Two ways to remove the background from a photo

As with most things in life, there's an easy way and a somewhat less easy way to do this

The other day, as we were looking at our Christmas photos, my daughter said, "The background is too cluttered because of the tree and presents. You should take me out of this picture and put me against a plain white backdrop." I pointed out that 10 years ago, no one would have even thought of such a thing. She replied: "Of course, Dad. We're the Photoshop generation." That made me smile, but she's right.

In the past, we've talked about how to do things like tweak your depth of field and clean up a messy background. This week, let's do the ultimate trick--remove the subject from the photo entirely, so you can reuse it somewhere else.

Choose a Method

As with most things in life, there's an easy way and a somewhat less easy way to do this. If you have fairly recent version of a popular photo editing program, you probably have access to a somewhat automated method. If you have an older version, or a free photo editor, you might need to fall back on a more manual approach. I'll show you how to do it both ways. Let's start, though, with Adobe Photoshop Elements, which includes the handy Magic Extractor tool. If you don't have a recent version of Elements (or want to learn the manual approach), scroll down to the next section.

Using the Magic Extractor

186615-bird_bg_original

If you've ever tried "punching out" the subject from a photo, you'll find that Photoshop Elements' Magic Extractor makes it dramatically easier than using manual methods. To get started, just open a photo in Photoshop Elements. I'll use the photo on the left, which has fairly consistent background, ideal for removal. Choose Image, Magic Extractor from the menu.

The idea behind the Magic Extractor window is that you mark the subject you want to keep with the Foreground Brush tool and then mark the background that you want to discard with the Background Brush tool. Then the program will "magically" punch out your subject for you.

The Foreground Brush tool is automatically selected to begin with (it's on the left side of the screen). Use it to identify your subject. You don't need to completely fill in the subject; just dab some dots or lines around the interior.

It's important to mark regions that change color so the Magic Extractor knows they're still part of the main subject. If you need to, use the Zoom Tool (seventh from the top of the toolbar on the left) to get a closer look at your subject. Also, you'll want to make the brush smaller to mark areas as needed.

186615-bird_bg2_original

When you're done highlighting the subject, click the Background Brush tool (second from the top on the left) and paint sections around the subject to mark out the parts of the photo you don't need, as you see on the right.

If you make a mistake, such as accidentally coloring "outside the lines," use the Point Eraser tool (third from the top on the left) to undo any marks.

186615-bird_bg3_original

When you think you've adequately marked your photo, click Preview (at the top right). You can continue painting with the Foreground and Background tools if needed, and make corrections with the eraser. When you're ready, click OK, and the subject will appear on its own, as you see on the left. From here, you can copy it into another photo or add a custom background.

Using BasicSelection Tools

Your photo editor might not have a Magic Extractor or something similar, but as long as it hasany sort of selection tool you can get similar results. In Photoshop Elements, for example, choose the Magnetic Lasso Tool (in the sixth cubby from the top in the toolbar on the left side of the screen). Obviously, if you're using the latest version of Photoshop Elements, it's easier to use the Magic Extractor, but if you have an older version, that might not be an option. And if you've got a different program, you can follow these steps using a similar selection tool.

At the top of the screen, choose a small feather value. The feathering you use depends upon the size of the photo--the higher the resolution, the more feathering you'll want--but I'm using 5 pixels in this example.

186615-bird_bg4_original

Next, click on an edge of your subject and slowly move the tool along the edge. The "magnetic" property of the tool will snap the selection to the edge as you go, as you see on the right.

At certain points, you might need to click to lock in a key point, especially around sharp curves or areas of low contrast. If you make a mistake or the tool creates a key point somewhere you don't want it, you don't have to start over from scratch--just press the Delete key on the keyboard. Every Delete will back you up one point in your selection.

When you get all the way around, double-click to close the selection. Choose Edit, Copy from the menu, and then choose Layer, New, Layer via Copy. You'll have a new, blank layer, with your selected subject--just like what we got with the Magic Extractor (though probably with some more rough edges).

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