Adobe Photoshop is the leading image editor in the world, with tools, techniques, and tricks for creating just about anything you can imagine. Changing the background color is one of the millions of editing techniques that open up a world of possibilities for creating unique photographs, illustrations, and digital art.

If Photoshop seems a little overwhelming when you first open it, consider starting with an overview of what the program has to offer to make yourself more comfortable with the software. Udemy also has beginner-friendly courses that can help you learn how to use Photoshop’s extensive set of creative editing tools in an easy-to-understand way at your own pace.

Ultimate Adobe Photoshop Training: From Beginner to Pro

Last Updated May 2021

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Master Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 without any previous knowledge with this easy-to-follow course | By Cristian Doru Barin

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Knowing how to change an image’s background color in Photoshop may seem either unnecessary (what’s wrong with the original color?) or, if you’re already a Photoshop whiz, so far beneath your skills that it’s nothing more than a speck of dust in the wide world of photo and image editing.

If you’re in the first group, this tutorial is for you. We’ll explain why changing background colors is an extremely useful skill for any image-maker, whether you’re an amateur or professional photographer, illustrator, or digital artist. And if you’re in the second category, there are most likely some tips and tricks that could make your editing efforts a little easier.

Regardless of what kind of images you’re working with, knowing how to change background colors opens up a multitude of possibilities to enhance photographs, create new scenes and stretch your creative skills.

Let’s start with the basics

To learn how to change the background color in detailed photographs, you’ll first need to practice changing the background color of a blank slate. 

To start, open up Photoshop and select File>New. In the dimensions dialog box, enter whatever values you like. Dimensions of 10×10 inches at 72 DPI are a good way to start, but if you’d like to print your file, you’d want a higher DPI than that. This image is just for practice, though, so a lower DPI is fine for now. You can select the fill color for the document in the new image dialog box, too, or just leave it transparent. At this point, that doesn’t matter since we’ll be adding color in the next step.

Adding color

Now that our settings are in order, let’s add some color. Click on the paint bucket tool in the toolbar on the left side of your Photoshop screen. If you don’t see it, click and hold down the gradient tool to see a flyout with other options.  Click on the paint bucket when it appears. Then click on the black color square at the bottom of the toolbar – that’s your foreground color. From the color picker that pops up, choose any color that you like. Then click on your “blank slate” document. You should now be able to fill it with the color you picked.

If you don’t like the color you chose, just click on the foreground color square again and select a different color. Then click on your blank canvas again. Repeat as many times as you like to fine-tune the color you want.

Alternate ways to add color

Photoshop has plenty of different ways to get the same effect. You can also open the edit menu on the top toolbar and select fill, then choose the color you want to use to fill the layer. You can also select a new fill color from the new file dialog box that appears when you open a new Photoshop document.

If you’re looking for more ways to play around with color in Photoshop, we have a tutorial for that too.  

Making things more fun

Just filling a blank canvas with color might seem a bit too easy. But it’s the first step toward greater things. Now that you’ve changed the color on your blank canvas, let’s try changing the color of something like a high school yearbook photograph – or any portrait with a simple background, such as one taken in front of a solid color wall.

There are plenty of free images like that on the Internet, so grab one from a source like Pixabay and then open it in Photoshop. Try to find something like this:

This is the point where things get a little more involved. We’ll be using a combination of several different techniques to adjust the background.

To change the background color of your chosen photograph, we’ll work with two specific Photoshop tools: selection and hue/saturation. Both of these have a number of different functions, so they’re helpful for any kind of photo or image editing. Let’s begin by looking at Photoshop’s selection tools. 

Selecting objects in Photoshop

Photoshop has several options for selecting an object so that it can be removed, repositioned, or edited in a multitude of other ways. But they can be tricky to use, and you may end up selecting something you didn’t intend. 

Refine your selection with quick mask mode

The most logical way to select an image is with the main selection tool, which lets you outline an object by hand so that it appears to have a line of “marching ants” around it. But this method requires a steely hand and excellent coordination in order to avoid the moment when your selection tool jumps away from the target and selects some or all of a totally different part of the image. That’s frustrating and time-consuming – especially when you’ve spent the last 10 minutes meticulously tracing every curve of your selection.

The answer? The quick selection tool. This tool allows you to select any object quickly (as the name indicates), add or subtract from your selection, and get out of a sticky situation if your selection doesn’t look quite right.

For this tutorial, your main goal is to separate your subject from the background.  To do this, select the quick selection tool from your Photoshop toolbox, and click on your subject. You will see that it instantly selected an area of the subject, but not the entire subject.  Continue clicking around the subject until you close the selection, but be careful not to get too close to the edges. The quick selection tool automatically identifies similar colors and textures in an object and includes them in the selection. Here, I’ve simply dragged and highlighted the non-water imagery:

Your quick selection doesn’t have to be perfect. If the quick selection tool grabs too many pixels, you can manually subtract them or add them to the selection. But you can also check your selection and edit it in quick mask mode. This option adds a mask or an opaque overlay that allows you to see more clearly what parts of the image are being affected by the “marching ants” that delineate your selection.

Masks are one of the greatest editing tools Photoshop has to offer, and they’re available in every version of Photoshop. With layer masks and selection masks, you can make all kinds of adjustments to selections or entire layers by painting on the image with either white (to reveal what’s on the layer underneath) or black (to conceal it). This lets you edit non-destructively. In other words, adjustments you make to an image through masking simply hide the original image from view instead of permanently altering it.  

Editing a selection in quick mask mode

When you activate quick mask mode, you’ll see that your background is now red. That helps you to identify the boundary between your selection and the remaining parts of the image.  If any of the red areas are touching your subject or some of the original background color is showing, you’ll need to adjust the selection. 

See all that unevenness within the concrete? Time for some cleanup.

To fix any errors in your selection, you’ll need a brush. Select the brush tool from your toolbox and return to the color selection box you clicked earlier to change the background color of your image. Change that color back to black.

Now, when you apply your brush to your subject, you’ll be painting more of the mask onto your subject. If you want to erase parts of the mask, click X. That switches the black square with a white one. And if you click on any part of the masked red area, it will disappear.

With this knowledge, you can adjust your brush to perfect your background’s mask. Click on the brush icon on the top of the toolbar to bring up your brush options panel, where you can adjust the size, shape, hardness, and other features of your brush. Choose a relatively small, hard brush to paint on the areas you want to revise. Keep adjusting your brush and painting on your mask until all these traces are gone.

Note: if you are dealing with non-solid colors and textures, use the stamp tool to fill in the gaps. 

Once you’ve perfected your mask and your selection is as precise as you can make it, hit Q. Now, you’ll see a perfect selection around your subject. 

But you want to adjust the background, not the subject —  so you’ll need to invert the selection.

From the Selection menu at the top of your toolbar, choose Select>Invert, or use the shortcut Ctrl+Shift+I. Now, the selected area has switched from the subject to the background.

Change the background color

We’re finally ready to change the color of the background. For that, we’ll need to open the Adjustments panel. You’ll find it under Image in the top menu bar, and it also pops up from the bottom of your layers panel on the right side of your screen. The adjustments panel offers many ways to change the color of an image or a selection, but right now, we need the hue/saturation option.

Click on hue/saturation, and a new dialog box will appear. Hue controls color choices, while Saturation adjusts the intensity of the color. Move the hue slider until you find a color you like. Change the saturation too, but remember that highly saturated colors tend to look unnatural.

New background colors can also reveal any selection areas that still need fixing.

Here’s another reason masks are such a handy tool. Return to your layers palette, and you’ll see that another hue/saturation layer has appeared. This is your selection. Ctrl+Click on the box next to the label Hue/Saturation, and now your selection has reappeared. This way, you can make as many adjustments as you want to the background. If you’re dissatisfied with one adjustment, simply click on the small icon to the left of the selected layer to change it. You can also hide the layer completely by clicking on the eye icon while you work on other background options.

Another way to adjust color is with the color balance adjustment layer, also found in your adjustments panel.  This technique is more advanced than hue/saturation because it allows you to change the amount and intensity of color tones in the highlights, mid-tone, and shadow areas of the image. That opens up a whole new world of options to experiment with.

If you’ve set the color you want, but something still seems off, just reselect your background and try other adjustment options like brightness/contrast, curves, or levels to fine-tune your selection.

You can create a variety of different background colors by simply re-selecting the background and experimenting some more with colors, saturation, and other options. Each time you make a new adjustment, that adjustment appears as a new layer.

What if you have too many layers?

If you’re doing a lot of experimenting with adjustment options, you might end up with a panel full of different layers all named the same thing. That’s because each time you created a new adjustment layer, Photoshop placed it on top of the last one. You can make them all easier to manage by grouping layers together. That’s especially helpful if you’ve created a variety of background colors.

To fix this, let’s go back to the original image. Click on the eye icon on the top layer and then drag all the way down, stopping just before the original image layer. That should conceal all the new layers. Now, start from the bottom and click the eye icon beside each one until you’ve “unhidden” all the layers you used to create your first background color.

If you’re sure you won’t want to adjust this color again, highlight the layers you just revealed, right-click them, and then click merge layers from the layers menu on the top menu bar. That will collapse all the layers you selected into one layer- but the layers you merged will no longer be editable separately. Now you can rename this layer with a unique name so that it’s distinct from any others you create.

But you might want to keep all of your adjustment layers editable. In that case, it’s a good idea to rename each one so that it’s easy to identify. You might end up with names like “green background hue,” “green background contrast,” or “blue background curves.” That way, you won’t be overwhelmed if you have a lot of layers on top of your original photograph, and you can quickly go back and edit each one at any time.

The skills you learned while changing the background color of an image in Photoshop are skills you can apply to a wide variety of editing techniques. If you’d like to learn more, try this tutorial on how to erase your background.

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