Isolation is one of the basic and yet one of the most important tasks you will have to learn in Photoshop. Whether you want to isolate an object on white background to make it look more appealing as stock photo, change the background of an image for a fashion catalog or make an amazing photo manipulation, you will need to learn how to create flawless isolations. This task can be as simple as selecting a few points to outline a shape or a more complicated hair isolation which takes time and requires numerous steps. This tutorial goes over several different techniques which are used by most professionals. Remember, you can always create a rough isolation on portfolio images but for an image to be accepted to a microstock agency or a well-known publication your isolation must be flawless.
Isolation Using Pen Tool
Prior to Creative Suite 5 using Pen Tool was a very popular isolation method. Since then Quick Select and Refine Selection have become more widely used, however there are still plenty of reasons to know and use this method. For starters, it is quick, precise and very efficient when it comes to isolating simple geometrical objects, e.g., a stack of books on the table or a beach ball.
The basic idea behind using Pen Tool for isolation is tracing a precise shape around the object and then using that shape to either mask the object or create a selection and cut it from the background. Let’s start by creating a blank layer just above our image. Select Pen Tool and change Fill Color to something that would stand out from the background (make sure Stroke is set to none if using CS6). Start tracing the object by placing Anchor points around the outline of the object, any sharp corner is an ideal location to start. It is a good idea to set the opacity of our shape layer to 25%-50% to let us see the outline more clearly. Zoom in for extra precision. If you’ve made a mistake you can always go back a step by hitting [Ctrl]+[Z], or a few steps back by hitting [Ctrl]+[Alt]+[Z].
Once the shape is complete, you can create a selection by holding [Ctrl] and left clicking on the shape layer thumbnail in the layers panel, or by going to Select > Load Selection from the top most menu in Photoshop. Our shape layer will have to be rasterized first if we’re going to load a selection. You can do that by right clicking on our shape layer and clicking Rasterize Layer option. Make sure our shape layer is selected under Channel on the Load Selection screen, then hit OK. Voila! We can now go back to our original layer and cut the object out. If you want to keep your selected area but remove everything else, you can go Select > Inverse on the top navigation panel or hit [Shift]+[Ctrl]+[I], and cut that selection.
Isolation Using Quick Select and Refine Selection
Refine Selection is by far one of the greatest additions to Photoshop in years. In combination with Quick Select it can produce fast and stunning results on some of the most complex images. It is especially powerful when dealing with photographer’s worst nightmare: loose strands of hair.
Refine Selection has several options we need to understand first. Size is responsible for the area sampled by Photoshop when making a selection. Ideally you want it to be as large as possible, but still stay in the confines of our object. Smaller areas will require smaller brush for extra precision. You can change the brush size by using  keys or the slide in the options panel. Hardness, Spacing and Angle are carried over from Brush settings and behave similarly. However, when making a selection any changes to these options will not be as apparent as with normal brushes. I would suggest to any Photoshop novice to leave these options at their default value. Sample All Layers checkbox will do just that, sample all layers rather than the currently selected one when making a selection. Make sure it is left unchecked if working with more than one layer. And finally, Auto Enhance checkbox lets Photoshop smooth out your selection automatically. Depending on the image this can either help or hinder your selection process. Since I always refine edges manually I prefer to leave it unchecked, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play around with this option though.
Additionally, to make isolation using Quick Select less painful, it is important to use highest resolution possible. More pixels Photoshop can sample, more precise your isolation will be.
Let’s start by changing Quick Select brush size. Brush size of 10-15% of our subject should be large enough to make a quick selection while letting us move freely without crossing the lines outside the subject. Trace the contours of the subject with the tool. Do not be alarmed if it picks up parts of the background outside the subject. You can fix that lowering brush size for precision, then holding Alt key (Option key on Mac) to change quick select tool from “Add” to “Subtract From Selection”. Brush out any unwanted selection while holding the Alt key. Repeat the process by switching between “Add” and “Subtract From Selection” until you are satisfied with selection. Your initial selection doesn’t have to be very smooth; as long as it roughly outlines your subject it is fine. We will refine the selection in the next step.
Click on the “Refine Edge” in the Quick Selection options panel. This will open Refine Edge panel. Move it to the side so you can see the selection behind it. If you click on top most View Mode drop-down you will be presented with several options for viewing current selection. Marching Ants is the default selection view you should already be familiar with. Overlay option creates a low opacity overlay over unselected areas. It makes the selection much more visible without obscuring the background, so that we can better refine our edges. On Black or White options are good for checking final results. Any imperfection should clearly be visible on either of the backgrounds. Black & White is ideal for working with feather options as well as finding any rogue pixels Quick Selection tool might have picked up. On Layers will let you preview your selection on other layers in the document. It requires other background layers to be placed under the current image layer you are working on. Let’s switch back to Overlay and continue working on refining our selection.
When you open Refine Edge panel, Refine Radius tool will be selected by default. You can change its brush size in the option panel at the top. But it is ideal to keep brush size small enough to cover just a few pixels inside and outside the selection for precision. Carefully paint over the edges of selection where it needs more work, Photoshop will re-sample newly painted area usually resulting in a much better and smoother selection. If you made a mistake or just want Photoshop to take another look at the area, you can hold Alt key (Option on Mac) to switch to Erase Refinements tool. You will have to paint over that area with Refine Radius tool to select it again. You can repeat this process over and over until you are satisfied with the result. Zooming in and making the brush size smaller will give you greater precision over very tricky areas. Depending on the quality or contents of the image this process may take anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour to complete. When you are done with refining your selection, play around with Smooth, Contrast and Decontaminate Colors options. Depending on the image these options may produce a slightly sharper selection. Decontaminate Colors is especially powerful if the subjects hair or body reflects a lot of the background color. Before you are done, double check if you picked any unwanted pixels in the Black & White viewing mode.
Combining Pen Tool Selection with Refine Edge.
Sometime you may notice that certain areas that blend into the background will give you a lot of trouble using quick select and refine edge tools alone. If you take a look at the stack of books in our example you will notice that quick select didn’t do a particular good job of it. Why not trace a shape over this area using Pen tool. Create a selection. Make sure to select the original image layer again, then switch over to Quick Select tool and select the rest of the body. Repeat Refine Edge process as outlined above.
Isolation, Mask, Dodge and Burn
When performing isolation it is often beneficial to apply mask to your isolated object. This will allow for numerous additional editing options, especially on a large project. While these additional editing techniques are beyond the scope of this tutorial it is useful to get in a habit of applying and working with masks in order to become comfortable with mask implementation. When performing isolation and using refine edge you can create mask and have more control over your isolation.
To start, create your rough isolation (meaning the edges do not have to be perfect). You can use Quick Selection or Magic Wand tools for that. Then use Refine Edge to go over all the imperfections in isolation, especially including hair and rough edges. You may need to closely zoom into your image to see all the isolation imperfections to have quality results. Once that’s done, click on Add Layer Mask icon on the bottom of Layers Panel to create your isolation mask. Whichever layer you place below this mask will show though all the isolated parts. For example, if you want your isolated object to be a white background, just place solid white layer below your masked isolated layer. Additionally if you notice some imperfections in your isolation, you can still use Refine Edge on your mask. To do this, make sure your mask is selected by clicking on it. Then go to Select > Refine Edge on the top navigation panel or hit [Alt]+[Ctrl]+[R]. This will bring up Refine Edge window and you will be able to perform additional refinements.
Now let’s get to Dodge and Burn tools. Dodge and Burn techniques have been use by photographers back when digital media wasn’t even defined by dictionaries. Just like in film photography, Photoshop’s Dodge tool can brighten specific levels of an image, while Burn tool can darken these levels. However, when used on masks these tools can help with refinement. You may have noticed that while refining edges, Photoshop has created some slight “see-through” sections. When looking at a mask, these sections will appear as grey-scale gradient segments. To see your mask, hold [Alt] (Option for Mac) key and press on the mask. Typically, masks are black and white. White is what is seen through and black is blocked completely. However, a mask can have some shades of grey, which work as opacity levels (the closer the grey is to white the more the image will show through). When Refine Edge tool is used it often creates these shades and not all of them are beneficial to your isolation. To remove darker shades on the white section of your mask, simply choose a Dodge tool, set the Range to Highlights and Exposure to 100%. Then paint over the shades you would like to remove. The best thing is that this will only remove patches on white areas and will not affect black areas if you accidentally go over. Conversely, you can use Burn tool to remove patches on black areas. Just set its Range to Shadows and Exposure to 100%.