Photoshop Selections And How To Select and Mask

If you’re into photography and furthermore, you like doing a bit of post-processing on your images – having to make Photoshop selections is an inevitable part of the process. Although not the most exciting part of editing images, making selections using the right tools might speed up your workflow and save you a lot of time!

Photoshop Selection Tools

We’ll go through the tools Photoshop offers to take make selections, their pros, and cons, usage, the importance of selecting and masking and best practices. No matter if you need to get rid of an object in your, otherwise perfect photo, you’re looking to tweak a color here and there or you’re trying doing complex compositing – next time you end up needing a selection you will know where to click and why.

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Marquee Tool

Marquee Tools in Photoshop
All the options of the Marquee Tool

Starting from the top down, the first Photoshop selection tool you’ll encounter is the Marquee tool and its variations. You’ll later find that you’ll hardly ever use it. It’s designed to select in either elliptical (or circle) and rectangular (or square) shape. It’s actually really good when you’re selecting signs, documents or let’s say windows, doors and other straight forms because it doesn’t have any automation behind it and it might save you a lot of time. As long as you’ve got the perspective right, that is.

Using the Marquee Tool to select a round cake.
A quick and easy tool to use, especially when selecting oval or square/rectangular shapes.

Rectangular selection tool in Photoshop is not used so often

It’s a really useful tool, but in the real world most of the things you’ll need selections for won’t be that easy to select. 

You can also use it to make single row pixel selections, as well as single column pixel selections. Not that you’ll ever need to. Actually, this is considered to be a legacy tool, left from the days when you had to scan a lot of your work and it was used to repair scanner lines by selecting and duplicating one-pixel rows/columns onto it. Something curious is that apparently it was also used to manually create guidelines. Thank god those days are behind us, right?

Something worth noting here that will be relevant for all the rest of the Photoshop selection tools is the selection options. By choosing one of the modes, you’ll be able to make a new selection, adding, subtracting or intersecting with the already existing intersection.

The selection options bar in Photoshop.
On the top menu line of Photoshop you’ll see the Selection Options Bar.

Lasso Tool

Lasso tool manu in Photoshop.
All the Lasso Tool options.

Now, on to the next selection tool in Photoshop. The lasso selection tool has a few options. To freehand draw your selection you will select the lasso tool. You will be absolutely free when using it, thus making it somewhat harder to make precise selections. A neat trick here would be to switch between the lasso tool and the polygonal lasso tool while making a selection by holding down alt/opt. key on your keyboard.

Something that you can use the Lasso tool a lot for is to quickly select an object I want to delete from the frame. Then I’d press Shift+Backspace to get the Content-Aware Fill up and just click OK. Voila!

Polygonal Lasso Tool

The polygonal lasso tool will draw only straight lines for you, so switching between both for any shapes that have not only straight lines, but some curves, will be the best way to use it. 

Magnetic Lasso Tool

The other thing you can check out is the magnetic lasso tool. It has the ability to follow lines, outlines, borders, and overall contrasty objects, sticking to the edges like a magnet. With the help of this tool, you can easily select contours such as curved corners.

Pen Tool

Оkay, the Pen tool is arguably the most precise tool there is. EVERYTHING about it is manual. With the Pen tool, you make a selection via defining the object by placing anchor points and lining them up around your subject creating a path, which you then transform into a selection. You can add and remove anchor points, as well as curve them. There’s also the curvature tool which could potentially save you some time, as it can follow some curves automatically.

Although, super detailed, this tool will definitely take you the most time to master. In a lot of the cases you might actually prefer the other options, as they are becoming smarter and smarter. 

 Quick Selection and Magic Wand tool

Quick Selection tool menu in Photoshop
All the Quick Selection options.

Magic Wand tool might as well be the most used selection tool there in Photoshop. That is because it is really simple to use and makes the selection based on color and contrast, separating complex forms if the image allows It to. Again, here you can add selection by holding shift and remove selection by holding alt/opt. on your keyboard.

The other tool here is the Quick Selection tool. It makes selections based on contrast between shapes and it’s quite quick indeed. In fact, it could be the only one you’ll mostly need when combined with select and mask. But more about that in the lines below.

Photoshop Selections: Quick Mask Tool

Color Range

Color Range menu in Photoshop
This option is found under Selections -> Color Range…

Before diving deep into the topic we’re both here for, I must mention a few other tools that might come in handy when doing Photoshop selections. A combination of one or more of the above tools might be the answer to all your problems and then there are things like color range, which might help you in nailing down selections, especially when you’re looking to change or tweak a color. 

This one you’ll find when going to Select -> Color Range. From the pop up that appears you’ll be able to see your selections, choose to see a preview, add and remove color with the eyedropper tool and overall refine your selection with the Fuzziness slider. A handy tool when working with color. 

Grow & Similar

The grow function can improve your photoshop selections

The Grow & Similar functions are ways to broaden your selection. When using the Magic tool, for example, you might find yourself with less than ideal selection. Sometimes the tool doesn’t pick up all you expected it to or all the color variations that you intended.

The Grow function helps you grow the selected area bit by bit until you’re satisfied. Similar picks up color variations of the selected area and add them to the selection automatically.

Photoshop Selections Pro Tip:

All of the tools used for creating selections in Photoshop can be further modified by entering Quick Mask Mode or selecting “Select and Mask.” To enter the Quick Mask Mode, simply press “Q” on your keyboard. All of the red color you’ll see will be outside of the selection, so you can use it for reference and paint in the selection with a brush, manually.

Select and Mask Mode In Photoshop

Now to the meat and bone of this article. The Select and Mask mode. This will make your life so much easier. I wish I knew this when I was starting out.

Select and mask is an option available for all of the above tools and can be found in the right side of the context top bar:

Photoshop selections context bar

Alternatively, Select -> Select and Mask or cmd/ctrl + opt./alt + R on your keyboard.

Alternatively, it can be found under the Select menu in Photoshop.

Now here you’ll find all the good stuff. Subject Select, edge detection, refining selection via feather, smoothen edges, contrast, shift edge… you name it.

Let’s check them out one by one. Starting with Subject Select. It’s an automated option to determine and select the subject of your frame. Works pretty well most of the time, however almost always requires some refinement, but that’s what we’re here for, anyway.

Edge detection will help you determine the edge of your selection by the number of pixels, so playing around with the slider will show you better results depending on your image. You can also browse the viewing modes form the dropdown for a better visual representation of your selection.

Photoshop selections: Select and Mask

You can also use other masking options, so you can see your selection better!

By using the smoothing slider you’ll see that your mask’s edge could become smoother and less visible, again depending on what you’re working with.

Adding contrast with the contrast slider could sometimes make the difference between giving up on a selection or getting it to where it needs to be.

Here in the Select and Mask dialogue, you’ll also find the refine edge brush, that automatically fixes a lot of the harder areas you’ll come across like hair, smaller particles, eyelashes and so on. Really neat option.

The Refine Edge Brush tool is just below your selection brush, at your left hand side menu bar.

And last but not least we have the Shift Edge, which pretty much does what it says. It moves the edge of your selection by a percent amount for better results.

Of course, as always you can see the Invert button option there, as well. Always remember, if there’s an area of your image you can select easier – go for it, just invert the selection thereafter.

That’s it!

And after all, this is said and done – there you go, you have a masked area. The best part of it all is that you can then further tweak the mask to your liking by painting in or out parts of it with a brush, adding smoothness via the Gaussian Blur filter and on and on it goes. Endless possibilities and combinations to suit your needs when fighting even the nastiest of selections!

Frankly speaking with all this automation and smart tools Adobe Photoshop is giving us nowadays, selections can even be fun!

Author Details

Hey, my name is Krassy Dimitrov. I’m a commercial photographer based in Bulgaria. Among the things I like shooting you’ll see a lot of travel, product, wedding and portrait photography. I’m also an author and contributor to the ever-growing Photography-RAW website here. 

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Hey, my name is Krassy Dimitrov. I’m a commercial photographer based in Bulgaria. Among the things I like shooting you’ll see a lot of travel, product, wedding and portrait photography. I’m also an author and contributor to the ever-growing Photography-RAW website here. 

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