This article was first published in 2009 and remains one of our most popular posts. Recently we asked Gabrielle Gosha to update it for 2016 Photoshop users. Enjoy.

Background Eraser Tool

Photoshop offers many different techniques to remove an unwanted background from an image. For simple backgrounds, using the standard magic wand tool to select and delete the background may well be more than adequate.

For more complicated backgrounds, you might use the Background Eraser tool. This tool samples the color at the center of the brush and then deletes pixels of a similar color as you “paint.” It feels like painting with acid. Let me show you how it works.

Step 1: Open your Image

Start by grabbing an image that you want to remove the background from. I’ll be using this image as it features areas that range from easy removal through to more challenging spots.

The example image.

Step 2: Select Background Eraser

Select the Background Eraser tool from the Photoshop toolbox. It may be hidden beneath the Eraser tool. If it is, simply click and hold the Eraser tool to reveal it.

Finding the Background Eraser Tool

Step 3: Tune Your Tool Settings

On the tool options bar at the top of the screen select a round, hard brush. The most appropriate brush size will vary depending on the image you’re working on. Use the square bracket key ([ or ]) for quickly scaling your brush size.

Brush adjustment panel

Next, on the tool options bar, set the Sampling to Continuous, the Limits to Find Edges and a Tolerance of somewhere between 20-25% is a good starting place.

Limits settings. Find edges.

Note: A low tolerance limits your eraser to areas that are very similar to your sampled color. A higher tolerance expands the range of colors your eraser will select.

Step 4: Begin Erasing

Bring your brush over your background and begin to erase. You should see a brush-sized circle with small crosshairs in the center. The crosshairs show the “hotspot” and delete that color wherever it appears inside the brush area. It also performs smart color extraction at the edges of any foreground objects to remove ‘color halos’ that might otherwise be visible if the foreground object is overlayed onto another background.

Note: For the example image, I actually used a rather high Tolerance than the 20-25% recommended above due to the wide range of blues behind this subject.

Beginning the background removal process

When erasing, zoom up your work area and try to keep the crosshairs from overlapping on the edge of your foreground. It’s likely that you will need to reduce the size of the brush in some places to ensure that you don’t accidentally erase part of your foreground subject.

Step 5: Choosing Effective Limit and Sampling Settings

Even though I have used a smaller brush to work around the hair and neck area, the Background Eraser has still managed to gouge a few chunks out of the hair and shirt.

Overly aggressive tolerance settings are removing foreground detail

For foreground image areas that share colors with the background (like this one), you may need to adjust the Sampling and Limits. In this picture, I switched over to the Sampling: Once option, set my Limits to Discontinguous and set my Tolerance to 30%.

enter image description here

The Sampling: Once option samples the color under the crosshair only the moment you click and it doesn’t resample as you move your brush along. The Discontiguous Limit option allows you to erase all pixels that match the sampled color that you’re erasing. This allowed me to get in between the hair strands without erasing them.

There’s a good chance the Background Removal Tool may be all you need to complete your task.

But if not, read on.

Close up showing improved removal

Step 6: Quick Mask or Pen Tool

While removing the background on our example image is mostly straight-forward due to the fairly solid background, there are inevitably areas of our foreground subject that get wrongly erased as we work close to foreground’s edges.

Manually retouching challenging areas

In our example, the foreground and background share similar colors due to the lighting. This will be easiest to repair using Photoshop’s Pen tool. I only have a small section I need to touch up, so I’ll use the Pen to create a clean selection and delete the unwanted background.

Using the pen tool to retouch difficult areas

Here’s the finished result:
Finished background removal

Final Word

If you are working with a basic image with ample visual contrast between the subject and background, you can most likely get away with using only the Background Eraser Tool.

More complex images will likely require a mix of tools, samplings, and tolerances along with occasional manual touch-ups. There will be times when there is no visual difference between the foreground and background. We have to manually impose that distinction.

And don’t forget that if you are saving your image without adding a new background, you need to save it as a PNG to maintain the transparency.

Comments on this article are closed. Have a question about Photoshop? Why not ask it on our forums?

Tags: background eraser tool, erasing backgrounds, Photoshop Tutorials & Articles, removing backgrounds, sampling, Tolerance
Jennifer Farley is a designer, illustrator and design instructor based in Ireland. She writes about design and illustration on her blog at Laughing Lion Design.
Gabrielle is a creative type who works as a freelance graphic designer, animator, photographer and filmmaker. She has worked doing various jobs from designing logos to filming commercials and animating music videos for both domestic and international music artists.
  • http://www.sitepoint.com ShayneTilley

    I’m not a designer, but I’ve lost my fair share of hours zooming in and tracing to remove a background. I had no idea that feature existed! Thanks for saving me a few hours in the future :).

  • Jeremy

    Very handy tool. But it won’t work with all images. Best to have a few techniques up your sleeve if this tool doesn’t work for your image. Quick mask, Pen tool, lasso, magic wand. Tolerance adjustments sometimes make all the difference.

  • Adil K

    Hi,

    Thanks for another great article. The designer seems less angry at me now that I can do the basic graphic tasks on my own without bugging him :)

    One question though, will you be focusing one week on common tasks that developers should know how to do themselves in Photoshop? This will help take a lot of load off the designer.

  • Emil

    Thank you! That was so straight forward and simple. Not being a designer, I never knew the best way to handle this.

  • irshad

    It is realy magical tool…thanks

  • biswa

    It’s a really nice tips.Waiting for next tips.

  • Ali Baba

    Great article however the image for demonstration is really not that complicated. You could use lasso tool to remove it. Try clean something harder.

  • afridy

    Thanks, useful.

  • Madhan Ramamoorthy

    Really Nice !!! Big Thanks

  • http://www.webdesign-gm.co.uk/cheltenham-web-design.php TomBradshaw

    WOW that’s really cool, I’ve been using the lasso tool to do this since I can remember. I’ll definately give this a go though!

  • ServerStorm

    Thanks Jennifer!

    Countless hours doing much more painstakingly approaches that could have be eliminated using this technique. Simple yet powerful.

    Regards,
    Steve

  • Girish

    Thanks a lot…..it gives good result in less time

  • kira8080

    This technique never gave me good results, except with the simplest of images.

  • Joeyknuckles

    I wish Photoshop had a “red dress” eraser ;)

  • Pradeep

    wow nice i never saw this option..

  • http://www.beanchairsonline.com jonpeirce

    This is simple and very helpful. I’ve been trying to figure out how to use Gimp when I could’ve just did this simple process with Photoshop.

    Thanks

    Bad Breath Remedy

  • JM

    So when I go to save it as a jpg, how do I get it to save with a tranparent background? It keeps saving it with a white background again. :(

    • http://onsman.com/ ronsman

      Basic rule of thumb: .jpg does not support transparency. Try saving it as .png.

  • http://www.colon-liver-cleanse.com/ Sean

    This helped me so much, honestly…Thank You!!

  • http://www.seo-marketing-company.co.uk mark stroud

    Thanks, building website is one thing but image manipulation is another save be both time and money editing a clients logo for them. fell like a designer now Did not even know that about the .jpg and png.

  • Raw steel

    Thanks for this technique, it made my job a lot easier…

  • Yasmine Muhammad

    Thank you so much, i didnt even know that background eraser tool existed. Things will be easier for me on Photoshop from now on, i can feel it in the air. Thank you again!

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