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How to get perfectly smooth edges on cutouts of people in Photoshop

Using Channels with Dodge and Burn to get perfect cutouts in Photoshop

While there are many ways to extract an image from the background in Photoshop, each method has its place. Each image has its own unique challenges. I’ve made lots of different tutorials on cutting out images, from simple to complex backgrounds and using everything for the selections tools, to pen tool. The truth is, most of the time, a combination of techniques will get you the best result, which is why I made a course that goes in depth with selections to tackle any cut out task. In this tutorial we are looking at how to get clean and smooth edges with a simple background. This is a common setup for a composite, shooting the elements to build a photo composite/collage. One of the things I’ve noticed with a lot of cut out techniques, is that the limbs, are and legs tend to get ragged edges.  This tutorial will show you how to fix that and get smooth limbs. As a side note, this works really good on hair too.

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We will be using Channels and well as dodging and burning to create our mask. This type of cutout is sometimes called a channel pull, although many channel pulls just use levels and don’t include the powerful dodge and burn technique you will learn here. It will work with all version of Photoshop.

Step 1.

Make a selection around the subject. in CC2019 or newer (we are using Photoshop 2020 here) choose the Quick selection tool and click on select Subject. On earlier version of Photoshop make a selection around the subject using quick select, magic wand, or whatever you have available.

The image to cut out of the woman

Step 2.

Go to the Channels Panel

All the RGB channels

Step 3.

Choose the channel with most contrast. (Blue Channel) Click on “Blue”

Blue channel selected

Step 4.

Drag the Blue channel to the new channel icon at the bottom (the square with the plus sign in it)
This will make a copy of the channel for us to work on.

Photoshop 2020 channel panel

Step 5.

Choose Select>Modify>Contract and enter 10-15 pixels

contract selection to squeeze the mask

This shrinks the selection to the inside of the image.

channel selection

Step 6.

Fill the selection with black. Press the D key to reset colors. Alt/Option+Delete will fill with foreground color.

remove background

Step 7.

(This varies a little from the video, because I wanted to show off the technique better in the video, so this step is optional)

Choose Select>Modify>Expand 20-30 pixel depending on image resolution.

expand selection in Photoshop

Step 8

Press Cmd/Ctrl+Shift+I to inverse the selection

fill the mask

Step 9.

Fill the selection with White. Ctrl/Cmd+Delete will fill with foreground color.

Press Ctrl/Cmd+D to deselect.

making a clean mask

Notice that we now have a thin edge.  This is where we will smoothen it to get a perfect cutout.

the edge to mask

Step 10.

Choose the burn tool and set the Range to shadows and the Exposure to 15%

burn tool in photoshop

Step 11.

Work your way around the edges, notice how to burn tool can darken the edges in a nice smooth way.

burning the mask

Step 12.

When you have finished with the dark edges switch to the Dodge tool

Set it to highlights, and paint around any of the edges that need to be lightened. (The video shows this is action very well)

Often you will use both dodge and burn for hair.

dodge tool in photoshop  dodge and burn on channel

Step 13.

Cmd/Ctrl+Click on the channel thumbnail to lead the selection. All the white areas will be selected.

choose blue channel for extractions mask

Step 14.

Click on RGB to turn the channels back on.

channels in Photoshop

Step 15.

Hold Down Alt/Option and click on the new Layer mask button.

You will have a nice cutout. You can touch it up by painting on the layer mask with black or white. 

photoshop cutout


I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. I make a new tutorial each week here at PhotoshopCAFE. Browse our other tutorials and bookmark PSC so you don’t

miss any new tutorials.

Great to see you here at the CAFE


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(Ive been posting some fun Instagram and Facebook Stories lately)

You can get my free Layer Blending modes ebook here



Stop struggling with selections. Learn how to select and cut out anything from people, hair, trees, complex shapes and even transparency.
Discover how to get perfect edges, without halos and jaggies. Colin shows you exactly how in 18 lessons.
All the images are included for you to follow along.
You will be able to select and cut out anything: faster and cleaner. 

selections and masks in Photoshop CC








PS Don’t forget to follow us on Social Media for more tips.. (I've been posting some fun Instagram and Facebook Stories lately)
You can get my free Layer Blending modes ebook along with dozens of exclusive Photoshop Goodies here photoshop goodies for free

One response to “How to get perfectly smooth edges on cutouts of people in Photoshop”

  1. Katrin Eismann used to teach a technique where you used a black or white brush in overlay mode on a mask to refine the edges of difficult selections. Do the dodge and burn tools effectively replace this technique or are they in some ways complementary? I use Eismann’s technique for cutting out fine selections of leaves, grass, hair, etc. on complex backgrounds, but it does take time to get things really right.

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