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The Mask: masking techniques > Extracting People from Their Background

Extracting People from Their Background

I figured I’d start with probably the most-requested masking task—removing someone from a background while keeping hair detail. We use Extract for this, and even if you’ve used Extract dozens of times, there’s a trick near the end that is so simple, yet so incredibly effective, it will change the way you use Extract forever, or my name isn’t Deke McClelland.

Step One.
Open the photo containing a person (or an object) that you want to extract from its background. Go under the Filter menu and choose Extract (it’s the first filter from the top).


Step Two.
This brings up the Extract dialog. Get the Edge Highlighter tool (it’s the top tool in Extract’s Toolbar and looks like a marker) and use it to trace the edges of the object you want to remove (as shown here). As you trace, leave half the marker border on the background and half on the edge of the object you want to extract.


Use a small brush size when tracing areas that are well defined (like along the shirt), and a very large brush for areas that are less defined, such as flyaway hair. You can change the brush size by holding down the Left Bracket key to make it smaller or the Right Bracket to make it larger.

Step Three.
After your Highlighter edge is in place, you now have to tell Photoshop what parts of the photo to retain when extracting. This is pretty simple—you just switch to the Fill tool (it’s the second tool from the top in Extract’s Toolbar and looks like a paint bucket) and click it once inside the Highlighter edge border you drew earlier (as shown here). This fills the inside of your highlighter border with a light blue tint.

Step Four.
If the blue tint spills out to the rest of your photo when you click the Fill tool, that means your subject isn’t completely enclosed by the edge border. If that happens, just press Command-Z (PC: Control-Z) to undo, then take the Edge Highlighter and make certain there are no gaps at the bottom or sides of your border. Now you can click the Preview button to see how your extraction looks (as shown here).

Step Five.
It’s time to take a good look at the photo and see if Extract did what you really wanted it to. Namely, did it work on the hair, which is the hard-to-select area? If it worked, click OK because fixing the rest of the photo is a breeze, as you’ll see. Even if parts of his clothes are dropping out, or there are dropouts in his face, hands, etc., don’t sweat it—as long as the edge of the hair looks good, click OK to perform the extraction.

Step Six.
Now that the extraction is done, it’s “fix-up” time. Here, you can see dropouts (slightly transparent areas) in his hair, a few little spots in his shirt, and a couple little spots in other places. Start by simply duplicating the layer. That’s right, just press Command-J (PC: Control-J). The mere act of duplicating the layer fixes about 90% of the dropouts in your photo. It sounds weird, but it works amazingly well, and when you try it, you’ll be astounded. Press Command-E (PC: Control-E) to merge these two layers.

Step Seven.
For the rest of the dropouts, just get the History Brush tool (shown here) and simply paint over these areas. The History Brush paints those missing pieces back in because it’s really an “undo on a brush” if you just grab it and go. So, if part of your subject drops out, use the History Brush to paint it right back in. You can usually fix the dropouts in about two minutes using this technique.

Step Eight.
Here’s a capture taken during the fix-up stage, where I’m painting over dropouts on the handle of the coffee mug. The History Brush is painting the original image back in.

Step Nine.
Next, open the photo that you want to use as a background behind your extracted person. It’s best to drag this background photo onto your extracted-person document, because as long as you work in the same document where you extracted, you’ll have access to the History Brush for your extracted image. That way, if you see a dropout when you bring in the background, you can return to that layer and quickly touch it up with the History Brush.


Step Ten.
The background appears over your extracted image on its own layer, probably covering your extracted image (as shown here).

Step Eleven.
Go to the Layers palette and drag the layer with your background photo behind the layer with your extracted photo, to put your extracted person in front of the background you just dragged in (as shown here, where the woman in the background photo is covered up by the extracted man). You’ll usually have to switch to the Eraser tool to erase any little leftover “junk” outside his hair, along his shirt, etc., but you can usually clean up these leftovers pretty easily once you see them over the background.

Step Twelve.
In this example, the original photo was wider than the new background, so you’re left with a lot of empty space to his left. Press “c” to get the Crop tool, drag a cropping border out around just the background area, then press Return (PC: Enter) to crop the photo down to size (as shown here). Now that the photo is cropped, a new problem is visible—his skin tone looks too warm for the bluish background you’ve placed him on (and this is something you’ll deal with often when combining photos—the tones have to match to look realistic).

Step Thirteen.
To cool down his warm skin tones, make sure the top layer is active in the Layers palette, and then go under the Adjustment Layer pop-up menu at the bottom of the palette and choose Photo Filter (as shown here). These Photo Filters replicate the traditional screw-on lens filters we used to use with film cameras to adjust bad lighting situations.

Step Fourteen.
In the Photo Filter dialog, you can choose a filter from the Filter presets pop-up menu (like the Cooling Filter [82] I chose here), or choose to fill with a solid color. You can also control the density of the effect using the Density slider (I left it set at 25%). Click OK and the warm tones are cooled and your subject’s flesh tones and overall tone now better fit the background image you dragged him onto.

The original photo.

The subject extracted, placed onto a different background, and his tone cooled to match the background.



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