How to Change Background Color in Photoshop (and becoming a Photoshop whiz in the process)

change background phot0shopUpdated by Kiri Rowan on February 25, 2014

Changing the background color in Photoshop is just one of the millions of different editing techniques you can learn through this magnificent program. If you open it up and feel a little overwhelmed, start with a simple Photoshop introductory course to make yourself more comfortable. A course made specifically for beginners will help you familiarize yourself with the program in an easy to understand way.

Knowing how to change the background color in Photoshop may seem either:

A)    Unnecessary

Or, if you’re already a Photoshop whiz,

B)     So far below you that it is simply a speck of dust in a large, large world of photo editing

If you’re one of those out there who are siding with A, you have come to the right place. No, not because I’m going to explain why changing the background colors is unnecessary, but rather explain why you should think twice about disregarding this extremely useful bit of information.

If you’re one of those who are siding with B, you may just find that there are some tips and tricks that will make your editing life a little easier – even if you think you already know the ins and outs of this process. Hey, what do you have to lose?

Regardless of where you stand on the matter, changing background colors in Photoshop is an extremely useful skill that any amateur or professional photographer should have under their belt. After all, a photograph tells 1,000 words – and it’s only successful if the words it’s saying make sense.

If you’re really interested in learning how Photoshop can help enhance your photography, check out Photoshop for Photographers.

Let’s start with the basics

To learn how to change the background color in more complicated photographs, you must first know how to change the background color of a blank slate, young grasshopper.

Let’s begin. Open up Photoshop, go to File → New, then enter in your dimensions (10×10 in at 72 DPI is a good place to start), and voila! You have yourself a blank slate. If you’re planning on printing this you’ll want a higher DPI than 72, but this is just for practice.

Now we want to add some color. Click on the paint bucket tool on the left side of the screen (if you can’t find it, click and hold down on the gradient tool), and then click on the black square at the bottom of the tool box to choose your color. Click on your blank slate, and there you go! A beautiful color! At least I hope you chose a beautiful color.

If you didn’t choose a beautiful color, or are simply unsatisfied with the result, simply click on the same square at the bottom of the tool box, choose a different color, and then click on your canvas again. It’s that easy!

If you’re looking for some extra quick Photoshop tips, there’s a course out there for you.

Making things a little more fun

You may be thinking “that wasn’t very difficult, and that’s not what I came here to learn”. But that’s okay, I won’t be offended. Further along I guarantee you’ll pick up a bit of useful information.

Now that you know how to change the color of a blank slate, let’s learn how to change the color of something such as, let’s say, your high school photograph. I can see you grimacing from here. If you can’t bear to break out that beauty, find another portrait with a simple background – such as one taken in front of a wall.

If all else fails, find a free image via the internet!

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This is where it gets a little trickier. We’ll be using a combination of different techniques, so if you want to familiarize yourself with more in-depth Photoshop techniques, check out this crash course on almost everything you need to know about Photoshop CS6.

In order to change the background color of your selected photograph, we’ll be working with two specific techniques: selection and hue / saturation. Both of these will be helpful in any sort of photo editing situation, so hang on to your hats – it’s about to be a wild ride.

Basic selection (or, I don’t give a *$*#, I just want this thing selected)

We’ve all been there – if you haven’t, you’ll get there, and you won’t be very happy – that moment where you’re trying to select someone’s face and all of the sudden the selection tool jumps away from the subject and selects half of a tree in the background as well.

This moment really, truly sucks. Especially if you’ve spent the past ten minutes trying to meticulously trace every curve of your subject. But have no fear! You’re about to learn how to select any object, and how to get out of a sticky situation if your selection tool decides to bail on you.

Your main goal here is to separate your subject from the background. To do this, select the Quick Selection tool from your tool box (the one that has a paintbrush with a strange dotted line coming out of it), and click on your subject. You’ll see that an area has been selected that is definitely not your entire subject. It’s okay, we’ll work with it. Keep clicking around your subject until they are entirely selected, being careful not to get too close to the edges.

Refining your selection

If your quick selection doesn’t look perfect, that’s okay. You’re about to enter Quick Mask mode, are you ready? Simply press Q and you’ll see that everything outside of your selection now has a red overlay. Hopefully, almost everything in red is your background! If it is, congrats! If it’s not, that’s okay too – we’re about to fix it.

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To keep my sanity, this mask isn’t perfect

I am a firm believer that masks are really, truly, one of the greatest things Photoshop has to offer. Seriously, once you learn how to effectively make masks, you’ll be going nuts and tweaking every single part of your image and staring at Photoshop for hours until your eyes feel like they’re going to fall out of your head. Oh, what’s that? That’s just me? Hmph. Well, maybe you won’t be as into them as I am, but I do hope you’ll get some good use out of them.

If you want to learn a little more about masks before continuing with this step, you should check out this helpful course on Photoshop Selections and Masks.

Take a quick look at the red section of your photograph. Is any of it touching your subject? If it is, you’ll need to zoom in on the area and fix it. Select the brush tool from your tool box. Remember that square you clicked on earlier to change the color of the background? Click it again and change the color back to black, just to make things easier for yourself.

When the top square is black and you use your brush on your subject, you’ll see that you’re painting more of the mask onto your subject. To erase parts of the mask, hit X. You’ll see that the black square has been replaced with a white square. Try clicking on part of the masked (red) area. It disappears! Isn’t that awesome?

With this new knowledge, you can change the size and hardness of your brush to perfect the mask of your background. Right under “edit” at the top of the screen, you’ll see a little dot with a number underneath of it. If you click the drop arrow next to the dot, everything you need to adjust your brush will be right there.

Pat yourself on the back, because you’ve already made a lot of progress! Once you feel like you have perfected your mask, hit Q again. You’ll see a perfect selection of your subject! Now wait, that’s not the background! To select the background instead, hit Ctrl+Shift+I, which will inverse your selection. Now we’re cooking.

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We’re actually changing the color now!

Phew! If you take a look at the right side of your screen, you’ll see an Adjustments panel. Hovering over each button will let you know what each one is – do so until you find the Hue / Saturation button. Click it! You’ll see the Hue / Saturation box pop up. Play around with the hue until you find a color that you’re satisfied with. You can play around with the saturation as well, but keep in mind that extremely saturated colors tend to look unnatural.

Now, here’s why I love masks so much. Go back to your layers palette, and you’ll see that a new Hue / Saturation layer has appeared. Congrats! That’s your selection. Now, Ctrl+Click on that little box next to where it says Hue / Saturation. YES, your selection has returned! This way, you can make as many adjustments on your background as you want. If you’re dissatisfied with one adjustment, you can double click on the small icon to the left of the layer to adjust it, or you can simply ‘hide’ the layer by clicking the eye while you’re working on other background options. Seriously, so cool.

Another one of my favorite ways to adjust color is by using the Color Balance adjustment layer – which is the button that looks like a scale. This adjustment technique is a lot more advanced than Hue / Saturation, because it allows you to change the amount and intensity of certain color tones in the highlights, midtones, and shadows. Sometimes this just opens up way too many options.

This is where you’ll go nuts. One tiny movement from yellow closer to blue will have you going back and forth forever wondering “IS THIS TOO YELLOW? IS THIS TOO BLUE?” and you’ll continue to stare at the screen wide-eyed until your roommate comes home and snaps you out of it. I may or may not be speaking from personal experience…

If you have the color you want but something still feels off, you can re-select your selection again and mess around with Brightness / Contrast, Curves, and Levels. Curves is my favorite out of the three, because you can mess around with not only brightness and contrast, but colors as well.

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See all that blue around her? That’s what happens when you don’t spend enough time perfecting your mask.

If you want to create a variety of different background colors (for variety, or in case you’re super indecisive like me), you can do so by simply re-selecting the background and playing around with the color some more. Each time you make an adjustment, that new adjustment will show up as a new layer.

You can master color correction and tons of other techniques in this great CS5 and CS6 online course.

Oh no! I lost control and ended up with 30+ layers!

Yep, this happens to the best of us. A slew of Hue / Saturation, Levels, Curves, you name it. So many layers all named the same thing, yikes. Luckily, there’s a way to fix this. Each time you created a new adjustment layer, it got placed on top of the last adjustment layer. We’re going to group layers together – this is especially helpful if you’ve created a variety of background colors.

Let’s go back to the original image. To do this, click on the eye icon at the top layer, then drag all the way down, stopping right before the original image. This should hide all of your new layers. Start from the bottom, clicking the eye button one by one until you’ve un-hidden all of the layers you used to create your first background color.

Now, if you know that you’re absolutely in love with this color and you’ll never need to adjust it again, highlight those layers you just un-hid, right click them, and click “merge layers”. This will shrink them all down into one layer! You can then re-name this layer to be “background option 1” or “awesome green background” or something of the sort.

If you think you’re going to want to keep all of your adjustment layers editable, I’d go through and rename each layer. You may end up with something like:

Green background hue
Green background contrast
Green background brightness

Blue background hue
Blue background saturation
Blue background curves

Etc. This way, you’ll know exactly what each layer does and you won’t be overwhelmed with the massive amount of layers on top of your photograph.

See? Photoshop is fun! The skills you used while changing the background color in Photoshop are skills that you can apply to a wide variety of editing techniques. If you’re itching to learn more, check out this online course that teaches you tons of different Photoshop secrets. Happy editing!

Want more opportunities to hone in on your Photoshop skills? Why not try out these courses?