This week I am going to revolutionize the way you look at making selections in Adobe Photoshop. For a long time early on in my career the only way I ever selected objects in Photoshop ("PS") was by using the pen tool and close cropping the subject matter that I wanted to isolate. That was partly due to the options that PS offered way back when, but it was also due to the fact that I didn't try to learn anything new. As I grew as a designer I picked up on some things that made my life a lot easier. Today I am going to pass them onto you.
Pen Tool/Paths - The paths panel is usually found as a tab on the layers palette. If its not there you can go under the window menu and click "Paths" to open the menu. You will then have to use the menu button in the top-right corner of the path palette to make a new path. Once this is done you can take the pen tool and begin tracing what you want to isolate from your image.
Once your path is complete you go back to the same menu that you used to create your path and select "Make Selection". Then you can do whatever you need from there with the selected area.
Lasso - This tool is found on the main tool bar. With the lasso there are three versions available that all have their own benefit. There is the regular lasso tool that is a free-flowing selection tool. There is the polygon lasso tool which is a point and click tool meaning you can click and move to another point then click again to set your next point. Lastly there is the magnet lasso tool which reads the pixels of an image and sets a path along a line of pixels that have similar color values.
This tool works a lot like the pen tool but it isn't saving your progress as you go. What is painful about the lasso tool is that if you make a mistake it is not easy to go back and make changes. A lot of the time you are stuck with staring over. I recommend this tool for making small or quick and uncomplicated selections.
Wand - The wand is found on the main tool bar in Photoshop and is a quick and handy way of selecting a chunk of pixels with similar colours. The magic wand offers the ability to set the tolerance of how sensitive or picky it will be while making selections. In a bar under the menu across the top of the screen there is a box which you can enter a number to set the tolerance. You enter a value between 0 and 255. In this range 0 = very picky and 255 = select everything.
Color Range - For me color range is my favorite and most preferred method for selections. It operates with the same principles of the wand but is more sophisticated. This tool is located under the "Select" option on the main menu bar.
What is great about this tool is that it offers a preview of what your results are going to be before you commit to a selection. You can also refine your selection on the fly by holding shift on Mac or PC, then clicking on the image with the eye dropper to add to the selection, or by pressing the option key on Mac or alt on a PC then clicking on the image with the eye dropper to subtract from a selection. When you are finished you click "OK" on the color range box and your selection is made.
Background Eraser - This is a quick and handy tool to use if you have an object that needs to be selected off of a background that is mainly made up of a solid color. It can be found under the eraser tool on the main tool bar. You simply set your brush size and start erasing the unwanted portion of your image. If the tolerance is set right, you should get a result of the background being erased and the desired pixels remaining unaffected.
Extraction - This is a great tool and rather sophisticated and would require me to write a whole lot more than I believe you are willing to read. So if you want to know more about this click here. This method is great to use for subject matter that have intricate parts, particularly hair. The extract tool is a plugin that needs to be downloaded from Adobe. If you are on a PC click here and if you are on a Mac click here.
While all of these methods are great, they take practice and experience to gain a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. Once these are learned you can make better judgements of when and where to use them and how they can work together to make good selections. One of the biggest realizations I ever made with selections is that sometimes its easier to select the opposite of what your actually wanting to select. Meaning if you are trying to select a tree on a sky background instead of painstakingly selecting the tree it is easier using the above tools to select the sky. Then delete the sky and you are left with the tree you wanted. All these tools will help you avoid having ragged cutout shapes or being left with ghosting around objects. A lot of these will also save you loads of time.
As always if you have any questions, post a comment.