Mastering Complex Selections in Photoshop

James George

Having the ability to effectively extract an image from its background is an essential skill for any designer, photographer, or creative professional. Many times we have unique challenges when attempting to separate a subject from its setting. Obstacles like poor contrast or the intricate shapes formed by hair and fur can make the process nearly impossible without the right techniques. In the first installment of Making Complex Selections in Photoshop, I covered fairly easy objects to select, such as a woman with a few wisps of hair sticking out, but this time we are going to cover making even more complex selections in Photoshop.

The example image below can be found here. To try and select each individual strand by hand would be extremely painstaking and nearly impossible. You could spend all day attempting to select this cactus with the lasso tools, and even revealing each strand with a mask would yield poor results. It would take hours to refine the mask for each strand by hand. Instead, select the Quick Selection Tool and make a loose selection of the object by clicking and dragging within the area. Hold Shift to add to the selection and hold the Option/Alt key to subtract from the selection. If you find that it’s taking too long to make a selection, increase the size of the Quick Selection Tool, as you would the Brush Tool, by hitting the “]” Key, until you have a decent sized cursor. Hit “[“  to lower the size for more tedious areas. (If you’d like to learn more about helpful, time-saving Photoshop keystrokes, check out 30+ Time-​​Saving Photoshop Keyboard Shortcuts.)

You can see from the image above that the selection is very loose. With the selection active, go to the Options Bar and click Refine Edge. The Refine Edge dialog box will come up, where you can refine and adjust your selection very precisely. Click the Smart Radius option to enable it, and move the slider all the way to the right. On more solid objects, be careful when using this, because it will take away solid, continuous areas of color around the edge that blend with the background color. However, this setting is perfect for fine, wispy hair or fibers. Click Decontaminate Colors and move its slider all the way to the right. This removes edges where the background color may have added a thin, unwanted fringe around the object.

You can see that the Refine Edge menu has already done a great job of extracting the fine, fibrous edges around the cactus. Hit the “F” key to toggle between views and you can see that the mask view of the selection is very intricate and precise.

Select Output to New Layer with Layer Mask. This will create a new layer above the working layer based on the mask that we just made and refined. If there are any problem areas, we can fix them, but in this case we have none. Now, you can place your selected object over anything that you’d like without color contamination or any other concerns.

The fuzziness is just as prominent as it was in the original image, but now we can slide any color or image behind our object and composite a layout quickly and easily. Below, I added a bold purple to show the quality and precision of this selection technique.

The next sample, which you can download here, has a decent amount of contrast between subject and background, but the fur is long and feathery, which is nearly impossible to select by hand. Select the Quick Selection Tool and make a loose selection, making sure to include as much of the bear as possible.

Using Smart Radius and Decontaminate Colors seems to do the trick instantaneously, but before exporting to a new layer, it is always good idea to hit the “F” key multiple times to toggle through the different backgrounds to make sure that you haven’t missed anything. The selection below looks good on white…

However, when we toggle through the different views (using the “F” key), when we get to the black background, where I realized that I had apparently missed a spot. Notice the area of white to the left of the head.

It turns out that the brush tool would not remove this area. It was actually quicker to exit the Refine Edge Menu by hitting cancel, and then holding Alt/Option while clicking with the Quick Selection Tool to remove that area from the selection. Afterward, I re-entered the Refine Edge menu, used the Smart Radius and Decontaminate Colors options, and exported the image to its own layer with a layer mask. The result is below. Note that there are no longer remnants of white anywhere around the bear.

The next example is a little more challenging due to the fact that there is background interference caused by the water. You can find the sample image here. Just like with the image before, make a rough selection with the Quick Selection Tool.

The difficult part about this selection is that the woman’s hair feathers out at the ends, and the dark, feathered ends blend into the foliage in the background, making a precise selection nearly impossible. Click Refine Edge in the options bar to bring up the Refine Edge dialog box. It is here that we will end up making most of our refinements. Check Smart Radius, and move the slider all the way to the right. Then, click Decontaminate Colors, and move that slider all the way to the right. In the drop down menu, choose New Layer With Layer Mask, but don’t click OK yet, because our selection isn’t quite as good as it needs to be. You can see that it needs to be more refined by toggling the different views (using the “F” key) until your image is placed over a white background.

The problem is that the top area — where the hair blends into the rest of the image — has a lot of extra color information. It isn’t as clean of a selection as it could be.

This problem can be solved with the brush tool found in the Refine Edge dialog box area. You can use one of several methods to manipulate your selection. The first option is to simply single-click over an area that should be included in the mask. Photoshop will resample the selection and attempt to add this to the original selection. The gray areas within the hair need to be removed; that is color information that doesn’t need to be included in the selection. Holding Alt/Option and doing a single click over these areas will cause Photoshop to recalculate the selection and remove these unwanted gray areas from the results. Two well-placed single-clicks while holding the Alt/Option key in the grey areas to the left and right of the strands of hair that are sticking straight up made a much better selection in these areas.

Now, the problem is that too much of the hair has been removed. We need to add image information back into the document, but the brush isn’t precise enough to pull this off. To add this information back in — without accidentally adding the water and foliage back in — move the Shift Edge Slider to the right to add image information gradually back into the selection. The value used here is 25. Then, move the contrast slider to the right roughly 10 points, and you’ll get a much better selection. Click OK to have Photoshop Duplicate the layer and apply the selection as a mask.

If you need to make any further adjustments, you can use black to paint out unwanted areas of the image,  and you can use white to paint them back in on the mask. When you are finished, you can apply the mask to the image, so that you can drop it over a different background, or you can leave the mask in order to make more adjustments later. Here is the result placed on an entirely different background:


Making Complex Selections in Photoshop used to be a long, time-consuming process that took hours upon hours. Some images were thought of as impossible to extract from their background, but with the Refine Edge menu, you have the ability to quickly refine your selection to include fine, feathery sections of hair, animal fur, and long stands of fibers that are nearly impossible to work with by hand. The result is better Photoshop work, happier clients and colleagues, and lots of time saved.

Do you have any selection techniques of your own for complex selections? Are you often asked to perform very difficult Photoshop within a very small time frame?