Using Refine Edge in Photoshop

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How to Use the Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop

The Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop
Text and images © Ian Pullen

The Refine Edge tool in Photoshop is a powerful feature that will help you to create more accurate selections, particularly with objects with complex edges. If you're not familiar with using the Refine Edge tool, I'm going to introduce you to the various controls that are available and show you how you can use the tool to improve the quality of your selections.

It's worth noting that you're mileage will vary depending on the photo that you're working on and while it can help with soft edges, semi-transparent edges may still acquire a sight matting effect where the background color is still apparent. For example, this may be particularly apparent when working on close-up shots of hair. However, it's quick to use the Refine Edge tool, so it's worth giving it a go before turning to a more complex and time consuming method, such as making a selection via a Channel or Calculations and then manually editing the result.

In the following pages, I'll describe how the tool wool works and show you the various controls. I'm using a photo of a cat – the exposure of this shot was rather off, meaning some of the fur is burned out, but we're interested in the edge of the hair, so it's not an issue.

Related: The Refine Edge Feature in Photoshop Elements

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Make a Selection

Make a Selection
Text and images © Ian Pullen

The Refine Edge feature is available with all of the selection tools and how you choose to make your selection will depend on your image and personal preference. I used the Magic Wand tool in Add to selection mode to build up a reasonable selection of the cat and then switched to Quick Mask to paint over some of the isolated areas within the selection border, before switching back out of Quick Mask.

If you have one of the selection tools active, once you make a selection you will see that the Refine Edge button in the tool options bar is no longer grayed out and is active. Clicking this will open the Refine Edge dialog. In my case, because I used the Eraser tool in Quick Mask, the Refine Edge button isn't visible. I could have clicked on one of the selection tools to make it visible, but you can also open the Refine Edges dialog by going to Select > Refine Edge.

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Choose a View Mode

Choose a View Mode
Text and images © Ian Pullen

By default, Refine Edge places your selection against a white background, but there are several other options that you can choose from that may be easier for you to work with, depending on your subject.

Click on the View drop down menu and you will see the options that you can choose from, such as On Layers, which you can see in the screen shot. If you're working on a subject that is originally on a plain white background, choosing a different mode, such as On Black, may make it easier to refine your selection.

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Set Edge Detection

Set Edge Detection
Text and images © Ian Pullen

The Smart Radius checkbox can quite dramatically affect how the edge appears. With this selected, this tool adapts how it works based on the edges in the image.

As you increase the value of the Radius slider, you will see that the edge of the selection becomes softer and more natural. This control probably has the greatest influence over how your final selection will look, though it can be further adjusted using the next group of controls.

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Adjust the Edge

Adjust the Edge
Text and images © Ian Pullen

You can experiment with these four sliders in the Adjust Edge group to get the best result.

  • The Smooth slider will smooth any jagged edges, though it is best to keep this setting low if required.
  • The Feather setting should also be kept low in most cases and this will help to blend the selection more naturally into its eventual background.
  • The Contrast slider adds more definition to your edge and it can help, though if you push this too high it may produce a harsh edge.
  • The Shift Edge slider will move the position of the edge inside or outside of your original selection. A negative value will move it inside and this can be helpful to reduce show through of the background color.
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Output Your Refined Selection

Output Your Refined Selection
Text and images © Ian Pullen

If your subject is against a contrasting color background, the Decontaminate Colors checkbox will allow you to remove some of the resulting color fringe. In my case, there is a little of the blue sky showing around the edges, so I turned this on and played with the Amount slider until I was happy.

The Output To drop down menu gives you several options as to how to use your refined edge. I personally find New Layer with Layer Mask most convenient as you have the option to edit the mask further if the edge isn't exactly as you want it.

These various controls in the Refine Edge tool make it very easy to make quite naturalistic selections in Photoshop. The results may not always be perfect, but they're usually good enough and you can always manually edit your resulting layer mask if you want to further perfect the result.

Related: The Refine Edge Feature in Photoshop Elements