Selections in Photoshop, Part 3: Colour Selection Tools

    Jennifer Farley
    Jennifer Farley

    In previous posts, we looked at the Geometric Tools and Freehand Tools for selecting in Photoshop. Today it’s the turn of the Colour-based selection tools.

    The Magic Wand (Magic Wand) selects parts of an image based on the similarity in colour of adjacent pixels. The Quick Selection (Quick Selection ) tool (which was first introduced in Photoshop CS3) “paints” a selection by automatically finding and following defined edges in the image. Let’s take a look at how they each work.


    The Magic Wand Tool

    The Magic Wand tool is definitely one of the easiest ways to make a selection. It is most useful when you want to select and area consisting of similar colours, surrounded by a completely different colour.

    1. Select the Magic Wand tool (Magic Wand ) in the toolbar or hit W.

    2. On the tool options bar, type a number in the Tolerance text box to increase the number of similar tones that will be selected.

    Tool options bar in Photoshop

    The Tolerance option sets the sensitivity of the Magic Wand tool. This limits or extends the range of pixel similarity, so 32—the default tolerance—selects the colour you click plus 32 lighter and 32 darker tones of that colour.

    3. Using the Magic Wand, click the surface of the area you want to select. I’m using an image of some Christmas tree biscuits. When I click on one of the biscuits, most but not all of it will be selected.

    Magic wand in action

    4. To select the remaining area and ADD to the selection hold down Shift so that a plus sign appears with the Magic Wand pointer. This indicates that whatever you click will be added to the current selection.

    Just keep Shift + Clicking till you select the entire area.


    If you accidentally select an area outside where you want to select, choose Edit > Undo (Ctrl + Z / Cmd + Z) , and try again. You can also change the Tolerance level in the options bar as you work.

    Making a Quick Selection

    The Quick Selection tool, like many of the Photoshop tools, is based on the idea of a brush. It lets you quickly “paint” a selection using a round brush tip of adjustable size. It works in a similar fashion to the Magic Wand but is a little more sophisticated.

    For this example, I want to select some coloured flowers and remove them from their background. The image I’m using by Jana Koll and is free to download from Stock Xchng.

    1. Select the Quick Selection tool (Quick Selection ) in the toolbox or hit Shift W to switch between the Magic Wand and the Quick Selection tools.

    2. In the tool options bar, click the Brushes tab to temporarily open the Brushes palette. Set the Brush Size diameter and the hardness of the brush. You may find there is a bit of trial and error involved while you find the correct sized brush.

    Quick Selection

    If you are using more than one layer you could choose the Sample All Layers option to sample from all visible layers, not just the selected one. In this example there is only one layer in the image so this is not an issue.

    3. Click on part of the blurred green background, and gently drag the pointer. You’ll see the Quick selection tool very accurately selects a chunk of background.

    Quick Selection

    Continue to drag around the flowers. If you accidentally select a flower, hold down the Alt/Option key and paint to deselect. If it happens repeatedly, try reducing the size of your Quick Selection brush.

    4. Continue to drag around the flowers until you complete the selection. You’ll find that this tool is quite intuitive and that you only need to paint small areas in order to select large chunks.


    Ok that’s the selection made, but we’re not finished with this tool yet. Sometimes selections have very jaggy edges, but with the Quick Selection tool you can refine your selection.

    5. In the tool options bar, click on the Refine button, which opens the following dialog box;

    Refine Selection

    I won’t go through each of the options, suffice to say that there is plenty of sliders for you to play with and explore. For this example I increased the smoothness, which helps removes some of the jagged edges.

    6. Finally I hit Delete to remove the background (remember we had actually selected the background and not the flowers). I can now easily add a different background.

    Quick Selection

    I hope you’ve found this description of the Colour Selection tools useful — they’re two great tools for making selections based on colour.

    Tomorrow we’ll wrap this series up with some additional tips and tricks for manipulating your selections. I hope you’ll join me!

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