Refine Edge
In Photoshop Elements

Refine Edge is an adjustment that was added to Photoshop Elements in version 11.  When I first saw it on the Options Bar in Elements, I figured it would be a watered down version of what is available in the full version of Photoshop.(48

The Photoshop version is a high end, powerful adjustment that's used by professional editors to mask difficult and complicated area, like hair strands and such.  "There's no chance", I thought, "that this high end technique will be included in Photoshop Elements".

I was dead wrong - while this technique was quite simplistic in version 10, in Photoshop Elements (Version 11, 12  and 13) is exactly the same as it is in the full version of Photoshop.  What this does is provide PSE users with a really, really powerful extraction tool to be used in any situation, whether it's easy or complicated.

It is particularly useful when working with really difficult things like fur and hair and grass and it works fabulously with hard edges.

Here's a comparison of the panel in Elements 10 and the one in Photoshop Elements 11, 12 and 13.

Now you need to understand that there are no absolutely fool-proof techniques for selecting fine details like hair and fur.  The Refine Edge technique may do a perfect job for you and it may also leave you with some areas that require post-adjustment fixing.

The most challenging extractions are things like hair strands, tree leaves, pet fur, grass and other edges that tend to be wandering all over the place.  The problem is that most of the tutorials I've seen demonstrate how to extract wispy things from a pure background, either white or black.  That doesn't help a lot when you're faced with wispy hairs against a complex background, does it?

Against a solid background this extraction technique works really well.  Against a more complicated background Refine Edge works well.  In the latter case, however, the biggest challenge is the clean up after the procedure is finished.

We'll look at both the technique and the clean up in this tutorial.

An example

Did you see Will Ferrel playing Mugatu in Zoolander?  Now that was one of the great movies! 

I was recently at a Fan Expo and lots of folks at the event were dressed up as their favorite character.  Obviously, this guy loved Mugatu in Zoolander! 

I took a picture and here it is ...

If I wanted to put Mugatu on a less cluttered or different background it would be a nightmare using the usual Photoshop Elements Tools.  Looking at the picture the hair is an important part of the overall look.  Having hard edges would not be particularly appealing.

The good thing is that we've got Refine Edge in Elements 11, 12 and 13 and we can extract the hair from the background quite easily.

Quick Selection

The first thing to do is to create a rough selection around the object ot be extracted - the easiest way is to use the Quick Selection Tool.

The Quick Selection Tool did a great job but the selection around the hair is a bit too close to the edge. 

The goal is to have the selection farther in the hair and that's a job for the Lasso Tool set to subtract.

The intention is to take away some of the selection made by the Quick Selection Tool in the hair and leave the selection at the edge of the other parts of the object as close as possible to the hard edges. 

Having a larger area not selected in the hair makes it much easier for Photoshop Elements to do its work.

Modify The Hair Selection

It may be difficult to see the new selection - so lean a bit closer to your monitor and squint a bit - less of the hair is now part of the Selection.

Refine Edge Palette

The Palette

This is where the power of Refine Edge in Elements comes into play.

To set it started, go to Selection > Refine Edge ... or click on the Refine Edge button on the Options Bar ...

There are four sections in the Refine Edge Palette .

1. View Mode

This section provides seven different ways to view the progress of the extraction.  It's likely that you will move from one view to another as you work your project.  There are also two check boxes, Show Radius and Show Original.

The radius is telling Photoshop how far to look for stray bits from the initial selection. In some cases this will be very small and others it will be very large.

2. Edge Detection
This area adjust the radius and the radius is based on the original selection made on the image.  Smart Radius gives Elements the go ahead to decide where there is a solid edge and where there's a more difficult edge.

3. Adjust Edge
The sliders in this section allow for fine tuning of the selection.

4. Output
If some colors are bleeding into the areas you are extracting then this section witll take care of that problem.  You can also choose how the output will appear.  There are five options in the Selection drop down and probably New Layer with Layer Mask is the most useful because it gives you the opportunity to do fine fine tuning of the selection.

On the left side there's a Zoom Tool, a Hand Tool for panning and two Brush Tools, one for adding to the radius and the second for subtracting from the radius.

As we work through the projects the usefulness of each section will become apparent.  It's also good to know that no one method will always work perfectly - if that was the case then there wouldn't be all those choices in the Refine Edge Panel.

This is how Mugatu's hair looks in the Overlay View Mode. When you cycle through the different view modes you will have a pretty good indication of how your initial selection has gone. Some of the modes are more useful in one part of the process while others are more useful in another.

It's easy to see that some of the hair is not included in the selection so the goal is to add these areas (I chose the Overlay view so I could clearly see where I needed to add to the selection).

There are a few different ways to add to the selection - one is to put a check mark in the Show Radius button and then move the radius slider so that the radius is visible around the selection.

If you also put a check mark in Smart Radius then the radius will change according to the edge that's Photoshop encounters. The radius will be small on a hard edge, like Mugatu's clothing, and somewhat larger in the hair.

With this method of using Refine Edge in Elements the next step is to select the Refine Radius Tool to expand the detection area.

What you do is use the Refine Radius Tool to carefully go around the areas where there are wispy little hairs that need to be included in the selection.

Refine edge toolRefine edge tool

Refine Edge Tool

With the Refine Edge brush selected, carefully paint the edges that should be included.

Do one short part and then lift your pen off of the tablet (or release the left mouse button).  After a second or two the overlay (in this example) will return but once it's been selected you don't have to do it again.

It may be a good plan to switch between the different views as you go around the edges.  The goal is to include the wispy areas when working with the radius tool and then let Refine Edge to do its magic.

As you cycle through the different views, you may notice some color contamination at the edges of your selection.

If that's the case then go to the Output section and put a check mark in Decontaminate Colors I heard you look great and move the slider around while you watch the edges.  It may be useful to switch between views as you do the adjustment.

Here are three views of the hair starting from the initial selection to the last step...

Refine edge view one
Refine Edge review two
Refine Edge view three

This is the initial view after selecting with the selection Brush and clicking Refine Edge.  It's pretty much what you would expect.

This is the result (on the Black & White View) after adjusting the radius by 6.0 pixels and then painting around the hair with the Refine Radius Tool which expands the detection area.

The final result (on the Black & White View) after selecting Decontaminate Colors and adjusting the slider.  The edge is slightly better after this adjustment.

The Output is automatically set to "New Layer with Layer Mask".

When you're happy with the result, click OK.

This will produce a new layer with a layer mask which may be the best way to go for some post-refine edge processing because, you just know, the result will not be perfect!

If you would like to inspect the quality of the selection then add a new layer between the Background Layer and the new Layer and fill it with a color that will provide a good contrast.

If it's perfect, fabulous. If the mask needs some additional work then move onto the next section -  this is where the real work begins.

Mask Clean Up

After you've got your amazing mask there are a few different possibilities ...

  1. It may be perfect!  (unlikely)
  2. It may be fine for your purposes.
  3. It may be OK but not great..
  4. It may need a lot more work.

If you're faced with either 3 (OK but not great) or 4 (a lot more work needed)  then you've got a lot more work to do and there are some additional steps you can take.

Do It Again

Probably the easiest thing to do is to just run Refine Edge again!

To do that highlight the Layer you just created, make a new selection close to the edges of the hair and then click Refine Edge and that familiar dialogue will come up again.  Depending on which view you've got you may see an immediate improvement in the edge.

Even so, take the Refine Edge Tool and go around the edges once again which should improve the edge.

After that, click on Decontaminate Colors and move the slider.  In my Mugatu example I moved the slider all the way up to 100 and the edge that was acceptable popped right out.

Here's the comparison ...

After first refine edge

After second refine edge

Use the Layer Mask

You've got a choice of Output in the dialogue and choosing one with a Layer Mask is the best way to go.

In my example I set the normal Brush Tool to Overlay and painted white over the fringes to help them stand out from the background (Overlay makes darks darker and whites whiter)

The changes will likely be subtle and they will be visible.  Here's a comparison ...

Unmodified layer mask

After painting on layer mask

Run levels on the layer mask

This one worked quite well with Mugatu. What I did was select the layer mask and then Enhance > Adjust Lighting  > Levels…

I moved the midpoint slider to the right until any ghosting disappeared.

Use the Burn Tool

If you've got some nasty halos in the transition area then the Burn Tool may be just the thing to eliminate them.

Set the tool to Shadows at about 50% Exposure go around the halo area on the Layer Mask until they disappear.

Use the Clone Tool

The Clone Tool can be very effective coloring those fringy things like hair and fur.

It's a good idea to set the Clone Tool source as close to the destination point as possible and set the blend mode of the Clone Tool to Overlay so the color you're adding  looks believable.

New Background

Now that you've got this amazing extraction it's time to do something with it and this one's up to you.  Here's a couple of suggestions ...

  • Add a solid colored background on a new layer below the extracted image.
  • Add an interesting gradient on a new layer below the extracted image.
  • Place a new image on a layer below the extracted image.
  • Save the image as a .psd so that the individual layers are saved.
  • If you want to have some fun then save the most important part of your extraction as a png file (the png file will have a transparent background).  Now you can paste your extracted image anywhere you want.  I moved the head shot of Mugatu onto the side of a building and used a layer mask to eliminate parts of the extraction that didn't fit properly.

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