There are many ways to remove image backgrounds in Photoshop, or cut people and other objects out of photos, including some moderately-automatic ways. However, I’ve always found the output of most methods don’t produce results that I’m overly happy with (I just tried the “Object Selection Tool”, and verified that it’s output is less than optimal). Over the years, I’ve honed my methods for manually removing things from their background. Below is a collection of notes on various tools:
Layer masks are an absolute must when working with cutting out imagery. Layer masks basically allow you to erase parts of an image, but when needed, you can easily get them back. Once you have applied a layer mask to a layer, you can use the brush tool to remove parts of an image (by setting the foreground color to black), or add them back in, by setting your foreground color to white. On the toolbar, I will generally set the foreground and background colors to white and black, and quite frequently I’ll end up switching them around as needed (it often works out that I take out too much of an edge of an image, and need to lightly add some of it back in. To quickly swap the white and black (foreground color/background color), just hit “x” on the keyboard.
I of course don’t use the marque too much for detail work when cutting out images, but I do occasionally “rough out” the cut using the tool, since I can remove large pieces quickly. When using this method, if you draw a large box with the marquee tool, and set the background color to black, then hit the delete key, it will mask out those areas.
When masking, I’ve found that using a round brush with about 90-96% hardness works the best for cutting organic things out of their backgrounds. The hardness is important, since if it were set to 100% (fully hard), it creates too strong of an edge on things that looks unnatural, and anything less hard just looks bad. I find myself also constantly resizing the brush as I work, to get into tighter spaces or I’ll increase the size to wipe away larger parts of an image. You can use the left bracket “[“ to decrease the brush size, or right bracket “]” to increase it.
People’s hair is always tricky, and honestly a large part of selecting some imagery is how easy the hair will be to cut out. I often times use the “chalk brush” to mimic some of the roughness of hair against a background. It’s sometimes helpful to rotate the brush – in newer versions of Photoshop, you can use shift+left arrow or shift+right arrow to rotate the brush (or just left and right arrows for smaller increments).
Polygon Lasso Tool
For non-organic cutouts – like ipads, monitors, construction images – anything where there is a straight line, I use the Polygon Lasso Tool to draw straight lines, and then create an area to cut out – so I’ll draw a line along the object edge, and then circle back to the original point where I started the lasso tool, make sure the background color is set to black, and then hit delete. While this gets the straight edges of objects, I’ll generally touch things up with a brush, for instance, if I were cutting out an iPad, I’d hit the straight edges with the polygon lasso tool, and then use a brush (with that 90-96% hardness) to clean up the corners, which are rounded.
The Pen Tool comes in handy occasionally. I use it for cutting out things that aren’t quite straight, but are straighter than I can achieve by cutting it out with a pen tool. People’s arms I’ll occasionally use the pen tool for, to get a nice smooth cutout. A pen tool can be helpful for rounded corners on objects, although it does depend on the size. If it’s a small, rounded corner, I still just find it easier and faster to use a brush.
In many instances I like to use a bit of a background fade, so you can see a hint of the image background, but it fades off into a background. This technique can make the image feel more integrated with the page, and it can also come in handy if some of the image is difficult to cut out, like for hair.
To do a background fade, I will generally duplicate the layer of the image, marquee tool the entire image, select my background color to black, and then hit delete. This will hide the entire image on this layer. I will then select a brush, make it super fuzzy (hardness at 0%), and then do a single click (or two or three) with the brush to fade the image near the edges. You’ll have to look out for the edges of images, since if you get close to those, you’ll get a hard line (sometimes I’ll bring make black the foreground color, shrink the brush size, and fade the image wherever a hard line appears). Sometimes I’ll knock the layer opacity down as well, so there is more of just a hint of the background coming through.