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Tools and methods of choice. How to quickly make the background white in Photoshop

Now that you know all the basic tools and methods available in Photoshop, let's see which are the most useful to achieve a white background in seconds.

Rectangular Marquee and Magic Wand

One of the best tools for e-commerce catalogue images isolation is the Magic Wand Tool used together with the Rectangular Marquee Tool. Now, that might sound weird. Why these tools, why not some other tools? As I said already, the Pen Tool is great and very precise, but rather slow and not good for fuzzy selections. It would take me many minutes to isolate this bag with the Pen, all because of these tiny golden thingies. The Quick Selection Tool is good with solid objects and smooth edges, but otherwise fails and often removes parts of objects together with the background. I might be able to select the bag with it, but not its handle.

It’s not like the Magic Wand doesn’t have its flaws. There are two problematic issues with the Magic Wand: the selections it makes are usually a bit rough and have hard edges. And when the background is not very consistent (it usually isn’t, as it’s just a piece of paper or plastic in reality), if there’s some dirt or dust present, and if the Tolerance setting is low, the trash will not be included in the selection. So after you fill with white what you've selected, there will be some dots, some leftover pieces of the background still present in the image. Sounds bad? Well, don’t worry. I know how to deal with this problem.

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So the Magic Wand has problems with dust and dirt, and it’s not just that, sometimes the images can be a bit darker around the edges, and these areas will not probably be selected as well. And if you increase the Tolerance, you might select some parts of your object, which is also bad. But I know one Tool that creates perfect selections and takes mere seconds to work, it’s the Rectangular Marquee Tool.

First of all, I’ll Select All the image by pressing Ctrl-A, and then I’ll access the Marquee Tool and draw a rectangle while holding Alt to subtract it from the existing selection. I can also hold space and move the starting point of the rectangle if its initial position is a bit off.

Now we have selected everything except the object and a small area around it, and by everything, I mean everything including the dirt or any background inconsistencies. Great! Now we can use the Magic Wand for a quick finish. I’ll click it around the object in a fast manner to include all the necessary areas in the selection. Now when I fill the selection with white, there’s still a probability that some residue will be there, but much less than if I used the Magic Wand all over the background. As for the shadow, which is supposed to stay, it's easy to restore it with a soft History Brush. Believe it or not, but if catalogue products are shot properly, you won't have to spend more than half a minute to isolate them. It is very important when you have to retouch 500 images like this in a day.

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Modifying selections

It's evident already that the Magic Wand is a great isolation tool for product image photo editors. But what about its disadvantages, like leaving trash and making edges rough? Now we’ll try to kill two birds with one stone and solve both problems, the edge and the leftover residue problems simultaneously. And the best thing about this is that we’ll be doing it automatically with an action, so as long as you make a selection around the object, consider isolation done.

How can we do that? Let’s think about what exactly we are going to do. We have a selection that doesn’t include small trash on the background, and we need to include that without messing up the object outline as well. Then, the same selection also has a rough edge which we have to turn into a smooth one without making it too hard or too blurry. How can we sort this out? By modifying the selection, of course!

There are, in fact, multiple ways how to modify a selection in Photoshop. You can use the traditional commands from the Modify submenu of the Select menu, like Smooth, Expand, Contract and Feather. Then, you can use the Select&Mask feature to do the same things in a more sophisticated way. And this is not all, you can also switch to the Quick Mask mode and modify the mask using filters like the Median, and then switch back to the normal mode. I did a lot of experimentation with all the methods I’ve mentioned and came to the following conclusion: there is no such thing as a single best method here. Select&Mask and filters usage can achieve good results, but they are rather slow. Standard selection modifying commands are not very subtle.

Selection modifying depends on image resolution greatly, because if you expand a selection by 2 pixels on a tiny image, the effect will be drastic, and on a huge hi-res it will be hardly noticeable. Same with all the other commands. But in product image retouching, we mostly deal with images of the same size, and they are also usually quite big, which is good. So you only have to struggle until you find a good combination of selection modifying commands, and then you can just use the same action on all the images you need to isolate.

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Now it’s time to see how it works. I’ll use this image which is definitely problematic. We have a flat lay, it’s a sweater, and it’s on a background that is worn out, it’s full of holes because during the shooting process people stick needles in it to attach clothes and shape them. The sweater is not smooth, it’s knitted, and the surface has a lot of small curves, so using the Pen Tool is not such a good idea. When I use the Magic Wand to select the area around the sweater, it doesn’t work with the needle holes. Now if I try to fill the selection with white, there will be a lot of residue left. A great example of how important it is to modify selections before filling them.

First of all, let’s deal with the needle holes. I’ll use the Expand selection command and expand it by, let’s say, 3 pixels. But now the object outline has shifted inwards, and I don’t want that, so I’ll contract it back by the same value, which is 3 pixels. You might wonder why do I have to expand something and then contract it back, isn’t the result going to be the same as it was before I even started modifying? In fact, there’s a huge difference. When I expanded the selection, it included all the trash on the background, as it is usually smaller than 3 pixels, and when I contracted back, it stayed out of the selection. The selection which I contracted was solid, so it only affected the object outline, not the trash. Now if I fill it with white – all the needle holes are gone.

I assure you, this is not some kind of a miracle. Every action has its consequences. In this case, the problem is that expanding and contracting makes the trash go into the selection. So if the outline of your object resembles trash, which is thin and small, like hair or fur, you will mess it up. Look at this pompom hat. If I do the same trick here, it will eat away the fur as well as the trash on the background. But is this really a big deal? In fact, no. All I have to do is grab the History brush, make sure the tip is soft and then just draw over the edge and get the fur details back as well as the shadow, which is supposed to be left in the image. Even with this History Brush work, it's much faster than handling the background trash manually.

Open

It's necessary to work with the object outline, make it a bit smoother. We’re currently dealing with the original, high-resolution image, but in the end, we’ll resize it to make it smaller, and we’ll also sharpen it, so if the edges will be rough, it won’t look so appealing. After expanding and contracting the selection, it would be good to also use the Smooth command from the same submenu and put something like 4-5 pixels in the input field. And then Feather it as well, but be careful with that one, too much and your edge will be really blurry. 1 pixel for the value here would be more than enough. What would that achieve? You can see it in the next video.

Please, bear in mind that all the numbers I’ve used, like 5 pixels here and 3 pixels there, are relative. It means that they depend on the image resolution, which is basically its size in pixels. The images that I’ve used as examples were quite big, the hat image was around 5000 pixels high and the sweater image was around 4000 pixels high. If you use the same values on images that are much bigger or much smaller than that, the result might not be so good. So it would be best if you adjust all these values accordingly, depending on the size of the images. And remember, that you should not resize your images until the very end, otherwise it might lead to quality issues.

If you work with low-res images, and anything less than 2000 pixels high is low-res, you won't really be able to benefit from edge modification, as it will severely alter your objects – no surprise when they're being so small. So if you have any choice, always go for the maximum image resolution – the more megapixels, the better. Some people think that if you're going to reduce size anyway, why bother and work with big images? Why not open them downsized straight from the Camera Raw, as it definitely speeds things up? Well, because of the image quality of course. When you don't have an opportunity to reduce the image size, pretty much anything you do messes up the edges. It's not about just the selection modification, it's about any transformation like the one caused by the Liquify filter and things like that.

Isolating action

Now it's time to record an isolating action that we'll be using to remove the background on pretty much every image except for the items made of fur and things like that. This is an absolutely necessary thing because edge modification is extremely important if you want to ever use the Magic Wand, which is one of the most simple and quick isolating tools. But as I said, it does have its flaws, like leaving tons of residue on the background. We don't want that to ruin our work, do we? Edge modification is also important if you want your items' edges to be nice and smooth, not jagged or fuzzy. And as the head of a retouching team, I also want all the images to look about the same after isolation, that's why I always make my team use the same isolating action. I will also be using it rather extensively in this course, so make sure you follow, otherwise, you won't be able to isolate images as efficiently.

The background is full of needle holes

I use this sweater image in my video, so you can download it from the gallery at the bottom of this page and use it as well. But that's just an example, you should concentrate on your images, the images you are working with all the time.

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I'll use this gray sweater image as an example and crop it to make the whole idea more evident to you. Look at the background, it's totally covered in needle holes. How can you isolate something like this? You can grab the Pen Tool and spend quite a bit of your time. Or you can try to use the Quick Selection and pray for it to work. But you know what, it doesn't work. This is exactly the kind of image you can't use it on. The item is not contrasted enough with the background, and the Quick Selection will leave you with a jagged edge.

What you can use here is the Magic Wand. I'll set the Tolerance to 15 and click on the background, just once. It selected pretty much everything I need except for the needle holes. If I try to fill the selection with white now, it will be no good at all. But let's modify the edge with an action and see how it changes everything.

I'll create a new action and call it "Isolate". After making sure the selection is still active, I'll record 5 steps of modification from the Select menu, Modify submenu. The first step will be Expand by 3 pixels. Second – Contract by 3 pixels. Then – Smooth by 5 pixels, Expand again by 1 pixel – it's a good idea to shift the selection a bit, and finally Feather, only 1 pixel. Pay attention to the fact that these values might be different if your source images are much bigger or smaller than mine. I usually work with images about 3000 to 5000 pixels high, and the action works pretty well. But it will be wreaking havoc on smaller images, and you definitely shouldn't even try using it on low-res images. Pay attention to the fact that expanding the selection by 3 and by 1 a bit later is not the same as expanding it by 4 pixels in one go.

The final command that I record will be the Fill from the Image menu. I'll set it to White, but it can be any other color like gray, depending on what kind of background color you need. Now we're done and it's time to stop recording. You can see that the background is now white, and there are no needle holes or even pins except for this large pinhead, which is too big to be erased by edge modification. It's easy to remove it with an eraser, and this is how we isolate the image in no time. Let's do it once again. Click on the background with the Magic Wand and run the isolating action. Check with the Levels if there's any residue left. It's as easy as that.

Remember, that edge modification is supposed to balance between how much trash you are able to remove from the background and how badly you damage the outline of the object you're isolating. It's the same mechanism. So be aware that you can't use it on fur because even a slight modification will destroy tiny hairs that fur is made of. If I try to run the action on this image, you'll see that fur will be eaten away. If you set the Tolerance to a low value, you won't be able to select all the background, and after running the action you will be left with a gray halo around the pompom. And if you set the Tolerance to high values, it will just eat all the fur.

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If your isolation is not supposed to be shadowless, you can easily fix it by grabbing the History brush and restoring the fur around the pompom. But if you are supposed to isolate images on a clean white background, this is not the right way to do it. Use the "Blend if" isolation trick instead or just complain until the photographers start shooting items without any shadows. It's not reasonable to leave deep shadows in the images if they are not supposed to stay after retouching. The background can be lightened with some additional lighting sources and that will get you rid of the nasty shadows.

This particular isolating action we've just recorded is pretty cruel to objects, as its main intention is to deal with dirty backgrounds efficiently. But it eats objects quite mercilessly, so if you feel like it's too strong for you, or your images are too small to use expand/contract trick on them, there are other ways how you can modify a selection.

Let's see what else can be done to a selection to modify it, so if the first version of the isolating action doesn't work too well for you, well, we'll make another two. The first isolating action we've written is good when the background is very dirty, but in some cases, it fails to work properly.

You might not notice that if you work with objects, but with mannequins, it's pretty evident.

The image to the right has quite a rough edge

If I select the background around this mannequin with some small Tolerance like 5 and run the isolating action on it, you'll see that the edge is not very smooth. It happens because the Smooth selection command we've used doesn't work so well. Instead of making a smooth line, it gives us this rough edge. It means that we will have to use some other smoothing mechanism to resolve this issue. By the way, remember the last modifying step, which is Expand again by 1 pixel? That also makes it worse. You can remove this step from the action to reduce this rough edge. But it's not just that, let's learn how else we can modify selections so that you can alter your isolating action to make it work perfectly.

Time for some Photoshop practice!

Open any image, like the mannequin above or any other image and make sure your initial selection is ready. Let's now record a new action. When we recorded the first version, I forgot to mention one very important thing. If you are not careful while making a selection, you might get your object damaged, and if that happens, it would be only reasonable if you'd want to use the History Brush to undo the damage. By default, the History Brush source is when you open the document. But in the process of retouching, we do a lot of things to the image before isolation, and we do things that change the outline of the object, like transformation and liquify, and it makes the original history source invalid. So the first step of our new action will be setting the History Brush source – right before the isolation, which would be the last step there is. Go to the History panel and click on the empty box next to the last step to set the History Brush source. It will be recorded relatively, as the “current history state”, so next time you use the action it will still be your last step available.

Now press Q to switch to the Quick Mask mode, access the Median filter and use 6 as the Radius. It depends on your images, of course, make some experimentation to see if it fits. This will smooth the edge as well as include the trash in the selection in just one step. But the edge will not be so soft, and if you want it to be softer, exit the Quick Mask and access the Feather command (Select menu, Modify submenu). Don't overdo it, 0.5 to 1 is pretty enough.

You can also use the Gaussian Blur while still in the Quick Mask mode instead of Feather, as the effect is pretty much the same. After all, Fill the background with white. Do it via the Fill menu, because if you use a shortcut like Ctrl-Backspace to fill it with white from the background swatch, it will be recorded as using the background swatch, and that is not always white. I've stepped on this kind of rake before.

As we're often working with objects that require shadow restoration, it would also be a good idea to access the History Brush by pressing Y. I have a separate article on shadow restoration (LINK) you'll get to see later, so don't be confused, it will be explained. That's it, the action is done.

If you test it on the mannequin image, you'll see that the edge looks much smoother, which is a good thing, and the action itself has fewer steps and works faster, which is just great. Does it have flaws as well? Sure it does. Just like the first action we've recorded, this action will also be rounding your sharp angles. Look closely at the area between the mannequin's legs and you'll see that the action fails to isolate the area within this sharp angle. Despite the fact that the new action works fast and makes edges smooth, it is still not perfect.

The reason why we can't fill such tiny areas with white lies within the Median filter mechanism. It smooths the selection, and smoothing is all about straightening out hills and holes. It's an essential part of this whole isolation thing. If you want to preserve sharp angles, working with the Pen Tool and filling the selected areas with white with no modification at all or with just a bit of feathering would work perfectly. But in catalogue retouching, the dirty background isolation problem is much more common than sharp angles. The isolating action has to deal with the dust and trash issue as the first priority, otherwise, it would be useless.

If you cannot find a combination of edge modification steps that works for you, it can only mean two things. Either the background is too dirty, or the image is critically small. You can't really make this work on tiny images. In this case, you can't really expect the isolating action to clean the background at all without ruining the edges of the objects. The least harmful option of edge modification would be using the Select & Mask as the one and only step. It lets you more control over the damage, and if you twiddle with it long enough, you'll surely come up with something that works. So when you have a selection ready, use the Select & Mask on it and enter something like:

Smooth 15

Feather 1

Contrast 15

In the Select & Mask processing smoothing something by 15 doesn't really affect it much. I used it on pretty small images and the edges came out quite decent. In this case, we're not actually removing much trash, if any, we just work on the edges so that they are not jagged or funny. Feather and Contrast sliders are used to remove trash. Contrast makes the selection less feathery, so the more Feather AND Contrast values you use, the less trash you get. It works almost as expanding and contracting a selection. Use 15-20% of Contrast per 1 pixel of Feather, as in this proportion, the edge will not come out too feathery. The Select & Mask edge modification method is very versatile, but there's one thing that makes it less perfect than it seems – it works rather slowly compared to simple commands like Expand or Contract Selection.

If you want to know which version of the isolating action I prefer to use, well, I have a bunch of them – one for every possible occasion, but my favorite is the one that you can get in the shop:

The isolating action included in the pack is adaptive. The weak point of this whole expanding-contracting-smoothing idea is that it's pixel-based. On a huge image, contracting by 3 pixels isn't as destructive as it would be on an image 1500 wide. The action uses both image width and height to calculate how many pixels it should contract and expand by, and how much smoothing and feathering to apply. It does a great job removing trash from the background and still gives a decent smooth edge, and it's free for all Mindful Members.

But it's not like it's necessary to use this advanced scripted approach. The methods I described are just as good especially when you work with high-res images.

So, from now on, I will be using the isolating action all the time unless I face something fuzzy or made of fur. And by isolating action I mean just about any action that modifies edges and fills the background with white – as explained above. Find the one that works for you and use it all the time. Just filling the background with white doesn't work so well as the edge modification step is absolutely necessary. You can only get away without it if you use the Quick Selection tool (which does its own edge refining) or the Pen Tool. But as I explained already, we'll be using the Magic Wand a lot, as it's the fastest, and if you ever want to get decent isolation with that, you have to modify selections, otherwise, it won't work.

Isolation of multiple images

Now let’s put all the knowledge you’ve got from the previous sections of the course to work. In product image retouching, you’ll often be working with multiple images in need of isolation. You have to be able to quickly evaluate these images and make decisions like which tools should be used in a particular case, and which tools will be useless. If you pick the wrong tools you’ll only waste time and will not achieve any result.

So, when you open the image, look at it and ask yourself: “Is it a dark solid object on a light background?”. If yes, cool, it doesn’t happen too often, you can use the Quick Selection Tool and it will work well. But it only works when the object is really contrasted with the background, don't expect to be able to do it all the time. “Does it have any laces or thin, or shiny parts that might be not recognized properly by the Quick Selection Tool”? Okay, use the Marquee Tool and the Magic Wand instead. There might be some cases when the Magic Wand selects some parts of your object, too, but if it cannot be helped, it can sometimes be resolved easily with the use of the Brush Tool in the Quick Mask mode. “Is the object's color similar to the background color?”. Not cool, but let’s check, perhaps the contrast can be increased with the Curves. If yes, do it on a separate layer and then you can use the Magic Wand with the Rectangular Marquee or with the Lasso if the shape of the object doesn’t resemble a rectangle. “Is the object really similar to the background”? Not good. But if it’s a solid object and it doesn’t have any laces and the edge is smooth, you can use the Pen Tool. In some cases, you might get images that are just horrible. So, “Is the object all made of fur or thin laces and cannot really be distinguished from the background at all?”. If that happens, send it back to the photographer, as reshooting it will be much faster than isolating. In bulk image retouching, we don’t really work with such complicated issues, but after we've learned all about different isolation types, I’ll show you how to do it in case the images cannot be reshot and isolating them is a must.

Now that you know all the tools and tricks of the trade, let's discuss how to isolate items on white, on white with a natural shadow and on white with an artificial shadow. It doesn't have to be white, but nowadays it's either white or light gray, and there's almost no difference in isolating on either one. I'll also explain the chroma key green screen removal and transparency isolation, albeit shortly. Fortunately, it's not really popular in catalogue retouching.

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.

Next: Isolation types

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