Social Media Design: Photoshop Tools for Extracting Images

By Janine Warner, David LaFontaine

For the heavy-hitting, time intensive photo-editing techniques, you really need a photo-editing program, like Photoshop. Your social media site will benefit from your attention to detail. One of the most useful skills is the ability to make an accurate, high-quality selection of a subject in a photo. A good selection allows you to

  • Apply styles to specific parts of a photo.

  • Take portions from a variety of images and arrange them into an entirely new composition or collage.

Selecting something out of a photo sounds like it would be easy. Most people who have played with Photoshop or another image-editing program have blundered their way through the process, usually by hit-and-miss use of tools. But in practice, it can be very tricky, and we’ve all seen enough “crude Photoshops” where some nitwit has cut and pasted an inappropriate head on a celebrity’s body.

Here are some basics about the “major player” Photoshop tools. Other photo-editing software programs have similar tools.

  • Eraser: Use the Eraser to remove pixels on the active layer. You can also tell the Eraser not to bother pixels of a certain color, or set it to function only on the pixels that are active in a certain layer.

    So, say you’re building a photo collage and want to touch up some stray hairs that have gotten into your picture without also getting rid of the background; in that case, set the Eraser to delete pixels that are the same color as the strands of hair.

  • Magic Wand: Use the Magic Wand to select pixels of a certain color range and select pixels that are noncontiguous. The contiguous option allows you to select either all the specified color that appears in the image, or only that color that appears in one area. The color range allows you to specify what shade of color you want.

  • Quick Selection: Use the Quick Selection tool to click and drag around an area to indicate a selection. Photoshop engineers have developed sophisticated behind-the-scenes analysis tools that allow the program to find and recognize the edge that separates your subject from the background.

  • Lasso: The Lasso tool is one that most beginners use because it’s the easiest to understand. Just click and start dragging around an object. Depending on how steady your hand is and how accurate your mouse movements are, you can do a pretty good job of cutting out only the parts that you want.

    This technique is slow and painstaking, and if you make an error, you will spend a lot of time trying to clean it up.

  • Magnetic Lasso: This variation of the Lasso tool drops little points on the screen as you drag it around, connecting those points by thin lines. The computer tries to figure out what you’re selecting and puts those points on areas that it thinks are dividing lines between what you want and what you don’t.

    So if you start out trying to cut out a person’s face from a picture, the Magnetic Lasso tries to help by dropping little points on the edge of the person’s hair, cheek, or neck. Where it runs into trouble is when you get to areas where there is no clear differentiation between colors, such as where the shadow under a chin is almost the same color as the background.

  • Marquee: Use the Marquee tool to draw a simple square or circle on the screen, and to select whatever is inside that shape. You can restrict the ellipse into an circle or drag the square into a rectangle, but really, you’re not going to be getting very sophisticated with this tool. At least, not at the outset.

  • Refine Edge: This is a tool to use after you make a selection with just about any of the primary tools here. It opens a window where you see a close-up of the subject that you just tried to select, and offers you a number of tools that you can use to try to make the selection cleaner and more accurate.