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5 Great Background Masking Techniques in Photoshop Article

Corrie Haffly
Technique 3: The Extract Technique

As with the Background Eraser technique, it’s a smart idea to set the source for the History Brush early in the procedure, in case you need to do some touch-up later on.


Now, let’s run the Filter > Extract command. (In earlier versions of Photoshop, this was located under the Image menu.)


The Extract dialog box will appear. With the Brush tool selected, draw an outline around the object you wish to extract. The outline should overlap both the object and the background. Use a Brush size that is big enough for you to outline comfortably, but small enough to outline any details of the picture. (You may switch Brush sizes while you’re outlining.) The outline will be highlighted in the window.


If you need to zoom in while you’re outlining, hold down the Space Bar to change the cursor temporarily to the “hand” icon. You can then click and drag to move around in the picture. Let go of the Space Bar when you’re ready to go back to drawing.

When you’ve completed the outline, change to the Paint Bucket tool.


Fill the areas that you wish to “keep” with the paint bucket tool.


Click the Preview button to see how the object appears when extracted.


Here’s what my preview looks like. It’s good enough for my purposes, so I click “OK” to apply the Filter.


Again, I use the History Brush to restore parts of the object that were erased or partially erased.


And again, I use the Eraser Tool to get rid of stray pixels around the edges.


Here’s the final picture (with drop-shadow applied):


Extract Filter Technique:

  1. Set source for the History Brush in the History Palette.
  2. Use Filter > Extract command to outline, fill, and Extract object (1:45 minutes).
  3. Use the History Brush to restore parts of object (1:45 minutes).
  4. Use the Eraser Tool to clean up the edges (1:30 minutes).

Total time: 5 minutes

My take: This method, while a little faster, didn’t seem much different from the Background Eraser technique. However, I have found that the Extract Filter works quite nicely when you have objects with a lot of fine details (like hair blowing in the wind, tree branches, etc.) that would be a pain to try to isolate. The Extract Filter works best with objects on solid-colored backgrounds.

Technique 4: The Quick Mask Technique

If you’ve never used Quick Mask mode in Photoshop, you’re missing out on a huge time-saver! Quick Mask mode lets you use brush, pencil, paint bucket, etc. tools to paint an “inverse selection” using shades of gray and black. (Black identifies parts that won’t be selected; gray identifies parts that, when selected, will have some level of transparency.) When you switch back to Normal mode, the “clear” parts of your Quick Mask are selected so that you can apply changes. We’ll use Quick Mask mode to paint the background of the image, then apply a Layer Mask to hide the background.

Click the Quick Mask icon in the tool palette to switch to Quick Mask mode.


Using a fairly large brush, with the foreground color set to black, I’ll start to block out the background. You’ll notice that the masked areas in which you paint will turn pink.


The large brush size allows me to color in the main areas of the background fairly quickly.


I can then use smaller brushes to fill in the details around the edges.


Eventually, I have the entire background colored in pink:


Tip: You may change the foreground color to white if you want to “paint back” parts of the object.

Switch back to Normal Mode, and you’ll see the selection. Because everything that’s painted in is not selected, the final result is that the bee is selected.


At this point, I click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette to create a layer mask, which essentially isolates the bee from the background.


So, here’s the final picture:


And in summary:

Quick Mask Technique:

  1. Switch to Quick Mask mode and paint everything you want to get rid of.
  2. Switch back to normal mode and use the resultant selection to make a Layer Mask.

Total time: 6 minutes

My take: A great method, because it gives you precision-control over what gets selected. This method works well for any picture — solid background color or not. The only unfortunate aspect of this method is that, for some objects, you may see a “color halo” where the edges have picked up on some of the background color. (One way to get around this is to take a little more time and paint around the edges with a gray airbrush to make the edges a little transparent.)

Note: This same type of effect can be achieved by creating a Layer Mask, then painting on the layer mask with black paint to hide the background. The two techniques are virtually identical — I just chose to write about Quick Mask because I’ve already covered the concept of Layer Masks in another article!

Pen Tool Technique

My final technique will be to use the Pen Tool to create a path that outlines the object, then use the path to create a selection for a Layer Mask.

Choose the Pen Tool. In the horizontal options bar, make sure that “Paths,” not “Shape layer,” is selected. Then, start using the Pen Tool to create a path around the object. I find that it’s helpful to zoom in for greater detail.


Here’s my completely outlined bee. You can see all the different points that I created using the Pen Tool, as well as the resultant path.


Open the Paths palette and Ctrl-click (Command-click for Mac) on the path layer. This creates a selection from the path. In the diagram, you can see the dotted line that shows the selection.


If you have a pretty solid-shaped object, you can skip the next step. Because I have a fuzzy, plush object, I’m going to feather my selection slightly so that the edges will be a little blurred. I choose Select > Feather and make a Feather Radius of 1 pixel.


Finally, I click the Layer Mask icon in the Layers palette to create a layer mask from my selection. This hides the background and isolates the bee.


Here’s the final picture:


In summary:

Pen Tool Technique:

  1. Use the Pen Tool (set to “Paths,” not “Shape Layer”) to create an outline of the object.
  2. Ctrl-click (Command-click for Mac) the path layer to make a selection.
  3. Use the selection to create a layer mask.

Total time: 3 minutes

My take: This method works for any object, regardless of the background, and is also quite precise. It’s reasonably fast if you’re comfortable with using the Pen Tool; otherwise, this method might take a long time! This method is probably better for objects that have crisp, hard edges, and, similar to Quick Mask mode, you may have a slight color halo if the object has picked up some of the background colors.

Goodbye, Tension Headaches!

So, there you have it: five different ways to isolate an object from a background! Here’s a quick summary of the different methods and when I think they’re best used.

  • The Magic Eraser Technique
    Great for erasing backgrounds that are mostly all the same color that contrast with the object (set a high tolerance and use one click!), but may involve a bit of touch-up work at the end. No good for objects that are on multi-colored backgrounds.
  • The Background Eraser Technique
    This technique would be great on a photo object that is already “isolated” but has a solid, contrasting background color. Even still, I might pass up this technique for the next method, as they’re essentially the same and I think the Extract method goes a little faster.
  • The Extract Filter Technique
    Works best for erasing mostly solid-colored, contrasting backgrounds. Photoshop also does a nice job of getting rid of the color halo problem, but you may have to do some additional touch-up work at the end.
  • The Quick Mask Technique
    Almost the ideal solution: relatively quick, pixel-perfect control over edges, and works with any kind of background. Plus, by using a layer mask, you don’t actually delete any part of the background. The only complaint I have with this method is that you may get a color halo.
  • The Pen Tool Technique
    Fantastic technique for objects with hard edges, and it works with any kind of background. You can be as detailed as you want to get a perfect outline, and you can always go back and modify the path if you need to. Plus, you get lots of practice using the Pen Tool.
  • Please feel free to download the sample file that holds all the layers with the different techniques applied, so that you can get a close-up look at how well each solution performed.

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