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.


The Lasso tool is best for defining highly irregular selections manually.


The Polygonal Lasso tool is best for defining rectilinear shapes.


The Magnetic Lasso tool uses pattern recognition to define existing contours.

Photoshop’s Lassos (Lasso, Polygonal Lasso, and Magnetic Lasso) are go to tools for drawing irregular selections.

Which Lasso tool you choose depends on the job you need to get done.

The Lasso tool is best for defining highly irregular selections manually.

Just click, hold and drag to define a selection. Draw selections in closed loops from beginning to end; if you let go of a selection half way through a shape you’re drawing a straight line will automatically be drawn from where you let go to where you started; on rare occasions this can be useful.

The Polygonal Lasso tool is best for defining rectilinear shapes.

The Polygonal lasso tool differs in that it only draws straight lines. Click, don’t hold, drag to the point you’d like to draw a straight line to and click again, then repeat until you define a closed shape. While drawing a selection, you can alternate between the Lasso and Polygonal Lasso tools by holding the Option key.

The Magnetic Lasso tool is best for taking advantage of pattern recognition to define existing contours.

The Magnetic Lasso tool is different; it uses edge detection to draw. You simply guide it roughly along a contour you’d like to define and if the contour has enough contrast the tool will find it. (Using an adjustment layer, you can temporarily boost the image’s contrast, while making a selection to help the Magnetic Lasso tool find edges more easily … and then delete the adjustment layer after the selection is complete.) If you draw too quickly with the Magnetic Lasso tool it becomes less accurate. If you find you’d like to refine the line it defines you can press the Delete key to eliminate the anchor points it makes along the way, one at a time, in the order they were made.

Remember, if you plan to feather a selection substantially you don’t need to be precise; close enough will do, so don’t waste your time making perfect selections for very general applications.

Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


A simple Rectangular Marquee selection.


A second selection is added using the Shift key.


A second selection is subtracted using the Option key.


The intersection of two selections is created using both Option and Shift keys.

There are so many times when you make a selection in Photoshop and it’s not quite right. But if the selection just needs a little more here and/or a little less there, there’s an easy fix.

You can press the Shift key to add or the Option key to subtract a new selection to any existing selection, no matter how the existing selection was made or what tool you’re making the new selection with (Lasso, Marquee, Magic Wand, Quick Selection). Hold both the Shift and Option keys at the same time and you’ll get the intersection of the new and old selections. You can do this as many times as you like.

It’s that simple.

Sure, you can use the Add to selection, Subtract from selection, or Intersect with selection options in the top toolbar, but these key commands are easier.

Read more about masking here.

View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


Photoshop offers two Marquee tools (Rectangular or Elliptical) for making simple geometric selections. They’re easy to use.

Click hold and drag to define a selection.

Hold the Option key to draw from the center of the shape.

Hold the Shift key to constrain the shape to a perfect square or circle.

You might question how often you’ll use simple geometric selections, particularly in complex photographs, but you’ll be surprised. They’re excellent for quickly selecting large areas of a canvas, which can be further refined with any of the other selection tools. They’re extremely useful if you feather them heavily; targeting the center of an area then fading off gradually to create vignetting effects, either for the entire image frame or a small portion within it.

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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You can refine any mask in Photoshop with a brush. How? Choose any Brush tool and paint on it. The Brush, Healing Brush, Clone Stamp, Eraser, Gradient, Blur, Smudge, Dodge and Burn tools all have their uses. Whether simple or complex, layer masks are just black and white images; you can do anything to a mask that you can do to a black and white image.

It’s important to remember this because you might not realized just how much you can refine a selection or mask. Sometimes tools like Quick Selection do an amazingly fast job of selecting specific image areas, but their results can be improved further with a brush. Many times the sophisticated selections made with tools like Select By Color Range (which will allow you to quickly select Shadows, Highlights, or single colors like Red, etc) end up selecting too many areas and you may want to remove some of those areas from the selected regions in a mask. Painting over those areas with a black brush is one way to do this. (By contrast painting over areas with white will remove any gray values and let the effect of a layer pass through unimpeded.) While there are many brushes you can refine them with, more often than not you’ll find yourself using a simple soft-edged brush to paint black and/or white at varying opacities. It’s a simple but powerful technique, making it extraordinarily useful.

There are many times you’ll want to manually refine a mask with a brush.

Here are a few examples.


The edge of a contour made with the Quick Selection tool can be refined.



A gradient can be removed from an area.

Here a gradient only affects the sky but not the mountain.



Specific areas of a luminance mask can be removed.

Only the highlights of the lower portion of this image are affected.



Specific areas of a selection made with Select By Color range can be removed.

One orange area is removed from the selection of other orange areas.

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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