The Ultimate Guide to Cutting Out Images in Photoshop

If you work with Photoshop, sooner or later you‘ll need to cut an image out of its background. Whether you‘re creating a composite, designing a layout, or prepping photos for the web, cutting out images is an essential skill. But if you‘re new to Photoshop, the array of selection tools and techniques can seem overwhelming.

In this guide, I‘ll walk you through four different methods for cutting out images in Photoshop:

  1. The Quick Selection Method
  2. The Select and Mask Method
  3. The Pen Tool Method
  4. The Channels Method

I‘ll also share some tips for getting clean cutouts of complex subjects like hair, fur and foliage. By the end, you‘ll be able to confidently cut out any image with precision and control. Let‘s get started!

Essential Tools for Cutting Out Images

Before we dive into the step-by-step methods, let‘s take a quick look at some of the most useful tools for cutting out images in Photoshop:

Selection Tools: Photoshop offers a variety of tools for selecting parts of an image, including:

  • The Object Selection Tool, which automatically detects and selects objects
  • The Quick Selection Tool, which lets you "paint" a selection by dragging over the image
  • The Magic Wand Tool, which selects pixels based on tone and color
  • The Pen Tool, which allows you to precisely plot a path around your subject

Layer Masks: One of the best things about Photoshop is the ability to edit non-destructively using layer masks. When you make a selection and add a layer mask, the selected area remains visible while the rest of the layer is hidden. But you can always paint on the mask to refine the selection later.

The Clone Stamp Tool: Sometimes when you cut out an image, you accidentally delete parts that you wanted to keep. The clone stamp tool lets you seamlessly fill in those gaps by sampling pixels from another part of the image.

Now that you‘re familiar with the key tools, let‘s see how to use them to cut out an image.

Method 1: The Quick Selection Method

The quick selection tool is a great place to start if you‘re new to cutting out images. Here‘s how to use it:

Step 1: Grab the quick selection tool from the toolbar (or hit W on the keyboard).

Step 2: Drag the tool over the part of the image you want to keep. The "marching ants" will show the boundary of the selection. Hold down Alt/Option to subtract areas from the selection as needed.

Using the quick selection tool to select an object

Step 3: Once you‘ve selected the whole subject, click the Select and Mask button in the options bar to fine-tune the selection edge.

Step 4: In the Select and Mask workspace, use the refine edge brush to paint over any stray hairs or fuzziness along the edge of the selection. Hold Alt/Option to erase parts of the refined edge as needed.

Using the refine edge brush in Select and Mask

Step 5: Output the refined selection by choosing Output To: Selection or Layer Mask.

Step 6: If you chose Selection, you can now hit Delete to remove the background and leave your subject against transparency. If part of the subject gets deleted by accident, use the clone stamp tool (S) to sample from another area and paint over the gap.

And there you have it – a cleanly cut out image using the quick selection tool! This method works best for images where the subject has well-defined, high-contrast edges against the background.

Method 2: The Select and Mask Method

For images with more complex edges, like wispy hair or fur, the Select and Mask workspace offers more powerful refinement tools. Here‘s how to use it:

Step 1: Start by making a rough selection of your subject using any selection tool, like the object selection or quick selection tool.

Step 2: Open the Select and Mask workspace by clicking the button in the options bar, or choosing Select > Select and Mask.

Step 3: In the Global Refinements section, adjust the Smooth and Feather sliders to smooth and soften the selection edge.

Step 4: Use the Refine Edge Brush to paint over edges with fine details, like hair or fur. Photoshop will automatically adjust the selection around those areas.

Refining hair selection in Select and Mask

Step 5: If your subject has clearly defined edges in some areas (like a shirt) and soft edges in others (like hair), use the Refine Radius tool to specify different edge detection widths for each area.

Step 6: Output the refined selection as a new layer with layer mask.

Step 7: Paint with black on the layer mask to hide any background areas that got included. Paint with white to reveal areas of the subject that got masked out.

The Select and Mask method provides a lot of control over the final selection edge. But mastering the various tools and settings can take some practice. Don‘t be afraid to experiment until you get the result you want.

Method 3: The Pen Tool Method

If you need absolute precision, nothing beats the trusty pen tool for cutting out images. It takes more time and effort, but you can‘t match the accuracy. Here‘s how to cut out an image using the pen tool:

Step 1: Grab the pen tool from the toolbar (hit P on the keyboard). In the options bar, make sure the tool mode is set to Path.

Step 2: Click and drag along the edge of your subject to plot anchor points and curve handles, forming a path. Take your time and be as precise as possible. Hold Alt/Option to adjust curves and toggle between corner and smooth points.

Plotting a precise selection path with the pen tool

Step 3: When you reach your starting point again, click it to close the path.

Step 4: In the Paths panel (Window > Paths), double click your Work Path and save it as a new path.

Step 5: Control/right-click the path thumbnail and choose Make Selection. Adjust the Feather Radius if you want to slightly soften the edge.

Step 6: With your pen tool selection active, click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This will mask out the background, leaving only your subject visible.

The pen tool takes patience and practice, but it‘s the most precise way to cut out images in Photoshop. It‘s great for clearly defined hard edges, like products or logos.

Method 4: The Channels Method

For high-contrast images, like a dark subject against a light background, using channels can be an effective way to cut out the image. Here‘s how it works:

Step 1: Open the Channels panel (Window > Channels). Look through the Red, Green and Blue channels to find the one with the most contrast between subject and background.

Comparing contrast in RGB channels

Step 2: Duplicate the highest-contrast channel by dragging it to the New Channel icon at the bottom of the panel.

Step 3: With the duplicated channel selected, adjust Levels (Image > Adjustments > Levels) to blow out the lights and darken the darks, increasing the contrast as much as possible.

Step 4: Use the brush tool to paint with black over any remaining gray areas in the background, and with white over any gray areas in the subject.

Step 5: Hold Control/Command and click the edited channel thumbnail to load it as a selection. Go back to the RGB composite channel.

Step 6: Refine the selection edge if needed with Select and Mask, then output as a new layer with layer mask.

The channels method works best for images that have very distinct tonal separation between subject and background. For more subtle images, one of the other methods would probably be a better choice.

Tips for Cutting Out Complex Subjects

Some subjects are more challenging to cut out than others. Here are a few tips for getting clean selections of tricky edges:

Hair and Fur: Use the Refine Edge Brush in Select and Mask to detect and adjust wispy edges. Set the tool mode to Refine Radius for more control. Try different Radius and Border Contrast settings in the Edge Detection section.

Foliage and Trees: Complex shapes like leaves can be tedious to cut out with selection tools. Instead, make several rough selections of different sections (e.g. highlights, midtones, shadows) with the lasso tools, then combine them in Select and Mask with Refine Edge.

Translucent and Fuzzy Edges: For subjects like glass, smoke or clouds, crank up the Feather and Shift Edge sliders in Select and Mask to create a soft transition. You can also duplicate the original layer, apply a heavy gaussian blur to the bottom copy, then blend the layers with a gradient on a layer mask.

Edges with Color Fringe: Zoom in and use the pen tool to meticulously plot a path inside the edge to avoid any color halo. Refine the edge inward with the Shift Edge slider in Select and Mask.

With practice and patience, you can use these tips to conquer even the most challenging cutouts. The key is to experiment and iterate until you‘re happy with the result.


Cutting out images is a core skill for working in Photoshop. Whether you use the quick selection tool for simple compositions, the select and mask workspace for detailed edges, the pen tool for maximal precision, or channels for high-contrast separations, getting comfortable with a variety of techniques will equip you for any cutout challenge.

As you can see, cutting out images takes some effort, but the process is actually pretty straightforward once you understand the tools and how they work together. The more you practice, the more efficient you‘ll get, and the cleaner your selections will be.

Cutting out images opens up a world of creative possibilities in Photoshop. You can composite photos, create surreal scenes, replace backgrounds, isolate products on white, and so much more. It‘s a skill that every designer and photographer should invest time in mastering.

So get out there and practice cutting out all kinds of images. Take on progressively more challenging subjects. With experience, you‘ll be able to quickly and cleanly extract any subject from its background with confidence. Happy selecting!

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