How to Create a Transparent Background in Adobe Photoshop
Whether you’re working on a logo, isolating a product, or just thinking your project would look better without its background, at some point, you will need to know how to make a transparent background in Photoshop. Thankfully, the newest, 2020 version of Photoshop makes that job incredibly easy – most of the time. Here’s how to make sure you know all the ins and outs of selecting objects and deleting backgrounds.
When You’re Starting From Scratch
If you’re beginning a new project in Photoshop, you’ll start by staring at a big, blank, white page, and that page, unfortunately, is locked. Your first inclination might be to try and unlock the layer and throw it away, which seems easy enough, but if you do that, Photoshop will throw up an error message across your screen. So here’s how to get around this locked, white background and turn your bottom layer transparent:
- First, create a new layer. The problem with simply throwing away the original locked background layer is that it means you have no artboard to look at. Photoshop doesn’t like this idea. The easy remedy? Simply create a new layer with nothing on it.
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- Open your Layers window, which is under the Window drop-down menu at the top of your screen. Find the page icon on the bottom of your Layers window and click on it. A new layer will appear. This layer should look like a gray and white checkerboard, which is Photoshop’s way of saying, “There’s nothing on this layer.” Go ahead and delete the original white background so you’re left with the transparent checkerboard.
There you have it: a new file with a transparent Photoshop background.
Removing Backgrounds on Objects & Logos
You don’t always start a project from scratch, though, do you? Creating a transparent background behind an image allows you to easily add that image to another Photoshop document without the need for additional clipping, erasing, or otherwise manipulating the image.
Likewise, if you’re creating a logo or using a client’s logo in your work, you’ll want to isolate it on a transparent background. That way, you’ll have the flexibility of displaying the logo anywhere you want, on websites with different colored backgrounds, on displays, direct mailings, or even the side of a semi-truck.
However, if the object you want to isolate isn’t available with a clipping mask, there are a few steps you’ll need to take to get your image standing on its own. Depending on what you want to isolate and how busy the background of your image is, this could be as easy as three clicks, or a job calling for more Photoshop selection tools.
Let’s start with the easiest option.
The Select Subject Tool
In 2020, Photoshop came out with a new tool that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to remove backgrounds. By taking into consideration the document as a whole, the AI can determine which parts of an image are in the foreground, midground, and background, and remove the part of the image you wish to do away with. Here’s how you use the Subject Select Tool:
- Start by making a copy of the background layer, just as we did above in the new document. However, instead of clicking on the page icon on your Layers panel, drag your layer onto the page icon to create a duplicate of your image. You should not see a checkerboard appear; it should be a duplicate of your image.
- Select the eye icon on the Layers panel next to your original background layer. This will hide that layer from view so you are only able to work on the new layer you created.
- Next, click on the Quick Actions icon on your Properties panel:
- In the pop-up, select Remove Background. It may take Photoshop a few minutes of processing before it completes the action, but once it’s finished, you should find your object on the transparent checkerboard.
Hopefully, after using the Subject Select Tool this way, you’ll have the perfect result you were looking for. You can go ahead and delete the original background and save your file (more on saving correctly later).
If your document has more than one object in it, you may have to use the Select Object Tool, which works with the Photoshop AI in a similar way as the Select Subject Tool. You’ll find this tool tucked under the Magic Wand tool in your toolbox sidebar. Select the tool, then create a quick box around the object you want to isolate. Photoshop will locate the object in the same way as described above.
Unfortunately, AI tools don’t always get things just right. In fact, they rarely do. This is why Photoshop supplies us with many other selection tools that can fix these AI flaws.
Your Photoshop Selection Toolbox
If Photoshop’s Subject Select Tool didn’t work perfectly for you, or if you have an older version of Photoshop, you’ll need to know some additional tools that will help you remove the background behind your objects and logos. Which method you use will depend on your specific project. Here’s how they work:
If the Subject Select Tool was close-but-not-quite perfect, you would want to look at the mask that Photoshop automatically generated for you. The mask is the black and white icon that is now linked to your image in the Layers panel. To manipulate this mask, you’ll want to use the paintbrush tool.
- The Paintbrush, or Brush Tool, can add to your mask or take away from it. Simply click on the mask in your Layers panel and use a white paintbrush to add to your mask or a black paintbrush to erase any of the mask that covers too much of your image. Zoom in on your object and use the size and hardness scales at the top of your screen to get your mask as precise as you can.
Unfortunately, some objects need more precision than the Brush Tool allows. If the mask isn’t working for you, go back to your original image and start over with one of these tools:
- Use the Magic Wand Tool to select a specific color for deletion. This is a great option if you have a simple, one-color background. For example, if you have a vector logo on a white background, simply click on the white background, and the Magic Wand Tool will select all the white pixels you want to delete.
- If you have a perfect shape, such as a square, circle, or rectangle, that you want to cut out of a background, you can use the Marquee Tool. Select the object you want to keep and delete the background.
- Use the Lasso Tool if you have a more complex background or an imperfect shape. The three types of lasso tools are perhaps the most powerful tools you can master after the Select Subject Tool. To fully understand how to use this tool, let’s look at an example.
How to Manually Remove Photoshop Backgrounds
Say you have an image with a complex background and it’s proven difficult to isolate your image with a Subject Select Tool. Maybe it’s an image like this:
While this photograph contains a beautiful composition, you only need the rose. Here are the steps you should take to isolate the rose from the rest of the image and create a transparent background:
- Make a copy of the background like we did above and shut off the eye icon next to the original background layer.
- Use the Subject Select Tool. Don’t worry if the selection isn’t perfect at this point, as you simply want to create a mask you can work with. In the image below, I had to use the tool multiple times to select the rose, and it’s still not perfect. We’ll refine it as we go.
- Since we selected everything but the rose in the picture above, we’ll need to make an Inverse of the selection to mask the background. To do this, hold down the Option key as you click on the mask tool in your Layers panel. Remember, the mask tool looks like a square with a circle in the middle. Your image should now look like this:
- Not bad! The top of the rose has a nice edge, however, it needs a little clean-up on the bottom, around where the hay intrudes into the frame. To refine these edges, start by using the Brush Tool on the mask to erase anything you don’t want. Zoom in close on the area you are working on to get as precise as possible. Remember, use the hardness and size controls on the Brush Tool to ensure you aren’t taking away too much of the image. You can also grab the Clone Tool to cover up the pieces of straw that have entered the picture:
Even with a busy background, that rose wasn’t difficult to cut away from the rest of the image. It helped that the rose’s petals were irregular and forgiving. But let’s take a step back and look at the heart-shaped stone in the same picture. Instead of using the Brush Tool, since the lines of the stone are more precise, it might be a good idea to use the Lasso Tool.
The Lasso Tool can select an object quickly and manually from a busy background. If the object you are selecting has straight edges, the Polygonal Lasso Tool is the perfect tool to use, but if you intend to keep the ribbon and key as part of the heart in this image, you’ll need to be able to use more irregular lines and curves. For this, the Magnetic Lasso Tool is best.
- First, select the Magnetic Lasso tool from your toolbox and find a clean edge on your object. Since there are areas of the heart that overlap with the hay, you’ll need to make sure you have the contrast set to allow for some leniency, say, at 50.
- As you follow the edge of the heart with your Lasso Tool, your selection will stick to the object you’re selecting. However, make sure you click your mouse button as you go to keep your Magnetic Lasso Tool on track. Holding down the Shift key will allow you to add to your selection, while holding down the Option key will release part of the selection. Your selection might look something like this:
- Once you refine your outline, select the mask key on your Layers panel. You can always go back and make adjustments to your mask after creating it.
The Eraser Tool is also a helpful tool to use when it comes to creating transparent backgrounds. Keep in mind, however, that once you erase something, it’s gone for good. If you are using the eraser, you should be absolutely sure you will never need to see your background again.
Finally, the last thing you want to happen after doing all this work is to lose it with the click of a wrong button. Saving your work correctly ensures this won’t happen.
Correctly Save Your Transparent Background
Frustratingly, even if you go to the trouble of creating a new transparent background layer, some of the saving options Photoshop offers automatically add back in a white background. The first thing you should do is save your file as a layered PSD in case something happens and you need to come back and make more adjustments. Then you should save your file as a PNG.
A PNG-24 is the best format for saving images with transparent backgrounds, as the technology behind this format allows for multiple layers of transparency. Saving it this way ensures you will never get a pixelated “halo” effect around your object or logo when you place it on a new background, no matter the color of that background. To save your file as a PNG-24, follow these easy steps:
- Under the File dropdown menu, select Export > Export As…
- A dialogue box will appear on your screen. Click File Settings on the right side of the box and set the format to PNG. Then make sure you check the Transparency option before saving.
If you have an older version of Photoshop, this Export option may not be available. Instead, under File, choose the Save for Web option. You can select the PNG-24 format from the dropdown menu that will appear on your screen.
It’s important to know that a PNG-24 and a PNG-8 do not work in the same way, so take the extra step when saving your files and find the correct format. A file saved as a PNG-8 will have that “halo” effect on some backgrounds, as will images saved as GIFs. Also, when saving your file as a PNG-24, make sure you do not select the option to save it as a Small File. This will convert your PNG-24 into a PNG-8.
There are other options when it comes to saving your transparent backgrounds, and there may be times you need to use one of those options for compatibility reasons. If that’s the case, never save your file as a jpeg. Jpegs will automatically convert your checkered backgrounds into white ones, and all your hard work will be for naught.
No matter how detailed the object or logo you are working on is, now you know how best to create a transparent background for it. For more tutorials on how to use Photoshop, check out the Udemy blog, where you’ll find more helpful tips.
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