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Knowing how to remove background in Photoshop is essential for many photographers.

The level of detail and accuracy you wish to achieve will determine how difficult it is to remove a background in Photoshop.

This article will show you one way to remove the background in Photoshop.

A portrait of a young man on white background, with a thought bubble reading 'how do I remove the background in Photoshop?"

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

1. How to Choose a Photo to Work With

Photos with one subject are easiest. Subjects with smooth edges that are separated from the background are best.

Figure to ground photography is also not complicated to work with. Make sure there’s enough contrast between the subject and background.

Photos with a shallow depth of field are also easier. This is because the subject is sharp while the background is blurred.

This bowl of fresh papaya is a good example. Removing the background here would not be too challenging.

A plate of papayas on a dark table - how to remove background in Photooshop

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The edges of the subject are all nice and smooth. There are no ragged fringes or hair, which are always complicated.

The dark coloured table provides good contrast. The only problem might be in the small area where it intersects the knife handle.

If you are trying to remove background in Photoshop for the first time, use this type of photo as your original image.

Messy or detailed backgrounds are more challenging to remove. Photos with little separation between subject and background need more manual work. This takes more time and concentration.

Loose hair and fuzzy edges are also good to avoid. And fine strands of hair against a busy background are painful to separate.

If any of your subject’s edges are blurry, it will be challenging to remove the background. And to make it look natural.

Taking this photo of our little friend Mana jumping I could not avoid a messy background. This photo is more difficult to remove the background from.

Most of Mana’s clothing, arms and legs would be no problem. Around her head, with her hair and scarf are areas that would be time-consuming to separate.

A portrait of a young thai girl jumping with joy

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The tools in Adobe Photoshop used to refine edges are far more advanced than ever. But the wrong type of image can still cause you trouble.

A screenshot of how to remove background in Photoshop

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

2. Do You Need Resize Your Photo

Working with an image file size that’s bigger than you need may be challenging for your computer. Resize your photo to the size need once you are finished.

If you are following these steps just as a practice, you can decrease the size to 2500 pixels on the longest side and 100 ppi.

Working on a very large file size is generally not necessary and can slow your computer down too much. Choosing a file size that is too small it will not contain enough detail for you to work with.

I have chosen this photo as the main one I will use to show these techniques. I have resized it to 2500 pixels by 1668 pixel and 100 ppi.

The reason I chose it is because parts of the subject will be easy to separate from the background and others will be problematic.

An outdoor portrait of a Shan Farm Worker - remove background photoshop

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

3. Convert Your Photo to a Smart Object

Open your photo in Photoshop and convert it to a Smart Object. To do this click on Layer in the top menu then Smart Object>Convert to Smart Object.

Smart object conversion allows you to edit non destructively. If you mess up you can go back and make adjustments more easily.

Add more History States. In Photoshop the default is 20 levels of history. I set mine to 200. This allows me to ‘Undo’ 200 times if I want to.

To change this setting go to Edit on the top menu then Preferences>Performance. Type in the number of History States you want.

You will need sufficient RAM for this to work smoothly. Try with a larger number and if you notice your computer lagging reduce the number of History States.

A screenshot of how to remove background in Photoshop, Convert Your Photo to a Smart Object

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

4. Duplicate the Layer

With the layer selected, press Ctrl+j (cmd+j on a Mac).

This duplicates the layer and will allow you to see the changes and check details with more accuracy.

5. Make a Rough Selection

Here, you’ll want to use the Quick Selection tool from the Tools Panel (‘w’ on the keyboard). Make a rough selection of your subject.

If you select some of the background by mistake, press and hold the Alt key, (Option key on Macs).

A minus symbol will appear in the center of your cursor and you can now subtract from the selection.

Make sure you have the Quick Selection tool active, not the Magic Wand tool.

A screenshot of how to remove background in Photoshop, Make a Rough Selection

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

You can hide the bottom layer so you are able to see the selected area more clearly. Keep using the Quick Selection tool until you have most of your subject selected.

Don’t be concerned about edges which have not been selected well. We will work on those with another tool.

6. Make a Layer Mask

Click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel. This will add a mask of the area you have selected.

From the mask Properties Panel click on Select and Mask option. This will bring up a new window where you will refine the rough selection to make it more precise.

7. Refine the Edge Settings

At the top of the layer mask Properties Panel choose a view you want to work with. I prefer the Overlay view. With this option you can control the overlay colour and opacity which allows you to see changes you make.

Other options include Black and White, Black or White overlays.

Sometimes these are helpful options to use during the process. They’ll allow you to take a different view of the changes you are making.

Screenshot of Refine the Edge Settings in Photoshop to remove the background of a portrait

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Set the number of pixels for the Edge Detection. The higher resolution your photo, the more pixels is better.

This will determine how close to the edges you will be refining.

You can use Smart Edges. Photoshop will calculate the number of pixels dynamically for you.

8. Refining Your Subject’s Edges

Choose the Refine Edge Brush tool from the tools panel on the left of the screen, (or press the ‘r’ key.)

With this tool you will be able to work around the areas that the Quick Selection tool did not select so well.

Brush over hair and fuzzy parts of the edges. Work slowly and carefully. If you do not have a fast computer, give it time to make the changes otherwise Photoshop may stop working.

I have had problems using my Wacom pen and tablet for this step in the past. I found that I could make a few changes and then Photoshop would hand. I would have to restart the program.

When I use the mouse it works without a problem.

If you are using a pen and tablet and find your computer is lagging, try using your mouse and see if there’s a difference.

A screenshot of how to refine edges in photoshop to remove background of a photo

You can use the [ and ] keys to resize the Refine Edge Brush. Using a very small brush size will allow you to be more precise with difficult areas.

9. Adjust Global Refinements

Once you are finished with the Refine Edge tool switch your view from Overlay to Black and White. This will allow you to see the changes you will make with the Global Refinements slider.

These sliders will allow you to further fine tune your edge if necessary.

Making global refinements is not always needed. This is the case with a light background or a backlit subject. The subject will often still have a halo around it at this stage.

Using these tools you can reduce or remove the halo effect. I will do this with the Smooth slider and the Shift Edge Slider.

Feathering can sometimes enhance this technique. Especially if the edges of your subject are not sharp.

Switch between the View modes if you are having difficulty seeing the changes you are making. At this stage I have switched to the Black and White view mode option.

This shows me the level of transparency. This is particularly helpful where there’s fine detail on the edges.

A screenshot of how to remove background in Photoshop - Global Refinements

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Once you are satisfied with the edge refinements you have made click OK in the lower right corner of the screen.

10. Check Your Background Is Clean

Click on the Create a New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel. Select Solid Color.

Choose a colour that is not in your subject and that contrasts with it. If you’re adding a solid background, choose the colour you will use.

Drag this new layer below the masked layer you have been working on.

Using a contrasting colour will help you see if there’s any leftover background. The final background colour will help you see if your subject has any halos.

A screenshot of how to remove background in Photoshop

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

With the layer mask selected on your main working layer you can make further refinements. Select the brush tool and set it to paint black. Wherever you paint with it over the masked area, this will become transparent.

If you make a mistake, change the brush to paint white. Paint over the same area and transparency will be brought back to 0. Using shades of grey will result in varying amounts of transparency.

Work on problematic areas of your edges with the brush tool. This allows for more accuracy. If you have an easy subject, this step may not be necessary.

With more complex images, ones including people with wispy or fuzzy hair, this step may take time.

Check one more time. If you’re happy with the result, now’s the time to add in the new background and save your photo.

A portrait of a thai woman with pure white background

How Much Detail Do You Need?

The level of detail you want to work on depends on the final use of your photo.

Deleting a background in Photoshop is easy, if you have the right subject and background. It’s even easier if you are not too concerned about the level of detail.

You might want to use your photo in a small size on a website. Then there’s no point in making sure every detail is perfect.

A white background for a social media profile doesn’t need the highest resolution or quality.

But if you’re submitting images to sell as stock photos, you will need to pay a lot more attention to the details.

Removing a background in Photoshop poorly will result in your photo being rejected.

A plate of papayas with pure white background

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

This is the easiest method I know to remove a background in Photoshop. There are many other methods and techniques to achieve the same results.

Following these steps will give you a good foundation. If you’re having difficulty obtaining a clean edge, experiment with the tool settings. Try other tools as well.

For added control I will often use the Eraser tool set at an opacity of 30 to help refine edges. If there is still some visible halo around part of the edge I will use the Burn tool to darken it.

There is no right or wrong way to achieve the result you want. Some methods allow you more control than others. Some give you the capacity to tweak details better than others.

Always keep in mind how you want your photo to look when it’s complete. So long as you keep this vision, and not be concerned with it being right or wrong, you will be successful.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin's professional background is in editorial and commercial photography. Please enroll in his FREE course for beginner photographers which will build your confidence in photography. You will learn how to make sense of camera settings and gain a better understanding of the importance of light in photography. Check out Kevin's Blog for a wide variety of photography related articles.

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