Photo Manipulation Tutorials: How to Remove Background from an Image in Photoshop

A photograph without a background can be used for many different purposes – you can stick it in a collage, add it to a logo, or slap it on a webpage. This is probably why removing the background is one of the first things a designer learns to do in Photoshop.

In this tutorial, we will use the Refine Edge tool in Photoshop to remove the background from an image. The Refine Edge is a powerful tool for making complicated selections. You can learn more about it and other advanced Photoshop tricks in this Photoshop CS6 crash course.

[Note: The ‘Refine Edge’ command used in this tutorial was first introduced in CS5. Older versions of Photoshop will not work with this tutorial. ]

How to Remove Background from an Image

For this tutorial, we will use this stunning picture of a falcon we found on SXC.hu. It’s free to use, so you can go ahead and modify it as you like.

When we are done, the image will look something like this:

Step 1: Create a Layer from the Background

After you’ve downloaded and loaded the image in Photoshop, you can turn it into a new layer.

To do this, look at the Layers panel in the bottom right corner (if you can’t see it, press F7 or go to Windows -> Layers). You’ll see a thumbnail of the image with a label that says Background and a lock icon next to it.

Right click on this layer and select ‘Layer from Background’ from the context menu.

You’ll get a prompt asking you to give the layer a name. Call it anything you want (descriptive names help you find layers later).

If all this sounds Greek to you, try taking this Photoshop CS6 Quickstart guide to get up to speed with the software.

Step II: Choosing the Right Selection Method

This is the tricky part.

There are a number of ways to make a selection in Photoshop. Some of these are:

  • Magic Wand Tool: This tool makes automatic selections based on differences between the background and foreground of the images.

  • Quick Selection Tool: A semi-automated version of the above. You have to specify the regions that are to be selected.

  • Lasso Tool: The lasso tool is great for manually selecting parts of an image, not so great for extracting the background from the image.

  • Color Range: Accessed from Select -> Color Range, this tool enables you to remove the background based on the color difference between background and foreground. Particularly powerful when the background is of a solid color not used extensively in the image (say, a black cat on a white background).

In this image, we can’t use color range or Magic Wand tool because the color of the bird is very close to the color of the background. Instead, we will use the Quick Selection tool. You can access it from the floating toolbox to the left.

Step III: Making the Selection

With the Quick Selection tool selected, hover your mouse over the image. Your cursor will change to a plus sign (+) inside a circle.

Clicking on any part of the image will automatically select its nearby parts. The selection will be highlighted by Photoshop’s ‘marching ants’ outline.

Since we want to select only the falcon, hold your mouse and start drawing around the edges of the bird. Try to select only the bird and not the area around it. If you do end up selecting outside areas, simply hold down ALT (on Windows) key – your cursor will change to a negative sign (-) – and deselect these regions.

Don’t worry about making it pixel perfect – we have another ace up our sleeve to do that. For now, try to get as close you can around the edges as quickly as possible.

This is what your final selection should look like:

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Step IV: Refining the Selection

The selection looks pretty nice as such, but it still feels a little artificial – like a cardboard cutout. We want it to look more natural, so we will choose the ‘Refine Edge’ tool.

You can access this tool either by clicking the ‘Refine Edge’ button in the Quick Selection top menu.

Or you can find it in the Select -> Refine Edge menu.

Click on this button and the Refine Edge window will pop-up.

To make our job a little easier, click on the little arrow next to ‘View’ and choose ‘On Black’. Alternatively, you can press ‘B’

Your image should now have a black background. The background hasn’t actually changed. This is just a preview to make our selection clearer.

To refine the selection, we have a few options:

  • Use Edge Detection: By enabling ‘Smart Radius’ in the Refine Edge menu and gradually increasing/decreasing the radius, we can arrive at a much more natural selection.

  • Adjust Edges: By adjusting the smoothness, contrast, etc. of the edge, we can get a much clearer selection.

  • Color Decontamination: This final tool ‘decontaminates’ – i.e. removes background color from the edges.

The starting point of any edge-refinement exercise should be the edge adjustment option. Make sure that ‘Smart Radius’ is enabled them move the radius slider around until your selection looks more natural.

For an even more refine selection, click on the ‘Refine Radius Tool’ icon next to ‘Edge Detection’:

Your mouse cursor will change to a + sign. Draw a rough outline around the selected image. Your selection will look much more fine now.

Play around with the ‘Adjust Edges’ option if you want, though you really don’t need it for this image (much more helpful when working with hair or fur).

Once you are happy with the selection, choose ‘New Layer with Layer Mask’ in the ‘Output To:’ drop down menu at the bottom and press ok.

The background of the image, as you will see, is gone!

You can now do whatever you want with the image.

You can add a solid background color:

Or add a different background image:

You can use this image in comics, web graphics, or a print design – the possibilities are limitless!

As you can see, working with Photoshop isn’t really that difficult. To learn more advanced topics in Photo manipulation, try this course on Adobe Photoshop CS6 for beginners.