Get sophisticated selections quickly.

Photoshop offers two great selection tools that use pattern recognition to make the process easier and faster – the Magic Wand tool and the Quick Selection tool. They get complex jobs done quickly and the results they generate can be quite sophisticated. But which one do you choose?

The Magic Wand

The Magic Wand is the fastest tool in the set for selecting large areas or many areas of similar colors scattered throughout an image. One click may get them all. How good the resulting selection is depends on three things.

One, where you click is important. Click on the average of a set of values you want to select, not the lightest or the darkest.

Two, the number you enter in the Magic Wand’s Tolerance is important. Higher values will select more related colors; set it too low and your selection won’t select enough values; set it too high and you’ll select too many values. As starting points, a Tolerance of 11 is low and good for selecting small areas while a Tolerance of 44 is high and works well for selecting large regions – rare cases may benefit from even lower or higher values.

Three, whether you check or uncheck Contiguous is important. If the colors you want to select exist in more than one area of an image and don’t touch each other, if you only want to select one area check the Contiguous checkbox, on the other hand, if you want to select all areas of the same colors uncheck the Contiguous checkbox. Only one other tool can make a selection like this as quickly, Select By Color Range, which adds many more shades of gray or gradations into its mix.

If you don’t like the first selection you make, change the settings and click again. Remember, as with all other selection tools, you can add to a selection by holding the Shift key or subtract from a selection by holding the Option key before clicking – so you can refine selections by adding or subtracting pieces.


Feather with the Property panel.

The edges the Magic Want produces tend to be a little hard, so often you’ll want to soften them in the resulting mask. Avoid guessing how much by entering a number in the Feather field and instead see the results when you use the feather slider in the Properties panel. Most selections can use a little feathering, but don’t overdo it or you could produce halos.


Check for stray pixels and jagged edges.

Watch for stray pixels that aren’t included inside selected areas. After you’ve made and refined a selection and used it to mask a layer or adjustment layer, Option click the mask to see if there are any white flecks in dark areas or dark flecks in light areas. If there are, brush them away.

The Quick Selection Tool

The Quick Selection took may require a little more work than the Magic Wand – you many need to make many strokes to complete a selection – but only a little, and the results it generates may be better. The Quick Selection tool tends to produce edges that are more precise and less jagged. It rarely leaves out stray pixels in the selections it makes. It’s a great first choice to make a selection.

The Quick Selection tool acts like a selection brush following the contours of areas of color as you move your cursor along them. You can make this brush as large or as small as you like; for more precision, zoom in and use a smaller size. The more you move the cursor the more values will be included. To continue adding to a selection keep moving. If you want to add non-contiguous values hold the Shift key and make a new stroke. (Or click on the Add to selection icon, which is less convenient than the key command.) If you go too far, hold the Option key while you brush to remove areas from the selection or undo (Command/Control Z). (Or click on the Subtract from selection icon, which is less convenient than the key command.) By nature, it selects contiguous areas; to select non-contiguous areas you need to make multiple strokes.

Both the Magic Wand and the Quick Selection tools offer a Sample All Layers check box, which can be useful if the areas of color you want to select are a produced by a blend of more than one layer. Leave this box unchecked for all other cases as it may make these tools more difficult to use.

The Magic Wand and Quick Selection tools are not your best choices when you want to select general areas that don’t follow compositional elements within an image, such as global or even local vignetting effects. But, when you do want to make selections from contours within an image, the Magic Wand and the Quick Selection tools are your go-to choices. Only very precise selections of more complex contours require more advanced methods.

 Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


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