Cutting out or singling out something in Photoshop can be a tedious task for a beginner. Detailed images are especially a pain. Things like fine hair or branches present a challenge. In this tutorial I’ll show you a couple of options.
For most beginners the eraser tool is the first thing they think of, when removing backgrounds. Well… No! You never use the eraser to do this kind of job because it’s too destructive. If you erase too much, your fingers have to constantly hover over the undo keys. So the eraser is a no-no. Using layer and clipping masks is a batter choice.
The other first pick for beginners would be the magic wand tool. The problem with this tool is that it’s too imprecise. You can set the tolerance to maximize its usability but most times it won’t really produce the results you want. For simple images it might be enough though. So before trying anything else I always try the magic wand tool on simple images.
Another first pick are the background eraser and magic eraser tool. The magic eraser tool is basically the magic wand that immediately erases the selection. The background eraser tool on the other hand samples the colour under the little crosshair in the circle and erases colours similar to it. It doesn’t erase the entire selection rather just the part inside the eraser circle.
Two other ways to remove a background from an image are the lasso tools and the pen tool. These need a bit of patience and precision. The pen tool is definitely the better choice of the two because it can be curved and edited to your need even after you already placed it. The downside is that it’s more usefull for straight lines and curves. Fine details can’t really be cut with these. Learn how to use the pen tool. Trust me, it’s a valuable skill in Photoshop, Illustrator and even Flash.
All these options are good but most of them are tedious and time consuming. Also, they are not really that good for cutting out hair, fur, small branches, etc. There are is a way of doing this that’s less time consuming and more accurate.
The better way
With your image loaded in Photoshop navigate over to the colour channels (window/channels).
Find the channel that provides the most contrast between the part you wish to cut out and the background. In my case that’s the blue channel.
Make a copy of that channel by dragging it to the new channel icon in the channels panel.
Open the levels panel (image/adjustment/levels). Try to adjust the image to increase the hair and background contrast. To do that move the middle and left adjusters but don’t go too far because you’ll loose image quality. This is really a step you get a fell for as you go. It takes practice.
When you are done select the brush tool. Select the colour black and colour in all the parts that were left a lighter colour to create a silhouette. In my case the shine of the earings needed to be coloured in.
Ctrl (cmd on mac) click on the thumbnail of the Blue copy channel to create a selection in the form of the silhouette.
Now go to the layers panel. Inverse the selection (select/inverse). Select the layer with your photo and create a new layer mask.
Create a new layer and fill it in with a solid colour to test your results.
You can already see the individual hairs that were cut out. Sometimes there is a problem though. The hair usually has a glow on the edges because of the light reflex and hair sheen.
To fix this go back to your channels and ctrl (cmd on mac) click on the thumbnail of the channel we created earlier to make another selection. Go back to the layers panel and create a new layer at the top.
Right click on the layer and select “create clipping mask”. This will create a mask that allows us to use brushes on the layer but not mess up anything outside the range of our cut out. Set the layer blending mode to “darken”.
Now select the clone stamp tool. The way this tool works is that you take a sample from one part of the image and clone it to wherever you want. You just need to know that once you start cloning with the stamp the crosshair will move along with the stamp tool.
To take a sample with the stamp tool press alt with the stamp tool selected. A crosshair will appear. With the alt key still pressed select where you want to take the sample. In our case somewhere in the hair area.
With the top layer still selected start brushing the edges of the hair with the stamp tool. Make sure the stamp tool sample range is set to “all layers”. By doing this you darken the edge of the hair area.
The only downside to this method of cutting hair in Photoshop is that you need a contrasting background otherwise it won’t work. With a busy background the process is a combination of methods mentioned here. There also exists another method to remove busy backgrounds but that’s for another tutorial ;).