Learning how to cut out a photo is a fundamental skill for any designer. Whether it’s product shots, collages or scans of your drawings, being able to quickly isolate the focus of your image and have the flexibility of a transparent background is invaluable. Being able to do it quickly and cleanly can set you apart from the crowd.
Like many design schools, mine didn’t teach software and instead focused on key design principles – colour, space and typography – this was hard to understand at the time but now makes perfect sense. As such, we were left to figure these things out for ourselves.
This was one of the many things that I spent a long time on moving in the wrong direction using the wrong techniques and spending stupid amounts of time cutting out hair on black backgrounds with the pen tool.
I picked up the following techniques over time mainly from other designers and online tutorials and my methods change whenever I come across an easier way. I find that no two designers work the same in photoshop and there are multiple ways to achieve the same results. I will say that it is always useful to name your layers to keep your document organised (should you or someone else have to revisit the file at a later date) and always try and work as non-destructively as possible, using layer masks and making multiple copies of your layers at intervals during your work.
I’m going to try and make this as clear as possible but please contact me with any questions, if you think you know a better way let me know – always lots to learn.
What you’ll need
- A copy of Adobe Photoshop CS4 or above
- A photo on as a light a background as possible ideally photographed in a lightbox (this technique is useful for images on a dark background but it’s easier to get the hang of on a white background)
What you don’t need
- A Wacom tablet – it makes brush work a bit easier and reduces the amount of clicking but is absolutely non-essential in producing a professional cut out
- Professional photographs – obviously it helps to have a good quality photo (RAW format, around 10Mp, in focus, correctly exposed) but you do not need to hire a studio
Step 1 – Open photo in Camera RAW
This can be also be achieved by right clicking on the image in Adobe bridge if you use it in your workflow.
- Open photoshop, select File > open (open as in windows I think) > Change format drop down to ‘Camera RAW’ > Open
Step 2 – Correct photo in Camera RAW
Camera RAW is an incredible powerful pre-photoshop tool and I use it in my workflow everyday. It’s a good idea to edit photos here before photoshop with an aim to creating a neutral image with correct exposure and colour temperature. These changes are made before destination colour space and bit depth conversions which take place when you open an image up in photoshop.
- Correct colour temperature – drag the slider left or right until you achieve a neutral white background (not too cold not too warm)
- Correct exposure – Increase or decrease the exposure slider until the image looks appropriately lit. Over-expose first and then bring it back until no parts of the image appear blown out (white where there should be colours)
- Adjust blacks and whites – Camera dependant but typically you will need to darken your blacks and increase your whites
- Adjust clarity Don’t overdo this but it can make your image look a lot more crisp and clear with better defined edges
- Zoom in to around 200-400% and click the detail icon in the RAW menu
- Increase the sharpening amount until the pixels look crisper, again don’t overdo, over sharpened images look awful. This is pre-photoshop sharpening and affects the image differently to the sharpening you are likely used to doing in photoshop, we’ll be doing that later
- Increase noise reduction to smooth any grain slightly – don’t overdo, real-life isn’t made out of plastic
- Select open image (the left one of the three in RAW)
Step 3 – Photoshop selection
This is the bit to focus on. We now have our image in photoshop and we need to get rid of that background. The first thing to always do is to duplicate the background layer so you have a copy of the original layer > new > layer via copy or cmd + J. The first thing I always do in Photoshop is cmd + J. Then go ahead and file > save as > photoshop > wherever you want it. Remember to hit cmd + s on a very regular basis so you don’t lose anything if it crashes.
Now we have our unlocked layer to work on, select the magic wand tool w on your keyboard. Make sure you’ve got magic wand selected not the direct selection tool.
Set the parameters to the following:
- Sample size – 3 x 3 average
- Tolerance – 45
- Tick anti-alias and contiguous
Click on the white in the image that you want to remove, shift click any areas that the wand didn’t pick up. Don’t worry about it looking rough for now or selecting some of your actual image, we’ll sort that out soon.
Inverse your selection select > inverse or cmd + shift + i – This selects your image instead of the background.
Step 4 – Refine edge
This is a powerhouse of a tool and has made cut outs infinitely easier. Before I discovered this it was hair shaped brushes and painstaking work with the pen tool. Refine edge does exactly what it says on the tin – refines the edge of the selection that you have made. If you can’t see it, select the magic wand tool again or press w on your keyboard and it should appear in the top information bar. I’ve circled it in the photo below.
Step 5 – Refine edge with the smart radius option
Now we have the refine edge dialogue box open. The first option is smart radius. Go ahead and tick the check box and increase the slider. Photoshop attempts to work out where the edges of the image are itself – very clever! This can be sufficient for some photos with high contrast backgrounds and super clear edges. In the majority of cases it won’t get it close enough all by itself though so untick the box and we’ll move onto the manual refine edge technique using the brush tool.
Step 6 – Refine edge with the brush tool
With the Refine Edge dialogue box still open, click the view mode drop down menu and select overlay. Have a look at what each of these modes does to your image – I frequently flick between overlay and white background. With the brush tool selected, go ahead and brush half on and half off the jagged edge of your image. You will notice that refine edge picks up the edges of your image nearly perfectly. In places where there is not enough contrast it may still get the edge wrong. Don’t worry too much about this as we can correct it easily later on with the layer mask that we will set up with this new selection. You can erase any refinements you made by hitting shift + e to reverse the brush.
If you are unsure about this page, watch the Adobe video tutorial explaining refine edge.
See the photo below for an example of where the brush tool hasn’t been able to pick up a good edge. This is because this area of the image is overexposed and therefore lacking in contrast with the white background. We don’t want this transparency in this section of the image, but not to worry as we will correct this with a layer mask in the next stage.
Now go ahead and select create new layer with layer mask. This keeps the adjustments non-destructive and it means the we can easily edit the selection with the layer mask. Once the mask has been created, click it to select it, press D on your keyboard to reset the foreground and background colours to the default black and white and select a soft, opaque brush, adjust the size to suit your image.
As you can see in the below image, I can brush over the problem area on the layer mask to reverse the selection – this is the advantage of layer masks – what is done shall be undone!
Depending on the final purpose of your image, you may want to cut out the white sections and shadows in the centre of your image. If you do this, you will need to add some shadow yourself to make the image look natural. I’ll cover this in a future post.
Now select the photo next to the layer mask and select filter > sharpening > unsharp mask. I used around 44 in the amount slider but adjust to suit your image. If you’re preparing for print, remember to slightly over-sharpen the image on screen.
Here we have our final image, perfectly ok to place on our product website. What would have taken hours and considerably more expertise to get right, can now be done in a few minutes. That’s how to cut out a photo in Adobe photoshop, comment below if you do things differently.