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Complicated issues in background removal

White shoes on gray background

Sometimes photographers can't really make things right, and when they shoot white items on a white background, the items really blend into their surroundings. Like these shoes. Just looking at the image makes me think: "Time to grab the Pen Tool". But this is not cool, because if I do that, it might take me more than 2 minutes to isolate the shoes and to restore a natural shadow underneath. Can it be done faster? Yes, sure. The method I'm going to show you works faster than the Pen and doesn't require you to be as accurate and concentrated. As you can see, the tongue part on the top of the shoes is absolutely the same color as the background. There's no point increasing contrast there, there's nothing to increase in the first place.

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So I'll just grab the Lasso and make a crude selection around the shoes, invert it and use the Magic Wand with a really small Tolerance value, like 3. I will click on the unselected areas to add them in. The deal is that the problematic part will not be selected perfectly. But it's easy to fix in the Quick Mask mode, by using a relatively hard eraser brush. Painting in black, I add to the selected area, painting in white, I add to the masked area. As for this part here, on the top, that looks really jagged, I just hope that the isolating action will make it smooth it for me. After exiting the Quick Mask mode I'll run the action and use the History Brush to restore the shadow. The edges are not as smooth as they could be if I used the Pen Tool, but after resizing it won't matter at all. And this way is faster. When I compared, the Pen Tool took me 2 minutes and 10 seconds, and this method took me 1 minute and 10 seconds. In catalogue retouching, every second is valuable.

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Gray fur on gray background

Let’s now isolate something difficult. As I said before, product image retouching is not about tricky images at all, as it should be fast and cost-efficient. It’s better to invest in the photography setup than to waste money on retouching that takes much longer than it really should. So it means that if your photography department's work isn't worthless, you will not be getting any tricky images at all. But the deal is that you have to be skilled enough to isolate anything, no matter how difficult it looks at first glance. Why? Because this particular skill is something that gets people jobs in the industry. When you’re looking for a catalogue retouching job, you will most probably not get it without passing some kind of a test, no matter how good your portfolio is (portfolios can be fake or stolen, and you never know how many hours were spent on a particular image). And this test will most probably involve isolation because it’s a very easy way to see if the retoucher is skilled or not. This is when horrible images like this one come in handy!

This is a real image from a very faulty photo shoot. It’s not very reasonable to shoot a gray boot on a gray background, but it gives us something to work with. Otherwise, we would just click around with the Magic Wand as we did in the previous example, but here it’s not possible. The problem is that the contrast between the boot and the background is too low to use tools such as the Magic Wand and the Quick Selection Tool. On the other hand, the surface of the object is not smooth, and it’s impossible to select it correctly with the drawing tools like the Pen Tool. But I assure you that I can isolate this image, and do it nicely, in less than 3 minutes. Well, 5 minutes with all the explanation, to be honest.

The edges should not be blurry when you isolate fur

And don't expect me to show you a sloppy kind of isolation where the edges are all blurry and look fake. It is quite possible to isolate it well and fast.

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There are some isolating tools that are able to detect the edge of an item automatically. But in this particular case, when the contrast between the item and the background is so low, we might want to help these automatic algorithms a bit. I’m going to increase the contrast manually on a separate layer, which I’ve just created by pressing Ctrl-J on the keyboard. Then I'll access the Curves window via the Ctrl-M shortcut. There Eyedropper tool becomes active, and I can see how certain areas of the image are reflected in the graph by clicking on the image and holding the mouse button. The circle that appears on the graph shows the respective color. After checking the boot color and the background color and seeing their respective locations on the histogram, I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s some difference between them. This difference can be enhanced by increasing the contrast between the respective areas. Now I’ll click on the line in the place where, as I believe, the divider is situated. Let’s see if it works. I’ll click next to it and drag the curve up, thus making the boot become darker and the white fur becomes lighter. Now you can see that the boot is much better separated from the background, so let’s apply these changes.

The other step in helping Photoshop to detect the edge correctly will be showing where the edge is located, approximately, of course. By the way, some areas of the boot do not need any advanced edge detection at all. Look at the heel and the toe – they can be easily selected with the Quick Selection Tool. So I’m gonna do it straight away and store this part of the image in a separate layer for later use. As for the rest of the boot, I’m going to make a crude selection with the Pen Tool. The path doesn’t have to be very accurate. The trick here is not to include the background in the selection. After placing the last dot, I’ll press Ctrl-Enter to turn the path into a selection.

Now it’s time for Photoshop’s advanced isolating techniques to do their part. Do you remember the Select & Mask feature from the previous videos? Yes, this is exactly what we need. Well, almost. Problem is that the new Select & Mask algorithm works much worse than its previous embodiment, which is called the Refine Edge, and which has disappeared from the Photoshop starting from CC 2015. Good thing is that it has just disappeared from the panels, but has not gone completely. You can still access it by holding Shift and clicking on the Select & Mask command in the Select menu. It will open the Refine Edge instead.

Now I’m going to use the Smart Radius feature which will help me to detect the edge automatically. So I’ll tick the Smart Radius first and then I will enter some value in the Radius input window. In this case, it has to be quite big, something like 70. Okay, now we’re good. Let’s apply the changes. Now we have the furry part selected, and we’ll see if it’s a worthy selection or not. But first, let’s add our heel and toe to the selection as well. To do so, I’m going to click on the layer with the toe and heel part while holding Ctrl and Shift.

Now I don’t need any of these layers, so let’s just delete them both. Now it’s worth checking if the selection is good or not by switching to the Quick Mask mode. If there are any parts inside the boot you’ve missed, the mask can be easily corrected with the Brush, or with the Quick Selection Tool or even with the Marquee Tool if you switch back to the normal mode.

Okay, on to the next step. To isolate our boot, I will invert the selection I’ve made by pressing Ctrl-Shift-I and fill the background with the white color by pressing Ctrl-Backspace. Now when I zoom the image to 100%, you can see for yourself that the result is quite astonishing for something achieved in a couple of minutes.

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Thin fur

Sometimes it is really funny how fast you can do isolation that seems to be tricky to do. This key chain has a lot of fur and not just fur – tiny strands of fur, which are just a bit darker than the background. How can we isolate something like this? Forget about the isolating action, forget about the Magic Wand. You can try, but seriously, with Tolerance 1 you'll be left with a lot of trash on the background, and 3 will include the fur and kill it. Remember, that you can't modify the selection, or the fur will be gone. I've also tried the weird erasers like the Background Eraser and the Magic Eraser – they can't really do it. The Magic Eraser leaves lots of trash around these tiny strands, and the Background Eraser acts very messily and it might take a few minutes for a decent result. But it can be done much faster, in about 1 minute and a half with all the explanation, and in 1 minute if I'm left alone in silence.

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To isolate this image, I'll use the Blend if trick. First of all, I'll check which channel is the most contrasted with the background. Red, Green or Blue? It's blue. So I'll go back to the composite image, copy it to another layer, fill the underlying layer with black and click twice on the top layer in the Layers tab. There I'll switch Blend if to Blue and pull the rightmost slider to the left until it fills the background with black – not all, just around the key chain. 247 does the trick. Then I'll grab the Eraser and erase the rest of the background. Then I'll fill the bottom layer with white, flatten the image and use the History Brush to restore the shadow around the feet. Look, the fur is still there, you can see every strand clearly. Isn't it a great result for something that was done in under 2 minutes?

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White net on gray

Before this moment we did the isolation based on contrast, the tone difference between the object and the background. But what if there's no contrast? What if the contrast is so low that it's not really enough to be used?

This is an extreme example of an object that is not really distinguishable from the background. The edge is so complicated that you can't use the Pen Tool to isolate it either. Is it possible to isolate such an object at all? Technically, yes. You can't do it in a minute, but I am able to isolate it in 5 minutes, and I'll show you two ways how to do it.

It's not perfect, but the result is quite decent

Pay attention to the fact that all my videos are real-time, I never increase speed artificially even if there's something boring going on, like Pen tool work. The reason why I do it this way is that product image retouching is about speed. I've watched many tutorials where they promise to show you a “quick” way to do something, and then they speed up some parts of the video so it takes seconds instead of minutes, but how long does it take in reality? Is it really that quick? That's why I never speed things up. It takes exactly the amount of time you can see. If you find something boring, you can just skip it with no trouble at all.

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You might say: “No way you can isolate something like this in just 5 minutes, the headband is hardly visible on the gray background”, but really, Photoshop is a wonderful program. There are advanced algorithms that you can use that will give you a miraculous result in no time. Let's start with the method that I like the most. Yes, there's definitely not enough contrast in this image, so instead of that, we'll be using color. The deal is that the headband's color differs from the background color, and if we increase the saturation we'll be able to use it to make a selection.

But before I do that, I'll quickly select the black tie with the Quick Selection tool and copy it to another layer for later use. Then I'll copy the Background to another layer and increase the saturation to the maximum, which is +100. That's not enough, so let's increase it in another way, which requires some blending. I'll copy this layer and pick the Linear Burn blending mode from the blending options. Still not enough! One more copy, and another copy, and then merge all the colored layers down so that only one layer stays which blends in the Normal mode. This bluish area in the lower right corner is no good, it blends with the headband's net. I'll change its color by using the Hue/Saturation window. I'll pick Cyans only and change their Hue to -90 to make this area look like the rest of the background.

Now there's a lot of small dots on this layer and it's no good. I'll use the Median filter with Radius 2 to get rid of those dots. Now it's time to use the Select Color Range feature to make a selection of the background. I'll set the Fuzziness to something about 60, set the eyedropper to add colors and click around making sure I don't click on the headband. Okay, but this selection is not so good, so I'll immediately Contract it by 2 pixels to make the headband more visible. Now I'll fill the whole background with black and use the black brush to paint on the pieces of background that were not included in the selection. Now when the whole background is black, I'll press Ctrl-I to invert the image and make the background white. Time to copy the original headband image to another layer and drag it on top of the white background layer. Now I'll access the Blending Options of this layer and use the Blend if trick. I'll drag the rightmost slider in the lower row just one point to the left to reveal the white background from under the top layer. It is not perfect though, so I'll use the black brush on the adjusted layer to reveal the headband even more where it was eaten by the isolation. When I'm satisfied with the result, I'll just flatten the image and resize it to be more fit for an online store. This last step will hide all the irregularities of the isolation and the whole thing will look nice and decent. Not bad for something that was done in 5 minutes, right? There was not enough contrast, so I used color instead of that to make Photoshop select the background, and it helped me in the isolation process greatly.

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There's also another way to do the same thing without exploiting the color difference. I said that there was not enough contrast between the image and the background, but that is only half true. There's not enough contrast for most Photoshop algorithms, but there's one algorithm of edge detection that is able to detect the edges of the headband even in a low contrast image like this. I doubt you've ever used it for isolation. At least when I wrote this, I checked, and I could not find any information about it online. Even if someone did that, they never mentioned it. I think the reason why this method is unknown is because the filter I'll be using comes from the Blur group. It's hard to imagine how you can isolate anything by blurring, but this filter is a special kind of blur. As far as I know, this is the most advanced edges finding mechanism in Photoshop. When we get to the image alignment based on edge detection, you'll hear about it some more. But for now enough talking, let's use it already.

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I'll copy the background image to another layer, go to the Filters and find the Smart Blur in the Blur submenu. I'll set it to the Medium quality and the Overlay Edge mode. The Radius will be something about 28 and the Threshold 2.1 It actually took me some time when I was experimenting with the headband, but really, this is not as hard as setting the Dust & Scratches or even the Surface Blur filters, it's pretty intuitive. But it takes quite some time for the filter to work, so have some patience. When it's finished, you can see these tiny white strands that taint the background. I'll get rid of them by using the Median filter twice, Radius 1 each time. Then I'll use the Dust & Scratches filter as well, Radius 2, Threshold 12. One time is not enough, so I'll use it three times, each time removing more residue from the background. It's not equal to using it with the settings that are three times stronger, doing it step by step is actually better.

Now it's time to turn the image black and white. I'll use the Levels to turn the background black. When that's done, it's time to use the Brush to work on the isolation mask, which is not perfect. There are many parts of the image that require manual painting with either black or white color. But that doesn't really take long, as the mask is not really bad, it's quite good already. Now I'm satisfied with it, so I'll invert the image and do the same Blend if trick, just like before. I'll copy the original image and place it on top of our mask, and then I'll just tell it not to blend if the underlying layer is white. That's it, the headband is now isolated. I'll resize it for an imaginary online store to make it look even better. And just like before, the whole process took me about 5 minutes.

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You can download the images for practice purposes from the gallery above. Each thumbnail is linked to the respective hi-res image, just click on the thumbnails you need to open them in a separate window. You can right-click and "Save link as…" to download images without having to open them first.

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