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Isolation tools and techniques in Photoshop – overview

Now, what's isolation again? It's the process of background removal or replacement in retouching. We isolate an object from the background to fill the latter with white – at least most of the time that's exactly what we're doing. I also use the “background removal” term sometimes, but it's not very correct, as we're not removing anything, it's only true in case of the transparency isolation, which is a bit rare nowadays. It's really important to understand what exactly is going on, keep that in mind.

There are a lot of tools that can be used background removal, but let’s start with the traditional tools. Isolation usually comes hand in hand with selecting because to separate your image from the background you have to select either of them first. Some techniques require no active selection, but they are usually either far from accurate or too complicated to use on a daily basis.

The things I’m going to explain are most probably already known to you, but I need to make sure that you have all the necessary information, and later, when I’ll be showing the real-life examples and working with them, no questions should arise like what was that feature and how can you do that with that tool.

Rectangular & Elliptical Marquee

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We’ll start with the Marquee Tools – one of the most simple ways to make a selection. You can access them either from the panel or by pressing M on the keyboard or Shift-M if you want to switch between the Rectangular and the Round Marquee Tool. If you have something round or rectangular, they can be helpful. A useful feature of these tools: if you press Space in the process of drawing a selection, you can move it around the screen. So if you try to select something and miss, you don’t have to start anew, just move the selection to the right place.

You can also add one selection to another by holding Shift, or subtract one from another by holding Alt right before drawing the next selection. But as my experience tells me, most of the time we add selections to each other, so let’s save us some effort and just press the “Add to selection” button in the tool settings tab. From now on this tool will add selections by default, so you don’t have to hold any buttons. That’s pretty convenient. In fact, every selection tool can and should be set up in the same way.

Also, you can draw perfect circles and squares instead of ellipses and rectangles by holding Shift after you’ve started drawing and while you’re still holding down the left mouse button. There’s also an input field where you can set the amount of feathering of the next selection you’re going to make in case you need it blurry. The bigger the value is, the more blurry the selection will be. It is set to zero by default and that’s exactly the way I prefer it.

There are also these “Single row” and “Single column” Marquee Tools, and they can select a single pixel row or column, but I don’t think they are very useful, at least not in the catalogue retouching.

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The Marquee group is often underestimated, as there are not too many objects that are totally round or rectangular in product image retouching. But that's not the reason why these tools are so useful. Unlike most Tolerance-based tools like the Select Color Range or the Magic Wand, the Marquee tools make solid selections. It means that if you make a rectangular and fill it with white, there will be no residue left within. This fact makes the Rectangular Marquee a great companion for the Magic Wand. We will be using them together all the time, just wait a bit.

Freehand & Polygonal Lasso

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The next group of selection tools is right below the Marquee group in the Toolbar. There we have our Lassos. Press L to select a Lasso Tool and Shift-L to switch between the three of them. Freehand Lasso is used for drawing selections manually like you would draw with a brush. You need to have a pretty steady hand to master this tool. Polygonal Lasso is not so tricky to use – you have time to plan your next move. Every time you click the left mouse button, it adds a straight line to the selection. Double-click to finish. If you hold Alt while working with both of these tools, you can switch between them without breaking the selection.

If you’ve misclicked while making a polygonal selection, you don’t have to start all over again. Just press Delete and the last line you’ve made will be gone. The reason why this tool is not very useful is that if you double-click, the selection gets finished. So if you click rather fast while making a selection, you can accidentally finish your selection without any way to fix it unless you're willing to start all over again. If you don't want that to happen, you have to either work slowly to avoid double-clicking, or avoid this tool completely and select with something else, like the Pen tool.

There’s also this Magnetic Lasso Tool which looks very cool at first glance, but in fact, it is much more tricky and less stable than any of the selection-making tools that I know. Its use is very limited, but if you want to master it, you can do it on your own. I’m not going to use this tool at all, so you won’t see it appearing in any of the following videos.

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The Freehand lasso requires a steady hand, which makes it a trial-and-error kind of tool. We don't like this kind of tools in catalogue retouching. The Polygonal lasso tends to finish selections if you accidentally make a double click, so unless your selection requires you to click less than 5 times, it's a risky tool. But if you need to make a solid triangle or something like that, it's the tool of choice.

I know some retouchers that find the Pen Tool too difficult to master and use the Polygonal Lasso instead with, well, some success, but this is not such a good idea. The Polygonal Lasso is only able to make jagged lines while the Pen Tool makes curved lines, and one cannot substitute the other. You can't really avoid the Pen Tool forever, so I really advise you brace yourself and master it in case you haven't yet.

Magic wand & Quick Selection

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The next two tools I will be talking about are very useful in catalogue retouching. Press W to select one of them and Shift-W to switch between the two. The first one is the Magic Wand Tool. Sounds promising, right? When you click it on the image, it selects pixels according to the Tolerance setting. The more this value is, the more pixels of similar color will be selected. If you check the “contiguous” box, it will select pixels only in the area where you click the tool. No tick in the “contiguous” box means the tool will work with the whole images, selecting pixels of similar color everywhere. Similar to the color picked from where you click it, of course. When you use this tool in catalogue retouching, make sure you have the “Add to selection” button pressed in the Tool Options, because you’ll most probably have to click a few times to select something right. And while we can add selections to each other by holding Shift while clicking, pressing the button will save us the worry. To remove a selection, you can just click outside the image. By the way, you can also easily deselect any image by pressing Ctrl-D.

There’s one huge problem with this tool, which is otherwise very useful by all means. When you try to use it to isolate something from the background, and you select the background and try to fill it with white, it turns out that the selection is not very tidy, and all the dust and trash is still there out of its boundaries, and the edge of the product doesn’t look very nice either. It depends on the Tolerance setting, but if you try and use bigger Tolerance values, the object will often be selected as well as the background. So it's only natural to keep the Tolerance down to avoid this unpleasant effect, but when it's set to something low, a lot of background trash will be overlooked. I'm not going to explain how to deal with this issue now, so just keep this in your mind. When we get to the isolation process in detail, I will explain how to solve this problem.

The next tool is very popular among the retouchers that I know. Judging by its name, the Quick Selection Tool is supposed to create selections, and quickly. Which is, in fact, true. On the other hand, the selections it creates are usually far from perfect. Personally, I don’t advise using this tool too much, but people love it, and during the quality control stage I tend to see a lot of faulty isolations due to use of this tool without paying attention to the selections it makes. Let’s first see how it works.

The Quick Selection Tool is similar to any brush. It means that you can draw with it, and you can also change the size, hardness and other parameters of its tip. To select something, just click and drag your pointer over it, and the tool will do the rest. By the rest, I mean that it will determine what you’re trying to select and then it will try to select is as well as it can. Sometimes it works great and it takes only a few seconds to select something. But this mostly happens if you have a solid object with definite smooth edges on a contrasted background.

If you tick the “Auto-enhance” box, the tool will work much better, but slower. This is a must if you wish it to create neat and tidy selections. Without the auto-enhance feature, they are just worthless. Make sure it’s checked.

If the edges are not very definite, it's highly unlikely that you'll be able to make a proper selection with this tool. It will eat away parts of your objects if you don't pay enough attention.

It also doesn't work very well on textures, so you won't be able to easily select this skirt despite the fact that it's dark and solid and contrasted with the background. All these flaws make the Quick Selection tool rather unpredictable and sloppy. If I were you, I wouldn't rely on it so much.

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When I'm retouching, I usually try not to use the Quick Selection Tool at all, as it often makes crooked selections and as it happens fast, it's hard to notice if it went wrong. In cases where the Magic Wand would succeed flawlessly, the Quick Selection fails miserably. But I was never successful in convincing other retouchers not to use it, as it's simple and quick, and retouchers tend to hurry when they are isolating. So go on ahead and use it, just don't blame me when your images get rejected because of faulty isolation or weird edges.

Pen Tool

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The Pen Tool is another powerful tool used by millions of Photoshop users all over the world. Although in catalogue retouching its use is limited. First of all, we don’t really need to create paths, selections are quite enough for the task at hand. Also, the Pen Tool is great when you need to select something with sharp and smooth edges, but it’s almost useless in all the other cases. And it’s not easy to master and quite slow to work with. But it’s absolutely necessary for any catalogue retoucher to be able to use it because in some cases it’s the only tool capable of selecting something in particular. Especially when an object is white and it blends with the background.

I will not be explaining the basics of this tool, because you most probably know how to make curvy shapes with its help, and we don’t really need to do anything more complex than that. So, just a few crucial facts about it. When you click it, it makes a straight line from one point to another. When you click and drag, it makes a curved line depending on how you move the pointer. When you click and drag, if you hold space at the same, dragging will move the point instead of changing the curve. If the previous line was curved, the next one will be curved, too, and the angle will depend on the previous curve. If you want the next line to be straight, hold Alt and click on the last point. Then you can make it straight or curved if you wish. You can also drag corners by holding Alt, clicking on them and moving. But I try to avoid it as it's time-consuming, sometimes it's faster to just undo the point and redo it properly.

Remember, that by pressing Ctrl-Enter you can quickly turn your path into a selection, even if it's unfinished. Also, if you press the Settings button in the Pen Tool panel and check the “Rubberband” checkbox, you’ll see this helpful imaginary curve that will show you how exactly it will look when you set the next point. It might be annoying for some users, but for those just starting to master the great Pen, it might be of use.

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The biggest flaw of the Pen Tool is that you have to practice a lot to work fast, otherwise, selection-making will take many minutes. As a typical online store image usually requires a minute or two to be retouched, a slow tool like the Pen shouldn't be used on a regular basis. It's more an emergency tool – as it's able to define edges when there's none.

Despite the fact that we don't use this tool very often, it is absolutely necessary to master it to be able to quickly make paths and turn them into selections. There will be a lot of situations when it's the only tool fit for the task at hand.

Okay, that’s it for the direct selection-making tools. Let’s now discuss other tools that can be also used to make selections in a more subtle, indirect way.

Quick Mask

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One of the very useful Photoshop features meant to make isolation easier is the Quick Mask mode. You can enable it anytime by pressing Q on the keyboard. When it’s on, you can use any drawing tools to create selections. For example, if I switch it on, then select the Brush Tool, and paint over some area, no black color will appear on the image, it will be red instead, and when I switch the Quick Mask mode off, this area, which is NOT red will turn into a selection. If the brush tip was soft, the selection will be feathery, and vice versa.

By default, it doesn’t turn red areas into selected areas but does the opposite instead. I find it rather inconvenient, and I usually prefer it the other way around. There’s the Quick Mask button down here in the Tools panel. By clicking it twice you can open the settings window. And by switching from the Color indicates Masked areas to the Color indicates Selected areas you solve this problem. By the way, you can also change the quick mask color itself if red doesn’t look so appealing.

As I said, while in the Quick Mask mode, you can use drawing tools to make selections. When you use the Brush, black will create a dense selection and white will erase it. Gray color will select an area partially, the darker the less transparency. You can switch between the Foreground and Background color quickly by pressing X, and if you press D, they will reset to default, which is black and white. Instead of drawing with a brush and erasing with an eraser, I prefer switching between the colors and use just one tool instead. I switch between tools when I want to change the hardness of the brush tip from hard to soft and vice versa. So I set the Brush tip to be hard and the Eraser tip to be soft, and now both tools can be used for drawing and erasing in the Quick mask mode. It’s faster than changing the brush tip by pressing Shift-[] (square brackets). Also, if you need to draw a straight line with your brush, just click once at the beginning of the line, hold Shift, and then click again – at the end of the line. Normally, when you work with catalogue images, you don’t need to use the Quick Mask manually too often, but some of its features are quite useful. It's a good idea to use it to fix selections made with the Quick Selection tool.

You can modify any selection created by any tools in the Quick Mask mode by using filters. Remember the Magic Wand tidiness problem? When I use it to select a not-so-consistent background if often skips dust and dirt, making the isolation messy. But if you switch to the Quick Mask mode before filling the selection with white, and use some filter to make it smoother, the problem will be solved. For example, if we use the Median filter and set its value to something between 4 and 6 (it depends on the image), we’ll get rid of these nasty dots and get a nice white background when we fill it with white. And this is great.

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If you want to reapply the last filter you’ve used quickly, you can press Ctrl-F. In the last version of Photoshop that I used this shortcut was assigned to Search by default, so I’ve had to change it manually via the Keyboard Shortcuts menu. Now, when I press Ctrl-F, it just applies the last filter I’ve used with the same settings I’ve used. And if I press Ctrl-Alt-F, it brings a dialogue window of the last filter I’ve used. Actually, if you have Search assigned to your Ctrl-F, you cannot bring a dialogue window by pressing Ctrl-Alt-F, because in this case, it will just apply the last filter. So if you find this “Last filter with a dialogue window” useful, you have to make some changes in your Keyboard Shortcuts.

Using the Median filter doesn't solve the Magic Wand problem completely, and we'll get to it a bit later, but it's a good example how filters can modify selections in the Quick Mask mode.

Select Color Range

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Another way of creating selections that is worth mentioning is the Select Color Range command. You can find it in the Select menu, but there’s no keyboard shortcut by default, so if you use it often (which I don’t), you can assign it by yourself. It works similar to the Magic Wand tool. You click on the image to select areas of similar colors. The Fuzziness slider makes the color pool wider if moved to the right, and vice versa. Just play around with it to get the hang of it.

Newer versions of Photoshop allow you to select the Skin tones and even to Detect Faces. It doesn’t work perfectly, of course, there’s no magic. But in some cases, this feature might be useful. It's just not very popular because it takes quite some time to click around the image to make a decent selection, and the selection has all the problems typical for the Magic Wand tool like rough edges and trash leftovers.

There's a bug in the Select Color Range command that I encountered when I was working on some of my catalogue retouching actions. It was rather confusing, so I'd like to tell you about it to avoid possible frustration. Imagine that we need to select the background on this image and record it as a part of an action. So I'll start recording a new action and access the Color Range command. I'll click somewhere on the background with the eyedropper and then increase the Fuzziness until I get the whole background selected. Now let's press okay and check if it works. Next time I run the action it seems to do exactly the same thing – it selects the background around the object. I'll call this action “Select white” so that I don't forget what it's supposed to select.

Now I'll make another action and start recording straight away. I'll access the Color Range command just like before, but this time I'll not be using the Sampled Colors option, I'll click on this dropout menu and choose Shadows. I'll move the sliders a bit till I get the shoes selected and press Enter. Seems that I've got my shoes selected. Let's run it again – same as before, it selects the shoes. I'll call the action “Select black” so that I can distinguish easily between the two. I'm ready to show you the bug, so pay attention to this:

When I run the action which is called “Select white” it will select the shoes instead of the background despite its name and despite the fact I didn't record this. This is definitely a bug, and it happens will all the Color Range recorded steps if you use Sampled Colors to define the tonal range you want to select. Every time you use the Select Color Range command and pick something else from the menu, like Highlights or Shadows, it messes up your recorded actions. But only if you recorded Sampled Colors. So the easiest way to resolve this is stop using the Shadows, Highlights or any other options from the menu, and stick to the Sampled Colors only. This is what I do, because it's a more subtle approach and it serves my needs better. You can also save a preset and load it, but that's a bit tedious. Well, not that you know about the bug you won't be surprised when and if you encounter it.

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As the Select Color Range works similar to the Magic Wand but is always discontiguous, it's not really a tool of choice for us. When you use it for isolation, there's always a chance of damaging the object. No edges will stop the insides of the object from being selected if they are of the same color range as the background. That's why we prefer the Magic Wand tool.

P.S: Adobe fixed the bug I've mentioned in the video in the CC 2019 version. At last!

Select & Mask

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You’ve probably noticed that every selection tool has access to the Select&Mask feature. Let’s see how it works. Whether you would like to create a selection, or you already have an active selection, you can press the Select & Mask button in the tool panel, or access it from the Select menu. Using it to create selections is not such a good idea. Even if you have a dark object on a white background – the selections created by the Quick Selection tool while in the Select & Mask mode are pretty awful. The Refine Edge Brush tool doesn't always produce a nice result either, but you can use it to try to improve the edges messed up by the Quick Selection brush. The last brush, which is just a Brush, works like a black or white brush in the Quick Mask mode. It can either add to or subtract from a mask in freehand mode. As I said, creating selections from scratch is surprisingly sloppy, so let's concentrate on the modification of previously made selections.

When you access the Select & Mask with an active selection, you can make it automatically detect the edge for you, just input the Radius value and check this Smart Radius box if you want a smart detection, whatever that is. You can also make global refinements by moving the following sliders. The Smoothness will straighten out hills and holes in the selection edge so that it will more likely resemble a straight line. The Feather will make it blurry, the Contrast will make the edge harder and more noticeable, and the Shift Edge can contract or expand the selection.

This is a nice set of options, for sure, but the problem is that sometimes you have to spend a lot of time getting the right combination of all these values, and sometimes it still won’t work. And if the image is very big, which happens quite often in catalogue retouching, and you’re moving a lot of sliders, the whole Select&Mask thing can lag and sometimes even shut down without warning, which is kind of annoying. So I can’t say I use this command often, but it’s good to be familiar with. There are certain cases when there’s no other way to select something fast other than using this command.

If you want the Select & Mask to give you selections instead of layer masks, which is much more convenient in catalogue retouching, make sure you scroll the right side panel down and set the Output to Selection.

I also have to mention, that Select&Mask command replaced the old Refine Edge command, which, in my opinion, actually worked better. Fortunately, it’s still available in the newer versions of Photoshop but is a bit tricky to access. You have to go to the Select menu, hold Shift and click on the Select&Mask command. It will open a Refine Edge window instead.

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Select & Mask is an absolute gem when you need to isolate human hair, as there are little to no alternatives to the Refine Edge Brush tool. Make sure it's the first thing you try when you need to isolate hair without making a mess.

Select Subject

Photoshop CC 2018 has a new feature, which is called the Select Subject. It was widely advertised as a breakthrough algorithm for image isolation, able to select people and objects on complex backgrounds thanks to some kind of artificial intelligence. I have always been skeptical about “magical” techniques because they usually work only on particular images used in the ads. That's why I didn't hurry to switch from CC 2017 to 2018 until the very end when I had to do it because I had to describe the Select Subject for the course.

I was right after all because this brand new algorithm didn't impress me at all. It takes a hell of a time to make a selection with it, and the selections are far from accurate. But let me at least demonstrate you how it functions so that you can decide for yourself whether it's any good or not.

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You can access the Select Subject from within the Select & Mask Interface, or just switch to any selection-making tool like the Magic Wand and you'll see the respective button in the tool panel, next to the Select & Mask button. Just click on it and you'll get a selection. It's as easy as that. The problem is that selections are almost never correct. In fact, this algorithm works even worse than I expected it to. I thought it would be able to select at least solid dark objects on a consistent light background. But it doesn't, or at least it fails from time to time even in the simplest cases. See for yourself:

This hat is really contrasted to the background. So when I press the Select Subject button, it makes a correct selection in a few seconds. I'll switch to the Quick Mask mode so that you can see for yourself, that's a pretty decent selection if you ask me. Not mentioning the fact that I could have done the same with just two clicks of Magic Wand, but that's alright.

How about this yellow bag, which is so solid and easy to select? Nope, no luck this time. The area between the handles is all messed up. A metal end of the belt is eaten away, which is not great. Could have done better with the Magic Wand, and maybe even faster.

This shoe is blue and it's so easy to select it with the Magic Wand. I'll just click around with the Tolerance set to 10 so that it doesn't select the left side of the heel which is a bit bright. A few fast clicks is all it takes. Now let's compare it to what an Artificial Intelligence can do. No luck this time – it messed up the heel, but apart from that the selection is alright.

Let's see if it can select fur. Who knows, if it could, it would be awesome. But no, it just eats away everything. No luck here either.

Wait, maybe it's able to isolate white objects that are not really contrasted with the background? No, of course not. Not that I really expected it to work nicely.

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So here's the conclusion: if you're dealing with dark and solid objects on a light and consistent background, you can expect the Select Subject algorithm to make decent selections unless you encounter fur or stuff like that. Sometimes it works surprisingly better than what you can do with the Magic Wand, but only sometimes. After playing around with it for a few hours and testing it on a hundred of different images, I decided not to include the Select Subject in my workflow, meaning that I won't be recommending it to any catalogue retouchers. But there is one way of using it that might come in handy: batch your images with it.

Record an action that will run the Select Subject. When you have some images in need of isolation opened, go to the File/Automate/Batch, find your action in the list and run it on all the opened files. It might take a while, but in the end, you'll have a crude selection on every image. It might be faster than creating them from scratch, but that really depends on the images.

Levels & Curves

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This is a method that I found in many background removing tutorials online, which means it's rather popular. And this is not a good method, despite the fact that it's evidently being used by many retouchers. What they do is access the Levels window and drag the rightmost slider to the left. If the background was bright enough, it would become more and more white until it can't be any whiter. You can check how white it is by clicking on the white eyedropper, which is on the right, under the Options button and then put it somewhere on the image and hold the Alt key. What is white will be shown as white, the rest will be shown as black and blue or cyan or else, depending on the RGB coordinates of the respective pixels. Instead of dragging the rightmost slider, you can use the same white eyedropper to set the white point of the image by choosing a place on the background and clicking on it. All the pixels of the same color and lighter than the sample will turn white. You can click and then check the result by holding Alt. When most of the background or at least the background around the object becomes white, you can press OK.

You can also use the Curves for exactly the same purpose. Use the white eyedropper to set the white point. Hold Alt to check what is white and what is not. Now the background is white, congratulations. Or not.

The deal is that at this point most retouchers that write these tutorials are happy about the result and start patting themselves on the back. What makes me not happy about the result is that the object we isolated has changed. It became brighter. And it's not a good thing to make items brighter or darker randomly when isolating. It is not supposed to happen.

The effect will be more evident on white items. Try to do the same here and you'll see that the t-shirt will disappear with the background, being approximately the same color. So what we did to this t-shirt was done to the shoe as well, it just wasn't that evident. Normally isolation is not supposed to change the items' appearance. So really, if you want to ever use this method, take care of restoration of the items, otherwise, it would be a lousy job.

Getting back to the bag. Now that the background is white, you can select it by clicking on it with the Magic Wand with Tolerance set to 1. Invert the selection and access the Fill window by pressing Shift-F5. Then fill the selected area with the History, and it will be restored to its original state. Pay attention to the fact that isolation by the Curves or the Levels doesn't solve any background residue or trash issues, everything's just left there for you to clean.

Personally, I strongly advise you not to use this method at all. There are far better ways to isolate an image without altering items, or at least without altering them so much.

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There's a similar method that involves using Levels and Curves to get an image mask, but this is completely another story. When you use a mask you don't alter the image, you just hide some parts of it and reveal others. But this method is just increasing the contrast of the image until a light background becomes white, and this is not a good way to isolate. Don't do it. As for the masking process, I don't use it as there are other methods that are not as time consuming and tricky.

Selective Color

The Selective Color method is somewhat similar to the method described above, just a bit better. It can be used to isolate objects shot on a consistent light background, and it can be useful when you have a bunch of dark hair or fur. Won't work on light colored objects though. You can access the Selective Color from the Image menu, Adjustments submenu, as it doesn't have a shortcut.

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Now let's continue working with the bag from the previous example so that you can compare these methods. As for the Selective Color settings, go to the Whites and drag the Black slider to the left until it hits 100% percent. Set the Method to the Relative, as the Absolute works in a more harsh and unstable way. Now press OK. This might not be enough, you can check with the Levels by dragging the leftmost slider to the far right. If the background is not white enough, press Escape and repeat the Selective Color with exactly the same settings. You might think it's a bit time consuming as you have to go and rummage around the menus and pull sliders, but it can be done quickly. All you have to do is assign a Shortcut for the Selective Color, and it has be Ctrl something. I have it on Ctrl-. Now if I want to use the Selective Color with the same settings as the last time, I just press Ctrl-Alt-. and it applies the same settings to the image and brings the window as well. If I go to the Whites, you'll see the Black slider already set to -100%. After that, you can just press OK and apply the effect.

Unlike setting the white point via Levels or Curves, it doesn't affect the whole image so much, only the whites, which are in the rightmost section of the Histogram. If your item is not white, it won't really be affected with this. This bag is covered in glitter, and glitter means glares – so it does get affected, but not to the extent of ruining the image. The method doesn't really help to get rid of trash and leftovers on the background, so I can't say it's quite handy, but it's good to know it exists. Sometimes it will save you a lot of time.

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As an isolating method, the Selective Color is not great at all. When you have an image and you need to separate the object from the background, it won't work so well. But as a method of partial isolation, when you already have your image isolated and need to fix some flaws – it can do its job surprisingly well. You'll see it when we get to hair isolation.

Background Eraser

The basic Eraser tool acts like a white brush if you use it on the Background layer. If used on a Layer it just erases the Layer. We don't really work much with layers in catalogue retouching, at least we try to avoid creating them if it's not necessary. Most of the time you will be using the Eraser as a white brush. But there's this little brother of the Eraser Tool, which is called the Background Eraser. You can see some very impressive tutorials online where people use it to isolate complicated hair frizzes and things like that. Is it really so great? Let's try it out.

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If you play around with it a few minutes, you'll find out that it is a bit capricious in terms of settings and you have to set it up carefully and try a few combinations of settings before it starts working. There are quite a few things you can set up. The first thing to care about is to decide how it will sample the background. It can be a continuous sampling, which means it will get new samples as you move the brush. It can also sample once – where you click it, and use this sample all the way. Or it can use the Background color as a sample. Most of the time you'll need it Once.

Then there's the choice between the Contiguous, the Discontiguous and the Find Edges options. It's easier to show that to explain. I'll crop this hat so that you could see the pompom better. That's what we're going to isolate. I'll copy the background layer contents to another layer, and I'll fill the background layer with some color so that you could see what's going on. I'll set the Tolerance to 50 before I start using the Background Eraser. At Tolerance 1 it is very capricious and hardly erases anything, and at 100 it eats away all it can reach. 50 is something in between and it's a good start. Now when I use the Background Eraser on the background around the pompom, the gray background disappears, and the red layer that lies underneath appears.

When set to Discontiguous it will erase pretty much everything if it's the same color as the sample. The color sample is taken exactly from the hot spot, which is in the middle of the brush tip. When I use it close to the hat, it erases gray pixels there as well. When set to Contiguous, it will only erase gray pixels that are connected to the sample, and it will not erase the insides of the hat. In the Find Edges mode, it will use some advanced algorithms to try and find edges and prevent them from being erased. It works much more clumsily in this mode.

I'd stick to Contiguous if I was going to try and isolate this pompom. By the way, you can also choose the Hardness of the brush tip and set it from 0 to 100. Soft brushes tend to leave a lot of residue, so it's not really a good choice. Look, I'll set the Hardness to 0% and drag it around the pompom. It might not look so bad, but when I fill the bottom layer with white and flatten the image, you can see there's a lot of residue left. To see it I'll access the Levels and drag the leftmost slider to the far right. Is this good isolation to you? I don't think so.

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While it is possible to use this tool for tricky objects like those made of fur, it's a bit messy and sloppy, so don't expect good results. I know better ways how to do the same thing. Seriously, instead of setting this tool up and dragging it around the screen I could have just used the Selective Color with a better result than this.

But if you deal with transparency isolation and have to remove the background completely instead of just filling it with white – you might want to familiarize yourself with this tool.

Now that you know how the Background Eraser works, let's move on to the Magic Eraser.

Magic Eraser

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Despite the name, the Magic Eraser doesn't do any magic. It's similar to the Magic Wand though. You can just click on the background as you would with the Magic Wand. The difference is that the Magic Eraser erases pixels straight away instead of selecting them. Tolerance works the same way: the bigger the value, the more pixels will be erased. Set it too low, like 4, and it will leave pieces of background. Set it too high, like 40, and it will eat your object even if it's not white like the background. Because of this, and because it's a bit awkward to guess how it will work, this is not my favorite isolation tool.

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The fact that Magic Eraser deletes pixels straight away makes it quite useless for product image retouching. We usually want to select pixels and modify the selection before doing anything radical, as this approach gives us more control over the whole process of isolation. I've only included this tool in my course because I thought it was necessary for you to see the variety of tools and methods available in Photoshop.

Blend if

There's an easy way how to isolate objects shot on a relatively even white background. The best thing about this method is that it can be used to isolate fur and other complicated edges. I also love the fact that it's very quick to use, and it's not as straightforward as the Selective Color.

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This furry thing is supposed to be isolated on white with a natural shadow underneath. I'll copy the image to another layer, then go to the Background layer and fill it with black. I don't need black, I need white, but it's not to easy to see what's being isolated otherwise. Now I'll double-click the top layer in the Layers panel to bring the Layer Style window and the Blending Options tab. Now let's learn how to use the Blend if feature.

You can see that “Blend if” lets you pick Gray, which is the luminance channel, or work with each of the three RGB channels separately. Let’s stay with the basic, gray mode for now.

There are two separate sets of sliders which you can move. The first couple of sets are responsible for “This layer”, which is the top layer. It’s our furry thing on the white background. So what happens if we move the rightmost, the white slider, to the left. The white background gradually stops blending, and in this case, it just disappears. Why? Because we’re telling it: “Stop blending if the top layer is any brighter than the number we stopped at”. And as the top layer is more or less white, or rather light gray, it just stops blending straight away, and when it doesn’t blend, in normal mode it just disappears. What you can see is the bottom layer seeing through. But before we do anything else, let's go back.

Remember that you could choose a particular RGB channel instead of sticking to the luminance channel? It's time to do this. Most of the time the Blue channel is your best bet, but let's see it for ourselves. You can access the channels one by one in the Channels tab, but there are also shortcuts that you could and should use as it's faster. Ctrl-2 lets you see the composite image, Ctrl-3 shows the Red channel, Ctrl-4 is for the Green channel and Ctrl-5 is for the Blue channel. What you need to determine is which channel is the most contrasted with the background. This time it's definitely blue, as the image in this channel looks darker than in the other channels.

So let's go and access the Blend if again and this time set it to Blue. Now it will blend if the Blue channel fits some values determined by the sliders' position. Let's drag the same slider to the left. Make sure it doesn't eat away all the fur. When you're satisfied, stop. Now it's time to make the shadow a bit softer. The slider I was dragging around is actually two sliders fused together. To separate them, hold Alt and click on one of them and drag it away from the other one, to the right. Adjust until you're happy with the result.

Now look, all that's left is to replace the black color of the background with white. If we look at the isolation result through the Levels, you'll see that it's pretty decent. There is some trash left, so I'd better grab the Lasso tool and select the area around the furry thing and fill it with white to fix it. As for the shadow transition, if it's not smooth enough, it's easy to fix with the history brush. But the fur texture looks very nice, and this is why I like the "Blend if" method. Unfortunately, you can only use it if the object was originally shot on a more or less even white (or black) background.

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Now you know pretty much everything you need to start isolating images for the сatalogues. There are other tools and techniques that might be used, too. I’ve seen tutorial videos where they offer to use the Dodge tool to isolate objects or the Replace Color command. Honestly, I don’t think those are good ways to work with images, they are too destructive (I'm telling you this and yes, I am a person who teaches other people not to use adjustment layers). The Dodge tool might be used to lighten the edges after isolation, but if you try and use it to isolate an object, it will most probably cause color and tone shifts of the object you are working with, or at least its edges. The Replace color command is great when you need to quickly change the color of something, but it will most probably ruin your object as well if you try to replace the background color with white. Product image isolation should not be that destructive, as we’re trying to keep the colors as they are after the color correction stage, not the other way around.

I also didn’t mention masking other than the Quick Mask mode, and it was intentional. Masking is an important method of isolating images, but it's a bit too advanced and time-consuming for catalogue retouching. You can't get a decent mask fast unless the object is dark and contrasted to the light background, and if it's not, the mask will require a lot of slider moving and freehand drawing. We can't really afford that, as there are faster and more reliable methods how to isolate an image. It’s good if you know how to work with layer masks and clipping masks, how to create and modify them, but I assure you don’t have to do it to be a successful online-store product image editor. You’ll see it for yourself. In the next series of videos, I will show you how to apply the tools and techniques you've learned to the real-life retouching cases, and we’ll be able to isolate pretty much everything in mere minutes without creating a single layer mask or a clipping path.

Next: Tools and methods of choice

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