Groot before and after photoshop editing

How to remove background from a photo in Photoshop

How can I remove the background from a photo? This is a question I have occasionally heard asked by people looking at a picture they would like some work done on.

If you’ve found yourself looking great in a picture but not liking the background much, then you must have an interest in this topic. I remember once taking a stunning picture of a friend. At the moment the picture was taken, there was a mother in the background. This mother was chasing two (not one but two) wailing kids. And they all ran past in the background. I never edited that picture but sometimes I think back.

Changing the background in a picture is relatively easy depending on the quality of the image and amount of detail. I made two short videos to illustrate this and you can watch one of them below to see how.

This first YouTube video shows you one way to make a selection. And in the second video, I masked out unnecessary elements (background in this case) from the image. I used an image of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy and I hope you learn from this tutorial.

If, however, you would rather not watch a video, then you can read on. I will try to explain with text and images (I wish you’d watch the video instead though).

Screenshot of Groot opened in Photoshop
Screenshot of Groot opened in Photoshop

Read on if you would rather not watch the video to learn to remove background from a photo.

So, there I was watching Guardians of the Galaxy and for a moment, I caught an expression of Groot I wanted to archive. And so, I back-tracked a bit and saved a screenshot of the image above (I do that… a lot) not really knowing what I would use it for.

Few years later, I was browsing through my archive of screenshots from a The Cosby Show to Birds of Prey. And I stumbled upon Groot and thought to myself, “Hmm! How would he look if I remove the background from the photo and replace with something else?”

Preparing image for editing

I always advise not to work directly on an image unless it can’t be helped. It’s always good to be able to fall back on the original. Plus, I like to be able to use the original to compare how much I changed. Keeping this in mind, I always make a duplicate for editing. This way, Photoshop doesn’t overwrite the original image file when I hit CTRL/CMD+S (I hope you know that means “Save”).

In the main menu, go to Image > Duplicate…

Rename duplicate file
Rename duplicate file

And then rename the new file as you see fit. Once you’ve done that, you can close the original knowing that it is safe from editing.

Background layer in the layers panel
Background layer in the layers panel

If you opened your image in Photoshop the way I did, you will notice that it appears as “Background” on the Layers panel. You’ll also notice it’s locked from editing (the padlock) and I would rather leave that way. To begin editing you can just:

  1. Right-click on the layer and hit “Duplicate layer”
  2. Select the layer, go to main menu Layers > Duplicate Layers
  3. Or just select the layer and hit CTRL/CMD+J (alas! The beauty of shortcuts)

I used the last option (as I always do) and I’m sure you will too from now on. I thought it important that you know what the shortcut does and that you know other ways to do it. Now we can begin editing this image.

Selecting subject(s) of image to remove background from photo

To remove the background from the photo, you have to tell Photoshop to “hide” the background. You do this by making a selection of what you either want to hide or reveal. Once you have made your selection, you can go ahead and hide (masking) what you don’t need to see.

There are so many ways you can make a selection. I used a method that would allow you to keep track of what I did. I used the Pen tool to draw a replica of Groot so that I could use that replica to make my selection of what to hide/reveal (if it doesn’t now, it will make more sense when we’re done).

Pen tool
Pen tool
Polygon Lasso Tool
Polygon Lasso Tool

The Pen tool is represented by this icon (a pen, of course) and can be activated by hitting “P”. You can alternately use the Polygon Lasso tool. I only recommend this tool for easy selections. Selections that require about no more than 20 clicks around the subject of selection.

Background layer to be removed is duplicated and renamed as GROOT
Background layer duplicated and renamed as GROOT

Remember the layer I duplicated? I renamed it as GROOT. You can rename yours however you wish by right-clicking or double clicking on the label. Select the Background layer after that and click on the Pen tool. The Pen tool is on the TOOLS bar which is normally along the left side of the Photoshop window.

Pen tool menu
Pen tool menu

In the Pen Tool Menu, activate the shape mode to create a shape. Most people use path mode to create a path and then make a selection of that path but, like I said, I want you to see what I did more clearly.

I drew a shape (patiently, I must add) around Groot. I zoomed in for extra detail and I was careful to keep my drawn line “under Groot’s skin”. Think of it as not painting outside the line. This is shown in the video (I did say I wished you watched the video instead, didn’t I?).

Using the Pen tool
Using the Pen tool

Each dot along the outline in the above image is a click along Groot’s edge. I hope you appreciate this took a whole lot of clicks. For his extra strands of root, I had to zoom in for more detail. And whenever I made a mistake, I’d open the History panel and backtrack. Note that CTRL+Z (undo) only toggles back and forth between present action and last action.

After Selection

Once done drawing the shape (20 minutes and maybe 2000 clicks later), you will have a new layer with vector shape beneath your editing layer (GROOT layer in my case). I renamed this as VECTOR.

GROOT, VECTOR and background layers to be removed
GROOT, VECTOR and background layers

You can only see the shape if you disable visibility for GROOT layer by clicking on the eye icon next to the thumbnail.

VECTOR layer before I remove background
VECTOR Layer after I disable visibility of GROOT layer
VECTOR layer after I remove background layer
VECTOR layer after I remove background layer

With that done, we have created a shape replica of Groot. When I make my selection in the next part of this tutorial, everything within the shape (Groot) will be kept visible and I will remove the background of the photo by hiding everything outside the shape.

Let me know how educative this tutorial was for you in the comment section below. Got any questions about this technique, ask away in the comments section below. You can also let me know about some other technique you want to learn.

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