Photoshop Selections 101: What they are and how to use them

The walls in my house are a subtle shade of green. “Hampshire Gray,” I think it’s called. Whatever it is, it’s starting to feel a little dark and dated. When we have it redone, our painters will have to protect the windows with removable blue tape before they start painting. They’re professionals, but they still need this tape to avoid accidentally painting on the glass. I suppose they could do it without the tape, but it’d probably take several extra weeks and they’d probably still make a few mistakes. So no matter how good of an artist you are, it is important to have tools to work more precisely and more quickly.

In Photoshop, the equivalent of using blue masking tape is “selections”. These act like a “stencil” to control what you can affect with the various tools in Photoshop. When you have an active selection, you can only use Photoshop’s tools (such as the paint brush) inside that selection. This can help you change a red car to green, without changing the color of the bumper. Or whiten someone’s teeth, without affecting their lips.

Of course, there are always many ways to do things in Photoshop and you can use layers and masks instead of selections to make those same changes. In fact, masks are often the best way to make those changes because you can typically revise or undo adjustments made with layers and masks. But it isn’t an either/or situation,  both selections and masks are critical to producing great images with Photoshop and it is important to understand each of their roles.

Masks control which pixels you can see, while selections control which pixels you can change. Masks conceal or reveal various parts of your layers. Selections affect which pixels you can affect with a tool, warp, or filter. And because masks are just grayscale images, you can also use selections to help create or refine your masks. So even if you use adjustment layers instead of brushes or other tools, it’s important to be skilled with selections.

In the following video, you’ll see these concepts in action as you get a brief overview of every selection tool available in Photoshop.

 

Photoshop offers many tools for making selections. They can be a little difficult to discover, as they aren’t all in one place. They are located in the tool bar, various menus, in the layers and channels panels, and available via shortcut keys. To help you find them, I’ve listed where to find each next to its description.

Photoshop offers the following basic tools for creating selections, including:

  • Marquee selections (Found in the toolbar; shortcut: <M> or <shift><M>).  This allows you to create selections which are rectangular and circular in shape. That may sound simple, but can be quite useful for creating vignettes, general selections, or revising selections by using the add/subtract/intersect commands mentioned below. This is a “dumb” tool which completely ignores the content of your image.
  • Lasso selections (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <L> or <shift><L>). The general idea is that you draw a freehand selection. The polygonal version allows you to draw with a series of connected lines, and the magnetic version tries to help snap the selection to edges. The use of this tool is often similar to the marquee selections, but with much more control over the shape of the selection. This is a “dumb” tool which also ignores the content of your image.
  • Magic wand (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool allows you to select pixels which are similar to whatever you click on. This is very useful to quickly select things like a blue sky. However, this tool creates all or nothing selections, which means that the transitions are very harsh.
  • Quick Select (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool is somewhat similar to the Magic Wand, but you click and drag to help define the selection. The Magic Wand is great for subjects which may be broken up (such as a blue sky obscured by tree leaves), whereas the Quick Select is often simpler for targeting continuous subjects (such as a continuous sky).

 

Taking things a step further, selections aren’t quite as simple as blue masking tape. The selection tools mentioned above either create selections which are 0% or 100% for a given pixel. But the more advanced options below can be partially selected from 1-99% as well. These allow for much more natural selections and higher quality work.

Photoshop’s more advanced selection tools include:

  • Refine Edge (Found under the Select menu as “Select and Mask,” or as “Refine Edge” in older versions of Photoshop). This tool helps to soften the improve the edges of your selection by analyzing the image content and is a great way to address edge issues with the Magic Wand and Quick Select tools.
  • Color Range (Found under Selection/Color Range). This tool helps target pixels of similar tone or color. But unlike the Magic Wand or Quick Select tools, it is able to create partial selections. This allows for more natural selections and higher quality work.
  • From Channels/Masks (available in the channels panel under Window/Channels: look for the “load channel as selection” icon at the bottom of the panel or <ctrl/cmd>-click on any thumbnail in the channels panel. Or you may <ctrl/cmd>-click on any layer mask in the layers panel). This creates “luminosity selections”, or selections based on the brightness of the image.  This is an advanced technique, which I cover in great detail on my luminosity masking page, newsletter tutorials, and in my exposure blending course.
  • From Transparency (available by <ctrl/cmd>-clicking on any image thumbnail in the layers panel). If you have a normal layer which covers the entire image, this is the same as selecting everything. But if the layer has some transparency, can be used to target just the pixels in the layer. This is most useful when targeting areas dodged and burned on a transparent layer. For the most part, it is just important to be aware of this because if you -click on the image thumbnail, you will probably see a selection around the image when you meant to load the layer mask or channel as a luminosity selection instead. In other words, you’ll probably run into this by accident at some point if you’re using luminosity selections. Loading from transparency only considers the transparency of the pixels, not their luminosity.

 

Photoshop includes various other tools to work with selections, which are often used to combine simple selections into more complex and useful ones.

Other helpful tools for working with selections:

  • Deselect (shortcut: <cmd>-D). This discards your selection, so that you can once again change any pixel.
  • Select All (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-A). This is commonly used to select the entire image so that you can copy and paste it.
  • Expand/Contract/Feather (Found under Select/Modify). Feathering is an especially useful option to help transition more smoothly from areas which are selected to those which are not. Expanding and contracting can be helpful to refine a Quick Select at the edges.
  • Add (shortcut: <shift>). Combining selections allows for more complex selections. Adding via marquee or lasso is a great way to fill in any holes in the middle of your selection.
  • Subtract (shortcut: <alt/option>). Subtracting via marquee or lasso is a great way to remove parts of your selection you don’t want.
  • Intersect (shortcut: <shift><alt/option>). Intersecting keeps areas which are common to two selections. Intersecting with a lasso is a great way to keep just a portion of an existing selection.
  • Hide Marching Ants or “Extras” (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-H). This allows you to hide the “marching ants” that are meant to show a selection, as the ants can be very distracting.

 

This is just an overview of the tools that ship with Photoshop. There are many 3rd party options to help create and use selections, such as my luminosity masking panel Lumenzia.

 


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