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The Photoshop Phanatic: Photoshop Basics

Using the Extract Filter to Remove Images from Backgrounds

In this column, we will tackle one of the most common tasks in Photoshop, removing objects from their backgrounds. The Extract filter provides one way to isolate an object and remove its background. Using the various tools in the Extract window, you can isolate the areas of an image that you wish to extract. Did you ever wonder how that cool collage you just saw on the cover of Time Magazine was created? Well, chances are the Extract filter came into play at some point. Ready to get started? Open your copy of Photoshop and follow along.

  1. Open the image you wish to remove the background from.
    Tip: Always work on a copy and never an original document! If you are working on a layer, duplicate it by selecting the Layer in the Layer Palette and choosing Duplicate Layer from the Layer Options (the black arrow at the top right of the Layer Palette).

  2. Select Filter > Extract

  3. Set Tool options, as needed.

Brush size: You can change the size of the brush by using the slider or entering a number. Using a smaller brush helps a great deal when tracing complex shapes (something around 5 works pretty well).

Fill: select a color that you wish to fill your image with. This lets Photoshop know that this is what you wish to keep. Usually the default blue works well except in cases where your image has a lot of blue.

Smart Highlighting option: If the object you are selecting has a well-defined edge be sure to select Smart-Highlighting, this lets Photoshop estimate the best brush size for your edge and does all the work for you!

  1. Set Extraction options, as needed.

Textured Image option: If your image has a very textured background, such as a photograph, be sure to check the Textured Image option.

Smooth value: I prefer to always have my smoothing set to 0, since using too high of Smooth value blurs the edges of your image. Keep this in mind when using Smooth!

  1. Use the Highlighter Tool to highlight the areas of your image you wish to extract. (Use the Smart-Highlighting option to select sharper edges of the image, also for areas such as trees and hair you can use a bigger brush for better results). Be sure to highlight your object entirely, this makes the extraction a lot easier. If you make a mistake in your highlight, simply select the Eraser Tool and erase the area you wish to re-highlight. You can also hold down the Option key on the Macintosh or the ALT key on Windows, this changes the Cancel Button to a Reset Button.

  2. Select the area you wish to retain. When you have the object you wish to retain, simply select the Fill Tool and click inside the highlighted object to apply the fill. Before you commit to the extraction, click the Preview. You can go back and make any additional edits before you commit to the extraction.

  3. Clean up the background. Sometimes in an extraction there are remnants of the background image that still remain. Select the Cleanup Tool and simply erase them, the Cleanup tool is basically the Eraser Tool in disguise.

  4. Extract. Now that you have your previewed your extraction and you like what you see, just press the Ok button and you're done!

This is just one of many ways to remove objects from backgrounds. Other options include using the Eraser Tool to erase the background, using Quick Mask to make selections and delete the background as well. As always, experiment with this technique to see what works best for you. When you have a workflow in place using the Extract filter it can save you valuable time in Photoshop. Increasing productivity is always a good thing! Until next time, good luck in all your Photoshop pursuits.