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Transparency isolation. No background

Have you ever worked with PNG images? If so, you must be familiar with the transparency isolation already. It has a major difference with the traditional isolation, because instead of a white background or any other solid color background there's no background at all. Which means you can insert this kind of image on any kind of background and it will fit. I do understand why this kind of imagery exists, but what I don't get is why it sometimes makes its way into catalogue retouching.

The deal is that transparency isolation is rather demanding in terms of quality. It won't forgive you any jagged edges or pieces of original background stuck to your cutouts. This is why it's much harder to remove the background than to fill it with some solid color, especially when it's close to the original background in tone. Transparency isolation can be as easy for smooth objects, but if you get fur or anything like that – it's a pain in the bottom unless the photographers do a very good job and you can use the blend-if technique or even the chroma key automatic background removal technique described previously.

I won't be revealing any secrets as there is no such thing as magical isolation. You'll have to rely on the Select & Mask and its Refine Edge Brush Tool pretty heavily, and you'll probably have to master the Background Eraser and the Magic Eraser tools, and perhaps even learn how to create masks from channels and things like that. In product image retouching, we don't really do all that. So I'll only say a few words about the whole idea of transparency isolation.

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So how can you do it? When you open the image, click on this tiny lock next to the Background in the Layers panel. It will turn the Background layer into a Layer. This change will allow you to delete pixels from the original image. When the Background is locked, you can't really make it transparent. Now select the object in any way that will provide you with a clear soft edge. I'll use the Quick Selection Tool, but you have to realize that if the object was made of fur there would be a lot of trouble. So, after you've got the object selected, inverse the selection and press the Delete key on your keyboard, which will just delete all the background pixels and leave you with the object on a transparent background. In Photoshop transparency is represented with the grey and white checkers.

If you want to save the file so that it doesn't lose the transparent background, you can't use the Jpeg format. The correct web format for the transparent images is PNG. You can save it directly by pressing Ctrl-S and choosing PNG from a list of file formats. Or you can go to the Export submenu of the File menu and do the Save for Web – this will allow you to get a compressed image which will weigh less. PNG-24 will not lose much in color, while PNG-8 will, but it weighs even less than that, like three times less.

When you have a PNG image, you can open it in Photoshop, select all and paste into another image – it will be inserted as an object with no background attached.


This kind of imagery can be used for making composites and things like that. But in product image retouching – not so much. Once an online store I worked in opened a side project for a virtual dressing room – a kind of website where you can dress a mannequin and combine all sorts of clothes and accessories as you see fit. The project was a total failure – you know why? Because the retouching costs were too high. It turned out to be impossible to automatically isolate clothes shot on a chroma-key mannequin (because of all the green color cast I told you about) and retouchers had to cut every item out manually with the Pen Tool.

Isolation of objects with a fuzzy edge is a total pain if you want the background to be transparent. And for what – to get an option to change the background of your images? Today you want everything to be on white, but tomorrow you change your mind and switch to some other color? Yes, you can do it easily in PNG without losing a single bit of quality. Changing the background is easy. But that's the only advantage of the file format.

Uncompressed PNGs also weigh about two times more than Jpegs of the same specifications, which is absolutely not great for online stores. Because the time it takes for an image to fully load when a customer opens the respective page is absolutely essential. People don't like to wait. This is probably the reason why I haven't ever worked with PNG images, and you probably won't have to as well. I just made this article to make sure you know about this option.

The following chapter is dedicated to complicated isolation issues. There are images that are shot so poorly, that you would want to cry when you see them. But in our work, it's just inevitable sometimes, so I'll show you that there are more ways to isolate an image that I've already described, and that you can isolate images easily even when it doesn't seem possible at the first glance.

Next: Complicated issues


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