Social Media Design: How to Use Photoshop's Magic Wand Tool - dummies

Social Media Design: How to Use Photoshop’s Magic Wand Tool

By Janine Warner, David LaFontaine

The Magic Wand tool can be a good tool for manipulating photos to use on your social media site. The Magic Wand tool in Photoshop has become the subject of much scorn from photo-editing professionals, who consider it to be the type of thing that is misused by neophytes who produce jagged-edged selections that make the whole profession look bad.

The Magic Wand tool has undergone some refinements that have made it much more useful, though. Don’t let the mutterings of some old-school curmudgeons on online forums turn you away from using what can be a useful tool.

Follow these steps to extract a subject from a photo, using the Magic Wand tool in Photoshop.

[Credit: cw on Casa Mila by Architect Antoni Gaudí]
Credit: cw on Casa Mila by Architect Antoni Gaudí

Photos with complex or busy backgrounds are not good candidates for using the Magic Wand.

  1. With an image open in Photoshop, choose Layer→Duplicate Layer, or press Ctrl+J.

    A duplicate layer, the same in every detail as your original image, is created in the Layers panel on the right-hand corner.

    Create a duplicate layer to work on before you start a complicated edit. That way, if you make a mistake, you can always start over from the original layer. It’s also handy to turn off the visibility of the original background layer by clicking the eye icon next to the layer.


  2. Click the Magic Wand tool (or press W if the last tool you used was Quick Selection).

    The Quick Selection tool is also nested under the Magic Wand tool in Photoshop CS3 and later. For this example, make sure the Magic Wand tool is active. You can tell which one is active by the square dot next to it.

  3. Click the background area that you want to select. For this example, click in the blue sky area.

    The Magic Wand has done an okay job of selecting blue pixels in the image. However, if you were to use just this selection to try to isolate the Easter Island–looking tan heads, it would be a long and laborious process. Fortunately, by tweaking a couple of settings, you can streamline the process.

  4. Double-click the Tolerance field (beneath the menu bar) to select the number in the box and then type a larger number. Or, hover your mouse pointer over the Tolerance field, click, and then hold down the left mouse button to make the number higher or lower.

    [Credit: cw Flap]
    Credit: cw Flap

    We made our initial selection with the Magic Wand with the Tolerance set to 11. (Your initial Tolerance level will vary, depending on your computer’s initial settings, and whether you have changed it in the recent past.) A Tolerance level of 11 means the pixels to be selected are those within 11 shades of whatever color you click (in this case, the color blue).

    The higher the Tolerance, the more shades and colors are selected. The lower the Tolerance, the more stringent the selection. The maximum value you can enter is 255 — but at that loose Tolerance, the Magic Wand selects every pixel in the image. And that’s not what you want.

  5. With a higher Tolerance set, click again with the Magic Wand to select the background.

    The higher Tolerance setting (now 70) results in a much wider section of the sky being selected.

    [Credit: cw Flap]
    Credit: cw Flap

    However, note the thin segments of blue between the heads — which are patches of blue that are not selected. Sure, you can carefully click and select each individual segment to select it, but here’s a simpler way to select those thin blue slices.

  6. Underneath the menu bar, click twice to deselect the Contiguous check box. Then click twice to select the background.

    All the shades of blue that are within the Tolerance settings in the background are selected.

    [Credit: cw Flap]
    Credit: cw Flap

    If there are colors that are within the Tolerance range that you have set, and you turn off the Contiguous setting, the Magic Wand tool will select them, no matter where they appear in the image.

    That means that if you’re trying to select the blue sky in the background — and your subject has blue eyes or is wearing a blue shirt — those other blue pixels can wind up being selected.

  7. Press the Delete or Backspace key to remove the pixels in the image that you selected.

    Photoshop indicates a transparent background to reflect the deletion. It displays a checkerboard of gray and white squares.

    [Credit: cw Flap]
    Credit: cw Flap

    Now you can either save the image as a PNG file with the transparency option turned on, or you can select this extracted subject and paste it into another image to make a collage or composite.