Learn how to make better, more precise selections by harnessing the power of the Photoshop tools you already know, like Magic Wand and the Pen tool.

Cover image elements via icon99

Photoshop was initially built to mimic the techniques photographers use in the darkroom, like customizing the quality of light and exposure time to specific parts of film or prints.

The ability to make and control selections is one of the foundations of the Photoshop program, and what makes it so powerful and popular. With the ways these foundational tools have evolved, we can now do all sorts of things beyond basic photo manipulation.

Getting better at making selections manually will open a whole new world of techniques and controls that can change how you work forever. In this article, I’ll expand on the uses for common tools, giving you an introduction to intermediate selection techniques in Photoshop.

1. Start with the Magic Wand

Seriously? Yeah, seriously. You just have to use the various, more advanced controls. These let you change how sensitive the wand is to contrast.

Use the Tolerance values in the Options toolbar to vary the sensitivity of the tool to pixel color. If Tolerance is set to 60, the tool will select any pixels with colors up to 60 shades lighter or darker than the original selection. You can also select only pixels touching other pixels of the same value (contiguous), or all pixels in an image of the same value (non-contiguous).

To build a total selection hold down Shift and click the next area. If you’ve selected too much, hold down Option and click the area you want to remove from the selection.

5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop – Magic Wand Tool

Image via Olga Pink

2. Rope ‘Em In With the Lasso Tool

The Lasso is a quick and dirty freehand selection tool. . . but it’s also a fine-tuning tool to get pixel-level accuracy and straight lines. Hit L on the keyboard to activate the Lasso, then free-hand draw at any viewing level you want. Grab a large area with an organic shape using the standard tool, or hold Shift and hit L to cycle through the Lasso, Polygonal Lasso, or Magnetic Lasso.

If you have a selection to make that is part curvilinear, and part straight line, you can use multiple tools to capture the shape. As with the Magic Wand, holding shift will add to the selection as you continue to use the tool. With the selection live, you can switch tools to use multiple techniques.

Use the Lasso to draw around the shape where it’s curvy, then hold Shift and hit L to select the Polygonal Lasso. Hold Shift again when setting the starting point of the straight line and it will add that to the total selection when you are finished.

5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop – Lasso Tool

Image via Olga Pink

3. Combine Tools to Select Hard-to-Capture Areas

You can also switch tools completely while the selection is live. Like with using different Lasso types, use a combination of Magic Wand and Lasso to fine-tune a selection. This is especially useful when the Magic Wand can’t seem to select a specific area. Just zoom in and remove or add to the selection with the Lasso.

5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop – Combine Selection Tools

Image via Olga Pink

4. The Pen Tool Is Sometimes Mightier

For perfect curves and hard edges, nothing beats the Pen tool. Set a vector precisely on the edge of your object and follow its curves with unequaled smoothness by adjusting the vector handles.

With the Pen tool active, click a point to create a basic vector point. Then click another point to connect them. You’re making a string of points around an object. Click and drag in the direction of a curve and two handles will appear from the vector. You can then click and drag the ends of these handles to direct the curve after the fact, if you need to make adjustments.

Tip: Hold down Shift while moving a vector handle to lock it along a horizontal, vertical, or 45° angle. By default, the two handles on a vector point work in tandem. Hold down Option while moving the handles to break them apart, thus creating a sharp corner at the vector when you adjust the handles.

5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop – Pen Tool

Image via Olga Pink

5. Soften and Smooth Selections for a Finishing Touch

With a live selection, click on Select and Refine at the top of the window. This opens a window with even more adjustment options. Under Global Refinements, use Smooth to average out rough edges, such as Magic Wand selections. Don’t get too heavy-handed with this on very rough selections, as the more craggy-looking areas will take on a weird ghostly edge.

Use Feather to soften a hard-edged selection, like those created using the Pen tool. This will, literally, take some edge off and make a selected area more realistically separate from its environment.

Use Shift Edge to enlarge or contract the area of a selection. It’s measured in percentage so any adjustments will be relative to the size of the image.

5 Easy Ways to Make Better Selections in Photoshop – Smooth Selections

Image via Olga Pink

While these tools might be some of the most basic in Photoshop, they can accomplish powerful tasks, especially when combined.


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