The Ultimate Photoshop Resource

Customer Support
Cut out hair and difficult Images in Photoshop Tutorial

We will use Channels to help mask out a complex objects with clean edges. This technique will also save you a lot of time and enable you to make precise cutouts.


Cut out hair and difficult Images in Photoshop Tutorial

In this tutorial we are going to learn the best way to cut out difficult images from their background in Photoshop. I’m not talking about solid shapes and people against green screens. I’m talking about hair and irregular edges against less-than perfect backgrounds. You know, the kind of thing that you have to deal with in the real world, not just for tutorials. As you know, here at photoshopCAFE we are all about keeping it real and tackling real-world stuff rather than eye-candy that you can’t actually use.

For a simpler method to get you started, see  how to Cut out Photos using Quick select and refine edge method

So let’s have a stab at extracting a woman wearing a feather head dress. To make it more fun, we will use a colored background that is similar in color to the feathers… one one side, and completely different on the other side. Sound challenging enough? Let’s do it!

Watch the video right here (new), or read the step by step tutorial.

We also have another method of extracting in this free video tutorial 

Step 1


Make a duplicate layer of the image. This way the original is preserved on the background and we are working on a duplicated layer. Hide the background by clicking off its visibility icon.  Choose Select>Color Range from the Menu. When the Color Range Dialog box open, choose the Left Eye Dropper tool and click on the background color in the image window (pink). You will see the selected color turn white in the dialog box. Move the Fuzziness slider until the image is mostly black and the background is a clean as you can get it. Tip: To add a color to the selection click on the eyedropper tool with the plus sign and click in the image. Click ok

Step 2


With the selection active, switch to the Channels palette. Click the save selection as channel button, it’s the second one to the left on the bottom of the channels palette. A new alpha channel will now be visible. Press “Ctrl/Cmd+D” to Deselect and click on Alpha 1 in the channels palette. The main window will now turn black and white. The advantage of using a channel is the ability to fine tune the selection without effecting the original image. Black represents the areas that we want to keep and white, the areas to be discarded.

Step 3


Notice that there are areas of gray, these would be semi-transparent and need to become solid black and white (except for areas that should be semi transparent such as soft edges). There are tiny dots also visible, there will make for a very messy selection. Here is a quick solution that I have come up with: Click Image>Adjustments>Levels..
In the levels Dialog box, click the black point slider on the left and drag it to the right until the gray areas have become a solid black, Slide the White point slider to the left until the whites are nice and clean and the grainy effect has gone. Click ok to apply.

Step 4

 masking-4Time to fine tune the mask. Choose a black brush and make the edge hard. Paint over all the areas that belong in the object to mask out. Use a larger brush for large areas and a smaller brush for finer detail such as around the feathers. Use a white paint color to paint out the areas that should be removed.

Step 5

masking-5Sometimes it can be hard to guess which part of the image belongs in the foreground and a peek at the original image is needed.  Click on eye icon to the left of RGB at the top of the Channels palette (Fig 5). The original photo is now visible and the mask appears as a reddish color. Click the eye icon to go back to the mask view. The mask can also be hidden by toggling the eye (visibility icon). Keep going until you have a clean mask.

Step 6

Hold Cmd(Ctrl PC) and click on the Alpha 1 thumbnail. You will now see an active selection. Click on RGB to see the color image. Open the layers palette.

Select the working layer and add a layer mask. The masked area of the backround will now be removed to reveal a nice clean masking effect.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 4.27.10 PM

If it looks the opposite, click on the layer mask and press Ctrl/Cmd+I to invert the mask. You can touch up the mask by painting with black or white to add or remove portions of the image.

At this point In am only worried about removing the pink background on the left.

Step 7

 If there are areas that still need to be removes such as on the right side of this image, repeat the proceeding steps. Because each image is unique, some will need several passes and some can be done in a single pass. As you can see, this technique is very effective and the image can be dropped onto any background. Look at the top left of the image to see how precise the cut out is on the detailed feathers. Try that with the pen tool!


Refine Edge and Quick Selection to cut out a photo easily

How to cut out a photo quickly using quick selection and refine edge. (easy)

CS6 Superguide

All the CS6 information and more is available as a PDF magazine called the CS6 Superguide. If you’re on our list, you will receive it free by email as soon as it’s available. If not, sign up now and get the CS6 Superguide for free. Or click the image below.


This tutorial is from our Photoshop CC For Digital Photographers video. There are around 90 videos just like this one. If you are serious about mastering Photoshop, check it out.



Colin Smith

Colin Smith

Colin Smith is founder of the #1 PhotoshopCAFE online community which has received over 30 million visitors. Colin has Authored/Coauthored 18 books. He has won numerous awards including 3 Guru awards. He’s been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame twice. Colin is a regular columnist for Photoshop User Magazine. He’s been featured in almost every major imaging magazine, and is in high demand as a speaker at major industry events including Flash Forward and WPPI . He consults such companies as ABC Disney, Apple and Adobe

More Posts

Popular Premium

    Making Movies in Photoshop. Video In Photoshop CC
    Colin Smith
    Sale! skycityTN
    Photoshop Compositing: Sky City Project
    Colin Smith
    $34.99 $24.99
    Sale! LR6_tn
    Lightroom 6 / CC for Digital Photographers
    Colin Smith
    $99.99 $79.99
    Sale! photoCCtn
    Photoshop CC for Digital Photographers (2015)
    Colin Smith
    $99.99 $79.99
Colin Smith

About Colin Smith

Colin Smith is founder of the #1 PhotoshopCAFE online community which has received over 30 million visitors. Colin has Authored/Coauthored 18 books. He has won numerous awards including 3 Guru awards. He’s been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame twice. Colin is a regular columnist for Photoshop User Magazine. He’s been featured in almost every major imaging magazine, and is in high demand as a speaker at major industry events including Flash Forward and WPPI . He consults such companies as ABC Disney, Apple and Adobe

  • Clipping path BD

    Waw! how easy to masking a difficult photo,I didn’t know that but I have seen your tutorial, now this is very simple work for me.thank you for your wonderful post.keep it up!!!

    • Colin Smith


  • online photo editing

    hi Colin Smith,
    awesome your masking tutorial. very details and useful tips for learn masking better.all steps are easy and helpful for any photoshop designer.thanks

    • Colin Smith

      Thanks, it’s an important task in Photoshop

  • Bijutoha

    This is my favorite path to create an image masking..Absolutely I honor you, Because you read my mind without notice. Thanks so much Colin….

    • Colin Smith

      Thanks so much for the kind words

  • Tanvir Islam

    very effective tutorial.. steps are very simple.
    i was enjoying it..
    thank u so much for your fantastic tutorial

  • Shahana Akter

    Very helpful and informative tutorial. I love it.

  • Beckoning Chasm

    This is excellent–a very clear explanation of the various steps. But the background doesn’t seem that difficult to extract–it’s all a single color after all. I’d love to see steps to extract a difficult subject from a difficult background, where many of the colors are shared by both. Is that possible to do, ahem, cough, “easily”?

    • Colin Smith

      Did you read the tutorial? Its a multi colored background that is different on the left side than the right side

  • Ilana Shamir

    Hi Colin, thanks you so much for this tutorial. I’m trying to clean up a graphite drawing (i.e. as a grayscale image) and lift the image from a slightly toned background to be able to print it onto t-shirts, and it’s definitely proving to be quite a challenge. I will try the tips you’ve shown here, but do you think you might possibly create a tutorial on how to mask complex drawings with shading to drop the background? Haven’t found anything like that on the web so far.

    • Colin Smith

      Hi llana,
      Could you possibly share one of your images so I can see what you need and find the best workflow for you.

      • Ilana Shamir

        Hi Colin, thanks for getting back to me! Here is the image I need to transform, a drawing I just recently completed. Sending you a low res, hope that’s ok. I’m considering I might be happy with just creating a contour to the image to drop it onto white t-shirts, but am also considering dropping some parts of it so they’ll become transparent, such as the palest parts of the face and hair so I can transfer onto coloured t-shirts as well. I don’t know if that is at all possible since there is so much tonal range.

        I also want to separate the hand-drawn type and drop it onto the drawing in reverse so it’ll appear as white, possibly as a semi-transparency, though I need to try versions to decide on this.

        p.s. Anybody considering reposting this, I’m fine with that, but please do indicate the original artist’s name along with it (i.e. me)! Thanks!

        • Colin Smith

          So your looking for something like this? Or different? If different, can you show me an example?

          • Ilana Shamir

            I don’t want to turn the work into just black and white, so if that’s just the mask you’re showing me, I guess that would be what I want to do. I’ll try to find something to show you if that’s not the case. What’s for certain is I want to keep my tonal range and not posterize the image, though I suspect you already know that.

            eta: that was super fast by the way! Thanks for responding so quickly! :-)

        • Colin Smith

          Or a more detailed version?

          • Ilana Shamir

            Please bear with me, I hadn’t started this drawing with the intention of creating t-shirt art until some people expressed interest in it, so as I look around I see maybe my expectations are a bit off in terms of transferring the image onto a colour background, in which case there isn’t much choice BUT to transfer it into b/w art.

            So let’s sort of start over taking it from the top:

            1. For WHITE t-shirts only I want to create a complex clipping path around the image and keep all the tonal range. A mask that will allow me to keep in all the subtle details of the fur and strokes (looking a lot like what you’re showing me above, in fact, so maybe you’ve already done what I was looking for?). We’ll forget about transparency in this case.

            2. For colour t’s, see example below for a colour t-shirt with an illustration that preserves the image, though my clipping path would need to much more subtle, but I’ll forget about dropping parts of the image, other than the strokes at bottom, which you’ve done beautifully and exactly as I want to achieve!

          • Ilana Shamir

            I’ve added a few edits to the above for a bit more clarity, I hope.

          • Colin Smith

            You probably want to trace it in Illustrator if you need color separations, otherwise you could color it in Photoshop and do a process print. The next step is a whole different topic. If you give me permission to use your lion, I can make a tutorial on making it into line art.

          • Ilana Shamir

            Interesting. I like the idea of you creating a tutorial on creating line art, though not sure that’s what I want to do for this specific t-shirt project as I really do want to use the original art with the least mechanical transformations as possible. It is intended to contribute to an awareness campaign to contribute to non-profit organizations and I have a traditional drawing series in mind. Could we take the discussion offline so I can raise a couple of issues?

          • Colin Smith

            If it’s an issue, don’t worry about it, I have plenty of other people who I can get sketches from. I really don’t want to turn this into a big task.

          • Ilana Shamir

            Maybe that would be better since I intend to make semi-commercial use of my original artwork. Back to my original question then, would you mind looking at the 2-part question I posted 2 hours ago which includes a colour t-shirt example? I’m not handy with photoshop and don’t know how to proceed to create a fine-detailed mask. Would like to know how to create a mask close to what you showed me in your 2nd example.

          • Colin Smith

            I’ll post the steps when I have time to write the tutorial.

          • Ilana Shamir

            Colin, I’m posting another sketch I’m ok with you working from, as well as a different drawing altogether, since I’m curious to see what you might do with it. If you end up using either one, would you consider giving me a credit for the original image on the site?