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How do I make a complicated background transparent?

Jun 18, 2013 5:43 PM

Tags: #novice #transparent_background

I am a complete novice, and I got photoshop to make the background transparent on pictures of furniture.  I am having problems because the background is so complicated.  Can anyone help direct me as to the best way to do this?  I've only tried selecting different parts of the background with the quick selection tool, and then deleting (after adding another layer), but I'm not getting good results.  I see others talking about the lasso, magnetic lasso, layers, masking, etc, but I don't know where to start.  I need to learn quickly because I'm on a deadline, so if someone could just point me in the right direction? Please!!


Here's one of the pictures I need to do:  (one of the most complicated)  All I need to keep is the table and four chairs in the foreground.



  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 18, 2013 6:11 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    Wow.  You seem to be straight in at the deep end.  Just how much do you need to include in the selection?   The nearfield dark furniture is going to respond well to an alpha channel mask using a copy of the blue channel.  This was the first videa hit with Google, and I didn't watch it (he has an irritating accent)



    The lighter furniture in the background is going to be more problematic, but I regularly make such selections the long way, and it shouldn't take long. Do the best you can with Quick select and Refine edge, and choose New layer with layer mask, as the output.  You will then have to clean up the mask manually, but you can use the other selection tools as aids.  And you can do things like use a small brush. click at one end of a line, hold down the shift key and click on the other end of the line. You can clean out the holes PDQ like that.  In case you really are new to layer masks, black conceals, and white reveals.


    Start with the Alpha channel, and use that as a starting point for quick select and Refine edge.


    A good trick is to put a layer under the layer with the mask, and fill it with a bright colour like yellow green or red.  That will clearly show anything you have left.  I tend to go round the outline using the shift key, then use the lasso tool with Alt to make a rough selection in the area just cleared, and use Alt backspace (with black as the foreground colour) to clean up the rest.


    Does that sound doable?

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  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 18, 2013 6:15 PM   in reply to Trevor Dennis

    Another trick is to copy the BG layer and radically ramp up its contrast using Levels (directly to the layer, and not with an adjustment layer) Drag the black and white sliders in towards the centre.  This stronger contrast layer will give quick slect and refine edge an easier job.  When the selection is made, select the good layer, and add a layer mask.  then fine tune the layer mask

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  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 18, 2013 6:51 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    OK.  Easy peasy option. Forget about the Alpha channel.


    1. Copy the background
    2. Select Quick select (Ctrl w or Cmd w) and select as much of the table and chairs as you can.  When it goes too far, hold down the Alt key to remove the unwanted bits
    3. Don't worry too much about the holes
    4. Hit the Q key now and again to see what is and isn't selected.
    5. When you get fairly close, use refine edge in the Options bar to make a better selection.  Choose new layer with layer mask and click OK.
    6. Do the same as above to remove the holes, but choose Selection insted of new layer.  With that selection active, select the layer mask, and fill the selection with black. 
    7. Use black and white paintbrush to fine tune the layer mask.


    Give it a go. It is not hard, and you'll soon become addicted.


    A note about Quick Mask (when you hit the Q key)  If you double click the Quick mask icon (second from bottom of the tool bar) a lot of people prefer to change the default 'Masked areas' to 'Selected Areas'.  I find it easier to work that way.

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  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 18, 2013 9:34 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    No. Forget the Alpha mask.  You are not going to get a really clean selection whatever way you approach it, so will need to spend time touching up the layer mask.  It can be quite theraputic, not unlike basket weaving LOL


    To give you an idea, this is a draft of one of my current jobs, and the Traction Engine was cut out using a lot of manual work.  The Ferris wheel is 100% Photoshop (apart from the people) and there are a 'lot' of hidden layers of similar complexity, because clients can never make their minds up.  I reckon this stands me at about four hours, or maybe a bit longer because I was enjoying myself.  The photos are from the A&P Show sets here.


    A&P Banner (1200 pixels).jpg

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  • Currently Being Moderated
    Jun 18, 2013 10:51 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    First make a Duplicate copy of your Background Image.


    Go to your duplicate Layer, then add a Layer mask to your Duplicate Layer.


    Select your Duplicate layer not the mask,

    Go ahead and use the Pen Tool to make a path from the objects

    that you need to take out from the Background such as the chair or the table.


    when you finished with your path, Control click on your path to select it.

    Then go to your Layer Mask,  Then go ahead and click on, Select- Inverse so the Back-ground gets selected, and make sure your foreground color is set to Black,

    Click on ALT-Backspace to delete the background.

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  • Currently Being Moderated
    Jun 22, 2013 6:52 AM   in reply to animationlife

    I'm in a similar line of work, been doing it for years.


    Here is how I do it. Basically just extended version of animationllife's answer


    - open in photoshop, double click on the layer in the layer palette.This will change your background layer into unlocked layer.

    - go to the bottom of your layer palette to “Create new fill or adjustment layer” (round half dark half transparent icon)  and select solid color. A new colorpicker window will appear.

    Chose the color you want for your background and press OK (it's really good to know what your final background color will be, stuff tends to look very different on different backgrounds, and background it's almost never transparent).

    - This created a new fill layer above your original layer (“fill” you can always change if you doubleclick on the layer icon).

    Now grab this layer and move it below your original layer.


    This should take you about 30 seconds or less.


    At this point I usually hit F (for fullscreen mode), than P for pen.


    -make shure your pen tool (in the topmost toolbar ”optionbar”) is set to path mode (not shape or pixels).


    - go to your original layer and start clicking and dragging with your pen tool around an object you want to keep.  When you work use spacebar to move around your picture and use modifier keys to finetune your path. (on mac they are command and alt keys as you press them you will see pen turn into white arrow or trianglish sort of tool, use them on your anchors)

    This takes a lot of practice and seems slow in the beginning but is by far the quickest way to cut out stuff with lots of straight (and gently curved) lines on difficult backgrounds.

    This same tool is also featured in other adobe programs like illustrator or indesign....with the same shortcuts and modifiers so if you master this tool in photoshop you will also be able to use it anywhere.

    This also goes for many other tools.


    -when you are finished and your path is closed,  take a look in your “paths” palette you'll see a work path created there (I recommend you double click on that and save it as a path1 or something)

    -now command click on that path thumbnail (you will see hand with a small rectangle appear), this will create selection from your path


    -make sure you are on your working layer with selection still active and click “Add layer mask icon” on the bottom of your layer palette.


    You can also do that in your pen tool optionbar (on the top of your screen) you can either make selection, mask or shape....i recommend mask


    this will add a layer mask to your layer with just your selection visible, so all you should see at this point is your cutout on a background you picked in the beginning. If for some reason it's just the opposite, just click on the layer mask thumbnail and hit command I, this will invert your mask.


    - at this point you can chouse to finetune your mask in several different ways.

    a) right click on the mask thumbnail, refine mask...

    b) use brush tool (with your layer mask thumbnail still selected), use black or white paint to add or subtract from your mask.

    c) i have a action, which first subtracts 2 pixels from my mask and than blurs it 1 pixel. But that would depend on your picture size and resolution.


    Many of people have a real dificoult time grasping the concept of masks. I asure you once you master them a whole new world of photoshop opens to you. Think of it as level 2.



    If the background is less complicated you can use different techniques mentioned in previous posts but with them your initial selection will be much worse and it will take you long time to manually retouch.



    It's a pain in the butt work, its slow and dull. So first thing you have too figure out is is it wort it, and how much time are you willing to spend on one photo.

    If it takes you 2 hours, can you charge that?

    I reckon it would take 10-15 minutes for your photo but anything under half an hour would be OK.

    If you cant charge that, perhaps you can take it as a training opportunity. Sometimes what you luse in money you gain in experience.


    Always use layers and layer masks (or adjustment layers) for nondestructive editing. Remember there is always many ways  to get the same result in photoshop. Choose the least destructive one and probably the fastest.....use masks.

    Master your tools, Internet is full of tutorials. 


    I hope this helps.


    ....and use Masks.

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  • Currently Being Moderated
    Jun 22, 2013 8:24 AM   in reply to ovcanora

    The original poster wrote:  . . .  I got photoshop to make the background transparent on pictures of furniture.

    It sounds like you will be doing more photos like this in the future?


    The photo looks like it was taken in a workshop where they produce this furniture and they want something to best display their products. Then why, oh why, do they give you photos that look as distorted as a fun house mirror?


    The legs on the chairs in the front bend towards the edges of the photo.

    These should be vertical. This distortion looks like they used the widest angle of their zoom lens (the metadata says its a Sony DSC-F828)


    I'm sure they take pride in the furniture they make, but they apparently think that just pointing a camera in the general direction of something and clicking the shutter is all they need to do, because "You can fix everything in Photoshop right?"


    Removing the distracting background will still leave you with the distorted view of the furniture.

    Light glare is also an issue, but farther down the list than distorted views and cluttered backgrounds.


    If they don't want to have someone professionally photograph their products, they should at least try to take better photos themselves.


    • Move the furniture to be photographed somewhere where there isn't a ton of crap in the background.
    • Stop using extreme wide angle shots, which is causing a lot of this distortion.
    • Pay attention to lighting.


    Have them view the photos (preferably on a computer, the screen on the back of the camera is too small to view things critically) they just shot and have them ask themselves:

    • Do the parts of the furniture that have vertical edges look OK in the photo or are they bent?
    • Is there stuff in the background that they can move out of the way before taking the photo?
    • Is there light glare, shadows, uneven light, etc. and what can they do about this?


    Bad photos reflect poorly on their company and their products,

    Do they think potential customers won't notice things like this? Because they do.

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  • Currently Being Moderated
    Jun 22, 2013 11:08 AM   in reply to Bo LeBeau



    I agree with you completely "You can fix everything in Photoshop right?" is a common excuse for lousy/lazy photography this days.


    But I know how it looks from the other side.


    You are a small company owner struggling to get by as it is in this economy, you are in your mid 40's or 50's, been working hard all your life.

    You know work and you value work and sitting behind a computer ain't working.

    Internet is for sending emails, however you only recently discovered that it would be wise to actually have a website...your kids have been nagging you about it for years.

    In order to have one you need

    - some to make you one (expensive)

    - you need some photos (cheap)

    - and some guy who can put them on the internet for you (cheap)


    The guy taking photos ends up to be some relative/friend who you happened to see on some family reunion with a camera and he seems to know how to point and shoot and is after couple of beers willing to come by your workshop and snap some photos of your work. Besides his camera looks expensive enough so it ought to take good pictures and if not, he swears "You can fix everything in Photoshop”.

    As for the guy putting the photos on the internet  “robyn” (he's your daughter's boyfriend whom you don't like much) but he swears he knows photoshop and is posting photos of your daughter on facebook all the time anyway. And after you have a little talk with him he is going to do it, doesn't have a choice really.



    The way I see it robyn is probably just a kid trying to get by, and having a tough time figuring out how pohotoshop works and make some money on the side.

    And yes he probably landed this job because he was cheaper than any professional photoshoper. But his cheapness comes with a price.

    He probably wont make any money on this project (time consuming-wise), but might gain some knowledge, and that is priceless.

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  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 22, 2013 3:56 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    Wow!  If the original shot was taken with masking in mind, you need to think about the most sensible Photoshop feature of them all - the shoot it again filter.  I can get end of roll newsprint from the local newspaper for a few dollars for enough to last you years.  Or old bed linen, or just a room with nice light floor and walls. 

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  • Trevor Dennis
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    May 24, 2010
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    Jun 22, 2013 4:57 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    Robyn, among the things that I throw, (or live) in the back of my truck when working, are a number of reflectors, and a soft black fleece blanket which can do duty as a backdrop, or to kill troublsome reflections, or light I don't want in the scene.  I also have a full size bed sheet that has seen better days, but might save me a lot of time in post.  These things take up no room, and are life savers.  I have a bag of clamps that came as a set for a few dollars from a DIY store, and a few stands just in case.  Although humanoid interactive stands work best — if you don’t take too long.

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  • Currently Being Moderated
    Jun 22, 2013 5:40 PM   in reply to robyn7623pa

    Robyn--with a 'y'--with a little practice on easier photos as you are doing, you will find the one you posted a lot easier, but a bit tedious. The plus side of the tedium is your family friend will thank you, you'll fell good. It's a win-win thing for ya both.



    I only did half or so, a bunch of clicks here and there. A little straightening of the left-hand chair that I clipped out and put on a layer behind the table. The legs of the middle chair could stand a bit of the same treatment but I would leave the chair back alone.


    Your friend is lucky.


    Take care, Mike

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