11 Easy Steps to Perfectly Removing Backgrounds from Your Pictures

Have you ever taken a great photo but felt the background distracted from your subject? Whether it’s clutter, an unflattering color scheme, or just plain ugly, an unwanted background can ruin an otherwise perfect shot. 

Fortunately, modern photo editing software gives us the knowledge of how to remove the background of a picture and isolate subjects with stunning precision. By extracting elements from their original context, we can place them in entirely new environments or tell visual stories in creative new ways. Background removal truly unlocks photography’s full potential.

Follow these 11 easy techniques to perfectly remove backgrounds from your pictures.

Step 1: Select Your Image

The first step to learning how to remove the background from a picture is to open the photo you want to remove the background from in your editing software of choice. Take a moment to study your image and determine which areas you want to keep as the foreground subject and which parts you plan to remove as the background. Zoom in close to get a good look at the fine details.

Step 2: Adjust Selection Tools

The selection tools in your photo editor are crucial for cleanly isolating the subject you want to remove from the background. Most programs offer a few different options, and it’s usually best to try multiple tools to get the best selection.

  • The Quick Selection Tool is handy for rough, initial selections as it uses edge detection to automatically add to your selection. However, it can sometimes be a bit inaccurate, especially along hair or complex edges.
  • For more precise selections, the Magnetic Lasso Tool is extremely useful. With it, you trace right over the edges you want to select, pixel by pixel. 
  • Go slowly and zoom in to ensure you’re following all the nooks and crannies. Holding down the Alt/Option key as you draw lets you subtract from the selection if you go too far in.
  • For subjects with lots of small, intricate details like fur or foliage, the Polygonal Lasso Tool works well. 
  • Click around the perimeter to create straight-edged sections, which are then joined together. Just be careful not to create too many segments, or it can become a hassle.

No matter which selection tools you use to learn how to remove the background of a picture, always zoom in close and take your time; rushed jobs lead to choppy, inaccurate selections that are difficult to refine later on. Proper selection is key to a clean background.

Step 3: Refine Edges

No selection tool is perfect, so refine the edges of your selection to get clean cuts around hair, clothes, and other fine details. Switch to Select and Mask mode and paint over the selection with a black or white brush to contract or expand it pixel by pixel. Zoom way in and go slowly; this step makes or breaks a good extraction. Check for gaps or areas that need cleaning up.

Step 4: Extract Foreground

Now that you have the subject cleanly selected, it’s time to remove the background. Hit the Delete or Backspace key to delete the unselected areas, leaving just your foreground subject. Some programs require using the extract command instead of the delete key. Check that no background pixels remain around the edges before moving on to the next step.

Step 5: Adjust Colors

Even with a perfect understanding of how to remove the background of a picture, removal often leaves behind a colored fringe or glow around the edges of extracted subjects. This is due to variations in lighting, shadows, and other factors in the original photo.

  • The good news is that it’s usually easy to clean up these edge colors to blend the subject into a new background seamlessly. 
  • You can use the Spot Healing Brush set to create awareness and paint over the edges. It analyzes the surrounding pixels and blends the colors naturally.

For larger areas, the Clone Stamp and Healing Brush work well too. Sample colors from just inside the subject’s edge, then paint over the outer glow. You can also set the brush tool set to a low opacity and blend colors gradually.

Step 6: Add Depth

Flat, two-dimensional cutouts often look unnatural. To add realism, apply a Drop Shadow layer style with appropriate settings for size, distance, and opacity. You can also try an Inner Shadow for a recessed look. Experiment with different blending modes, like multiply or overlay, until it looks right. Drop shadows make all the difference in selling a composite as real.

Step 7: Add a New Background

Now your subject is ready for a new backdrop! Search freely available stock image sites for high-resolution background photos. Look for textures, patterns and colors that complement your subject. Place the background behind the cutout layer and resize/reposition as needed. Adjust opacity, blending modes and layer styles to blend it together seamlessly.

Step 8: Perspective Tools

Sometimes extracted subjects don’t quite line up or look real against the new background due to perspective issues. Use tools like Free Transform, Liquify, or Puppet Warp to subtly manipulate the cutout layer into better alignment. For example, you may need to shorten one side to make a subject appear further back in space. Go slowly and don’t overdo it.

Step 9: Lighting and Shadows

To really understand how to remove the background of a picture, lighting and shadows must match. Add a layer style like Color Overlay to the background layer set to Multiply, then paint with black to simulate shadows falling on the backdrop from the subject above. You can also try curves or level adjustment layers clipped to just the background for realistic lighting effects.

Step 10: Cloning and Healing

No extraction is perfect, so use the Clone Stamp and Spot Healing Brush to seamlessly repair any holes, blemishes or imperfections in the cutout or background layers. Heal away any signs that the subject was extracted or composited in. Clean edges, remove dust, fix colors—go over the whole image with a fine-tooth comb.

Step 11: Finishing Touches

The final understanding of how to remove the background of a picture is the polishing touches. Add a subtle film grain or noise layer style to mimic real photos. Try a vignette to draw the eye inward. Play with color balance and selective color adjustments for a professionally finished look. Save as a PSD, PNG or JPEG; your newly extracted subject is now ready to use however you please without the distracting background!

In Summary

With practice, removing backgrounds can become second nature. Pay close attention to selection, edge refinement and matching lighting and shadows for the most realistic results. Get creative with new backdrops and composite images to tell visual stories. Background removal opens up all sorts of photo editing possibilities. Keep experimenting and you’ll be a pro at isolating subjects in no time.

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