If you’re like most graphic designers, there comes a time when you will need to resort to cutting an image away from a background. While there several different tools you can use to do this within Photoshop, the magic wand tool is one of my favorites–and generally also one of the most underutilized by graphic designers looking to speed up their workflow.
Let me begin by saying that this was not always the case. When I first started working with Photoshop, the magic wand tool was practically useless. This is because it relied on contrasting pixel colors and the brightness values of each color to determine the selection area. In older version of Photoshop, I never had much luck making the magic wand tool select what I wanted it to select, and once I had done so, the edges were rough and unfinished. Nowadays, Adobe has tweaked the level of control available both to make your selection and to finesse a selection that has already been made.
The first thing to remember about the magic wand tool is that, even with all the recent improvements Adobe has made, not all images are good candidates for the magic wand. Generally speaking, if the portion of the image you are trying to select does not have clear edge lines, it will be easier to cut out using the pen tool.
Making Your Selection
Once you’ve chosen your image, it’s time to start working on your selection. Photoshop provides you with several ways to adjust your selection as you’re making it, including settings such as tolerance, anti-alias, contiguous, and sample all layers.
A higher tolerance level means more will be selected with each click of the magic wand. A lower number means less will be selected. I generally use between 10 and 25.
Anti-aliasing smooths the edges of your selection to prevent that blocky or “stepped” look.
Checking the box for contiguous will select pixels with similar colors and brightness values, but only when they are touching those similar pixels. Deselecting it will allow Photoshop to search the whole image for those similar pixels.
Sample all layers is rather self explanatory. If you are working on an image with only one layer, it does not matter if it is checked or not. If you have multiple layers, this might be worth checking if you only want color values selected from one specific layer.
Once you’ve made your selection, you’ll notice one last option in your toolbar called select and mask. With your area selected (you’ll be able to tell by the “marching ants” dotted line running around your shape), click select and mask. You’ll be greeted with a whole new set of options which you can experiment with to finesse and improve your selected area. I usually stick to just the smooth slider and set it at 6. If I’m working with a more difficult image, I also like to use the shift edge slider to add a bit of space around my shape before I cut away the background. The best thing to do with this panel is to work by trial and error. Once you’ve gotten the hang of it, and start to recognize which sorts of images will work best, you really can speed up your workflow–a LOT.
When you’re making your selection, hold down the ALT key to add to the existing selection.