and choose “Layer from Background…” It automatically renames as Layer 0. Simply press OK.

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Your Layers Palette should only have a single layer, your newly unlocked “Layer 0.”

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Press L to select the Lasso Tool. Check your options on your Control Palette near the top of your Photoshop screen. Make sure that yours looks like this screenshot. Most importantly, be certain that “Anti-Alias” is turned off.

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Use your Lasso to draw a rough selection around your image. Don’t worry about being precise—we’re going to cut it out with more precision later.

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When your selection is done, press ctrl shift J to move your rough selection to a new layer with “Layer Via Cut.” You can safely delete “Layer 0” and work only in your new layer.

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Press e to bring up the eraser tool, or find it in your Toolbox.

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Visit your Control Palette again and set your “Mode” to “Pencil.” This ensures your eraser has a hard edge.

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Use the eraser to mouse around and delete the parts you don’t want. Get close to your image, but be careful when cutting into it.

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Keep in mind you can always undo with a swift ctrl z to undo or Ctrl alt z step back through your history(It’s like multiple levels of undo, in case you’re not familiar).

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You don’t need to remove every bit at this point. Once you’ve created a continuous gap around your image, we can start to remove the superfluous stuff you no longer need.

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Here’s where it gets a little advanced. You can simply use your eraser to remove the remainder of your image, but I don’t like spending more time on a routine task than I need to.

Hold Ctrl and click your “Layer 1.” This will load a selection around your entire roughly cut out image.

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Open the Channels Palette and click the icon new layer to create a new Alpha Channel.

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Select this Alpha Channel (likely “Alpha 1”) by clicking it. It also lists a shortcut to it. A simple ctrl 4 in an RGB file will jump right to it.

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Go to Edit > Fill and set your fill Dialog Box to “Use: White” like I show here and simply press OK.

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Your Alpha chanel should fill with white in the shape of your roughly cut out image. Press ctrl d to Deselect.

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Click and hold on the Gradient Tool to bring up the Contextual Menu. Pick the Paint Bucket Tool. Ensure your “Foreground Color” is Black.

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Simply click in the areas you don’t want to fill them with black. If any of your superfluous areas touch your image, it will fill as well, so be careful.

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Ctrl and Click on your Alpha 1 Channel to load the new selection you have just made.

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Press ctrl tilde to return to your RGB. The Tilde key is located to the left of your 1 ! on a USA keyboard.

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Return to your Layers Palette. Press ctrl shift J to move your selected image to a new layer. You can safely delete your old layer or simply choose to hide it.

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Your image is now precisely cut from your background.

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I usually click the adjustment layer to add a Color Fill style Adjustment Layer at the bottom of my Layers. This helps me check my work for halos and mistakes.

Image by Careyjamesbalboa via Wikipedia, in Public Domain.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 10/1/10

Comments (46)

  1. trm96

    I always enjoy PS tutorials cause I often find easier ways of doing things by doing then in ways i have thought of.
    I would love to see more PS tutorials here in the future…

  2. Turbo

    Why don’t simply use paths?
    Create a path (pressing b) and select the image inside that path (Ctrl+v).
    It seems quite faster to me (and somehow precise).

  3. Hatryst

    Nice tutorial…
    You can use Magic lasso instead, that’s much easier

    Keep it up, much appreciated :)

  4. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Turbo: Paths are for another tutorial on another day. Yes, they’d give a good result, but I’d have to explain the pen tool and the paths palette. Seemed out of scope of this article. I wanted to give people one basic way to giving them advanced ways.

    @Hatryst: I personally use the eraser because I KNOW where my image is. The computer is pretty good at guessing but it isn’t perfect. Use what works for you, but this is one of the ways I prefer to work in PS.

  5. RL

    Enjoyed the tutorial. Did you mean to leave the leaf still showing between the left leg and foot? Aaah, didn’t think we’d notice huh? ;)

  6. Eric Z Goodnight

    Boo! I hoped that nobody would.

  7. Turbo

    @Eric Z Goodnight: I understand it. It’s been so long since the last time I used a way like this…
    It’s just that if someone showed me before the magic about the paths I could save much more time and get better results.

    BTW: I love this blog and really appreciate the howtos. I was just trying to suggest a really interesting argument for a new post ;)

  8. RL

    The magic wand is also good for this. I saw reference to the magic lasso in other comments, I’m not sure if this is the same as the wand for selections, I don’t think so, but I’m not so familiar with newer versions and it may have changed.

    My suggestion using the wand however is, of course select the wand, and set the option of the wand to: add to selection. Any portion of the background that borders the portion of the image you want to extract that is a different color or shade can be selected and cut leaving a perfect edge. For instance in picture of the frog on the leaf, the top portion of the leaf should be able to be selected using the magic wand because the shade of green is different enough from the shade of the frog that the edge there is distinct. By clicking the wand anywhere inside that darker green portion of the upper leaf should result in the majority of the top portion of leaf to be selected leaving a perfect smooth edge against the top silhouette of the frog. With add to selection selected, you can continue to do this throughout the photo, finding areas such as i described and these areas will be added to the previous selection. It looks as if the frog in this image could be almost totally extracted using this method. The background is busy but it looks as thought the areas around the edges of the frog are distinctly different enough that by using this method, the edge of the selection would be precise resulting in a perfect cutout.

    The selections can be cut individually or as a whole once you’ve selected all the areas you need.

  9. Eric Z Goodnight

    Not a problem, Turbo. This is one of the things people are ALWAYS asking how to do, so there’s room for alternate How-Tos. There’s no one way to do nearly anything in PS and I don’t mind exploring a lot of these different ways.

  10. Stole Lazarevski

    Using the pen tool to do this is way faster. Not only faster, it`s easier. Just click and drag the pen to get the desired shape. That`s about it. Here`s the actual time needed to remove the background from the same image used in this tutorial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-i3P8GOzgsQ

    Good article thou.

  11. graphicartist2k5

    one way you can cut something out of the background: the eraser tool
    another way you can cut something out of the background: lasso tool
    yet another way to do the same thing: quick selection tool (photoshop cs4/cs5)
    still ANOTHER way to do the same thing: layer masking
    and still ANOTHER way to do the same thing: the pen tool

    that’s 5 different ways of doing the same thing in photoshop off the top of my head. i have used all of these techniques, and i have to say that the pen tool is definitely the best way to get precise selections around a specific object in a picture, while using the eraser tool takes a VERY steady hand.

  12. Dez

    no matter what, these tutorials are always fun and one can learn from it and from all the comments made – thanks

  13. Michele

    Can someone do a quick explain how to do this with a layer mask??

  14. Tommy

    I think it funny to have this long of a tutorial for something that paint shop pro has one tool for.

  15. Emily

    I personally have followed alot of tuts that each had their own way of explaining how to get the results this tut got.

    This is the only tut I have followed that I managed to understand fully and actually complete! If the author started explaining CMYK and other information I don’t need then I would not have finished this tut and gone back to google to search for a tut that could help.

    I am a complete newbie when it comes to photoshop and I don’t understand why people who clearly know the way around photoshop would come to this tut in the first place…

    I just want to thank the author for helping this noob out and succeeding in what you set out to do. I am greatful for the time you took to create this.

  16. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Emily: I’m really glad to hear that!

  17. Ian

    I would not edit the original image, instead make a dupe and uncheck the original image the use the lasso to make a rough selection and the use the wand(subtract) click in the selection and then cut out or make a new layer. simple.

  18. Tim

    I agree with others above. The pen tool is THE BEST way to cut out objects from their background.

  19. Ms Max

    Do these instructions work in Gimp?

  20. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Ms Max: More or less. Stay tuned for GIMP tutorials, as well as other freeware graphics How-Tos.

  21. Mel

    Great tutorial but I would suggest using a mask as it is non-destructive.

  22. marlond

    Eric, nice basics!

    Xio, You blew my mind. creating a copy on a second layer and tweaking it sound way faster and I can’t wait to try it!

  23. Denis

    Man! great tutorial! even me being a novice in photoshop i was able to do it and got a much better result than the magic wand!
    thanks man!

  24. Me

    I thought this was a nice tutorial for any beginner.
    Don’t see why anyone would completely deny its usefulness.
    I personally prefer manual selection, but this seems to work as well.
    Anyone who bashes the use of “destructive” editing…who actually works with the actual “original” piece? Anyone can be creative and try anything without any fear with just “copy/paste”.
    Maybe I’m naive.

  25. SaJal

    Hey but to remove background Gimp is best.

    because both give same quality result

    and it’s very easy

  26. Brandon

    Ya somewhat good tutorial for a beginner but to “Me”, don’t you think a beginner might not thing to duplicate the layer or work from a copy so they cut away half the image and then they are left wondering how to magically get the rest of their image back.

    If your going to teach a noob a better way than the magic lasso tool then teach them the right way. Layer Mask with black and white brush or pen tool path.

  27. Regis

    Isn’t this how everyone has always done it? I mean, except for the channels bit; that’s just superfluous. Once you’ve got a “clean” edge around the thing you want to isolate, then just use your lasso to do a rough selection in the empty area, invert the selection, and delete the scraps.

  28. hmm

    This is beginner? Seems rather involved and time consuming.

  29. haters 2 da left

    Most of the time people who are starting out in photoshop don’t really care what elitist (don’t deny that’s exactly what you are being) photoshop ExPeRtS are doing, they just want to remove an image. As said in several comments there are SEVERAL ways of doing the same thing in photoshop. Why not give the guy a break? It’s obvious he’s not on DA LEVEL like most of you, and the final image looks fine to me, honestly if you spend that much time scouring over an image for it’s “pixel-yness” you’ve really got to find a better way to spend your time.

    Good tutorial THANKS, even I didn’t know about this and I’ve been using photoshop for a lot longer than some torrent kiddies who got cs5 cause “day herd it was cool”

  30. Jimbo

    Come on guys. Lets give credit where credit is due – the author has taken time to post this method. Well done! Its far too easy to be critical rather than encouraging. Take a chill pill people and start giving constructive help.

    This is but one way of ‘manually’ masking an object – it maybe isn’t the method commonly used often by professionals, but at least you get a result that some people will find perfectly acceptable. Keep your comments objective and polite without getting personal. I am sure that he is only doing his best.

    Those of you who can think of better methods. How about you post a link to a place that lets people explore your suggested method. That way everyone can benefit from your expertise and wisdom.

  31. Katharsys

    Much easier and faster to use Pen Tool. Also maybe the most accurate.

  32. boo

    That is the slowest way to do it, just cut a path with the pen tool, make a selection and add a layer mask, you can then do any adjustments directly on the layer mask and still keep the original image intact.

  33. transplantedbuckeye

    I thought the tutorial was great. Photoshop is so powerful that it’s initimidating for those of us who do not use it regularly. So much so, that I find myself using far inferior editing programs for mundane tasks. Thanks for the simple tutorial for those of us who are not experts!

  34. donnamarie

    Excellent tutorials. Very helpful. Love the HowToGeek stuff.
    Thank you.

  35. Right and Wrong

    There are a million and one ways to do things in PS…

    But some techniques are better and easier than others…

    This technique works, but actually takes more experience, and precision than some other techniques because of the destructive nature of the process.

    Pen Tool, and a Layer Mask, (or even just a layer mask) is a much more safe and efficient to accomplish the same task.

  36. vedette

    hey,thanks for this great tutorial

  37. image masking

    It was really excellent post! thanks a lot for sharing..

  38. color correction

    You’ve done gr8 job! excellent blog! I always love to read your post..

    Thanks for sharing.

  39. Rajneesh Gadge

    Thanks Eric!!
    This trick was really helpful for me.
    Keep writing and teaching us.

    Every time I struck between I find a solution at HTG.
    HTG Rocks!!! \m/

  40. jwr

    I realy don’t care about layers only if its a 5 layer or a 7 layer burrito

  41. image masking

    It is really excellent post thanks for sharing

  42. quarterbacker

    why all the hassle! magnetic lasso tool can do a better job and in much less time!

  43. davidthedave

    Just a quick note to all those who just KNOW a better way to do this; I teach photoshop to design students and there are many ways to perform most of its functions. Different methods are appropriate for different situations.

    If somebody takes the time to show you a new way to do something, say thank you and remember it for the future.

  44. yoandoenbici

    too complicated, just do the contour with the erase and then use a bigger pencil or brush to erase the rest

  45. Kitacat

    Lol. Slower or faster, no method takes a ton of time really. And it’s not a bad idea teaching about the channels. Especially when you try to cut out a subject with hair or fur. Learning “the slow way” is how you find the tweaks and controls.

  46. susan

    Thanks so much for this tutorial! It works really well, however I have one question: how do I get rid of the ragged edges around my image? Is there a way to smooth them out? Do you think I, perhaps, I cut too close to the edge with the pencil tool? Thanks again!

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