Photoshop Selection Tools

As most every photographer surely knows, Photoshop image editing software is capable of doing incredible things. From complex composites to unbelievable photorealistic art, Photoshop makes anything possible. And in many cases, all those special effects start with selections—choosing which pixels a given effect will apply to. The better the selection, the better the result, so which selection tools you choose really matters when precision is important. Here’s a rundown of our favorite Photoshop selection tools and what sets each of them apart.

Marquee Tool

Perhaps the simplest Photoshop selection tools are the rectangular and elliptical marquee tools. Select the rectangular marquee, then click and drag to form a rectangular selection. Simple! Hold the shift key and constrain it to a square; option click to center on the area clicked, and option-shift-click and the centered selection will be a square. Click and hold on the marquee tool on the toolbar to find the elliptical marquee option below.

With the elliptical marquee tool selected, clicking and dragging makes an oval shape, shift-clicking will constrain it to a circle and option clicking centers it. Option-shift-clicking will center a constrained circular selection. With these and the other Photoshop selection tools below, after a selection is made, holding the shift key and using the tool again adds to a selection, while holding the option key subtracts. Both are indicated by + and – icons adjacent to the marquee tool’s cursor. The marquee tools are most useful when straight-line selections or perfect circles and symmetrical rounded shapes are needed.

Lasso Tool

The lasso tool is a click-and-drag method of manually drawing selections on an image. The basic lasso tool is totally freehand. The selection starts when you click, then continues as you drag to draw the selection, and when you release the click Photoshop automatically connects the last point to the first to select everything inside. Simple. But under the plain old lasso tool on the toolbar you’ll find the polygonal lasso and the magnetic lasso tools, which is where things really get interesting.

With the polygonal lasso tool, the first click sets a point and the second click will establish a second point and draw a straight line between them. There’s no limit to the number of clicks you can do with the polygonal lasso tool, so it’s possible to create smooth curves and rounded shapes as long as those clicks are close together. The tool really excels when straight lines or fine control of selections are needed in a way that the pure freehand nature of the basic lasso would fall short.

The magnetic lasso tool is freehand as well, but the tool searches for edges of contrast near where the selection is being drawn and assumes that edge is where the selection should be made. In this way, the magnetic lasso tool is incredibly useful for separating a subject from a background when there’s edge definition between the two.

Magic Wand

The magic wand selection tool is perfect for situations in which large areas of similar tone need to be isolated—whether they’re part of the subject or the background. With a portrait on a seamless background, for instance, using the magic wand makes selecting the background as easy as one click—though it usually takes a few since rarely are image elements all precisely the same tonal value.

With the magic wand tool active, clicking on the options bar at the top of the screen will allow you to adjust the tolerance (or sensitivity) of the selection. A smaller number means Photoshop will only select adjacent pixels nearly identical to the point clicked, while a higher number widens the tolerance and makes the selection faster—though sometimes less accurate. Trial and error helps to establish ideal settings and they change every time. Don’t be afraid to use a lower tolerance to select a smaller area with each click, using the shift-click approach to combine multiple magic wand clicks into the overall selection.

Quick Selection

The quick selection tool shares a space on the toolbar with the magic wand, and it functions similarly in that it automatically selects similar pixels. But the quick selection tool also acts a little bit like a magnetic lasso in that it effectively finds contrasty edges and determines whether they should be included in the selection based as much on shape and contrast as tonal value.

So, unlike the magic wand, which might select areas of similar skin tone when clicking on a face, the quick select tool may determine that the entire face—including eyes and hair—should be included in the selection. It is, of course, possible to change the sensitivity of the selection based on the size of the brush on the options bar at the top of the screen. That bar actually provides access to another great selection too, the Select Subject option.

Select Subject

Found in the options bar of the Quick Selection tool and accessible straight from Photoshop’s Select menu, Select Subject does with a single click one of the most common selection challenges—distinguishing a subject from the background. This obviously works best in high-contrast scenes in which the subject and background don’t blend together, but it’s surprising how accurate Select Subject can be even in complex, low-contrast or busy compositions. Select Subject works so well it has become my default “first click” when I want to select the center of attention in a scene. Photoshop analyzes not just the tones of the pixels and the contrast in the scene, but also its impression of the focus area in order to determine what exactly belongs to the “subject” and what should be considered “background.” It does a tremendous job. Starting with Select Subject, you can then modify and improve the automatic selection with the other selection tools outlined here.

Color Range

I graduated to color range once I felt like I’d started running up against the limitations of the magic wand tool. Namely, the magic wand selects pixels so long as they’re within the predetermined tonal range and adjacent to one another. If a similar tonal value is isolated from the bulk of the pixels by some other image element, magic wand won’t include them in the selection, but Color Range absolutely will. Clicking on Color Range in the select menu opens a window with a black-and-white preview of the selection area.

Photoshop selection tools

With the default eyedropper active, click on any color in the scene to select all of the pixels of similar value. The fuzziness slider above the preview window expands or contracts the range of the selection—allowing a wider range of tones to be included or narrowing the selection to pixels almost identical to the sampled color. Adding to the selection is done by choosing the next eyedropper in the panel, the one with the plus sign next to it. And subtracting from the selection can be done by using the third eyedropper, the one with the minus sign next to it. This way you can dial in the selection quite precisely by telling Photoshop to include one range of tones while specifically excluding a similar tone from the selection. You can also switch from sampled colors to a range of presets in the dropdown at the top of the window, which is particularly useful if you’d like to isolate a specific tone found throughout an image. It’s an incredibly powerful and useful selection tool.

Focus Area

Because one of the most common selection needs is isolating a subject from a background, and because the subject of a photo is often in focus while the background is not, the Focus Area selection tool is an incredibly powerful way to select scene elements that Photoshop deems to be sufficiently in focus—and therefore its estimation of what’s most important in the frame. In the portrait example shown here, the application used edge contrast to determine that the girl’s face and shoulder are in focus while the background area and parts of her hair and torso are not. Increasing the in-focus range slider in the Focus Area window expands the selection, while decreasing it contracts it.

Photoshop selection tools

In this example, the default setting of 3.0 initially left some parts of the face out of the selection, but slightly increasing the slider grabbed it all. You can alter the output options to save the focus area as a selection, a new layer or a mask. This is the perfect tool to use if the reason for the selection is to apply blurring or other treatments designed to visually separate a subject from its background.

Whatever Photoshop selection tools you may use, remember that you can always improve that selection by combining different tools that excel at different approaches. And for the finishing touch, be sure to use the Select and Mask or Refine Edge tools to let Photoshop further improve on the precision of the selection.

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