What’s a momtog to do when it’s the night of the school daughter dance, indoor lighting is terrible, and the sun is too far gone to get a photo anywhere with a halfway decent background?

She has to take the photo anyway, of course.

It’s not about getting a professional quality photo – it’s about documenting baby girl’s connection with Daddy and the carefully planned outfit that she was so excited about:

  • the crazy cupcake dress with flouncy layers of tulle
  • the rainbow cheetah spot leggings with a hole in the knee
  • the sneakers.

This photo makes me happy. The angle of her feet, snuggled up close to Daddy, his hand protectively on her arm. This is love.

And luckily I can do so much to the dark and dull straight-out-of-camera to improve it:

remove backgrounds in photoshop elements - original photo

I used Lightroom for the basic tonal edits and then took the photo into Elements. Using the Auto Select tool in PSE, it’s easy to remove a blah background or de-emphasize it. Auto Select contains Adobe’s latest edge detection technology – this technology improves with nearly every Elements’ release and is worth revisiting from year to year.

How to Use the Auto Selection Tool in Photoshop Elements

Photoshop Elements’ new Auto Selection tool is available in versions beginning with Elements 2018. Using it is as simple as dragging a rough outline around your subject and letting Elements do the rest. It usually involves some touch-up work after Elements makes its initial selection, but the process is quick and easy.

To remove backgrounds in Photoshop Elements, you’ll grab the Auto Select Tool. It’s hiding under the Quick Selection tool. (Remember that the tools that have a tiny triangle in the top right corner when you hover over them hide other tools beneath them.

So, click on the Quick Selection tool, or whichever of the tools in its group is showing, and then select the Auto Select tool as you see in the image below.

You’ll see that the Auto Select tool gives you several options for making your initial selection – you can draw a rectangle or an ellipse, or you can use the lasso or polygonal lasso to make your initial selection. You don’t need to be precise here, so start with the rectangle or ellipse tool.

I drew a large rectangle around my subjects, like this:

After a couple of seconds, Elements created this selection. Not bad, right?

remove backgrounds in photoshop elements initial selection

To refine your work, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse. To add areas to your selection, hold down the shift key while you click and drag around those areas. You’ll see a + sign appear over your cursor when you do this. Again, no need to be precise. In fact, sometimes larger, sloppier sections produce better results. To add the missing part of her leg into the selection, I clicked on Auto Select’s Lasso option and circled the part of her leg that wasn’t selected.

To remove areas from your selection, hold down option on Macs or alt on PCs while you click and drag around the area that shouldn’t be selected. You should see a – sign over your cursor. This is how I removed the shrubbery between my husband’s legs from the selection. It took a few goes with Auto Select to remove all of the green.

At this point, you’ll probably have a pretty good selection with harsh, choppy edges. Click on the Refine Edges button to smooth it.

Refine Edges in Photoshop Elements

The key to understanding this tool is to remember that you are refining only the edges of your photo (as the name says), not the entire selection.

The options in the Refine Edges dialog let you make the edges of your selection smaller or larger, harder or softer. This means that you want your selection to be mostly complete before you refine its edges.

Your first step is to select the View option that works best for your photo – I usually like “On White.” Next, unless your subject has perfectly consistent edges, turn on the Smart Radius button. Play with the Radius slider – as you increase it, you are defining for Photoshop how wide the edge of your selection is. You’ll see the defined edge turn black and white in your photo so that you can visualize it.

If the Smart Radius button doesn’t define the edges as you’d like, use the Refine Radius brush to paint over areas that you want Elements to treat as edges. The Remove Refinements brush removes areas from the edge definition. Use the E tool to toggle between these brushes. And, since they are brushes, you can use the [ key to make your brush smaller and the ] key to make it larger. Note that these brushes do not specifically ADD to your selection – they add to the size of the edges of your selection.

Once you’ve defined the size of your edge, you can use the Adjust Edges sliders to refine it:

  • Smooth – calms the “janky” ups and downs or ins and outs of your selection edge.
  • Feather – makes the transition between selected and unselected areas more gradual. It takes a few pixels from selected areas and a few from unselected areas. This option can make your edges look blurry if you aren’t careful.
  • Contrast – increases the abruptness of soft transitions. (I don’t use this one.)
  • Shift Edges – moves your edge borders in (reduces the size of the edges) with negative values. Positive values expand the edges of the selection. If your selection is picking up pixels from the background, use a negative value in this field to remove them.

This before and after shows you how much smoothing work Refine Edges did for my selection:

Once you’ve refined your selection, you can do several things with it. My first step is always to save it so that I don’t accidentally deselect and lose my painstaking work.

Remove Backgrounds in Photoshop Elements

To remove backgrounds in Photoshop Elements, you can type command/control I to invert your selection. Double click on your Background layer to unlock it.

After unlocking the background layer, hit the Delete or Backspace key to leave you with a transparent background.

Another way to remove the background in Photoshop Elements is to copy your initial selection and paste it into a new file.

Regardless of which method you choose, be warned. Even if you have a perfect selection, it’s hard to match exposure, white balance, the position of feet on the ground, focus, and much more. These photos are almost always going to look fake, especially if you try to replace a background with a photo taken at another time and in different lighting conditions.

You can still get good results though, even if your creation doesn’t look natural.

remove backgrounds in photoshop elements

To create something like you see above, you can take advantage of the built-in graphics that come with PSE. Open the Window menu and select “Graphics” to display the Graphics panel.

If you’ve never used the Graphics panel, it’s worth exploring a few minutes. Elements provides backgrounds, shapes, frames, and text effects to add to your photo. Simply double click on the effect you’d like to apply to your photo.

For the image above, I used the “Green Folds” background and the “Flower 16” shape. I used the Pattern Stamp tool to create the grass.

De-emphasize Backgrounds with Textures

For a more natural looking option, consider using textures and overlays to de-emphasize the background rather than removing it. The beauty of the selection you created with the Auto Select tool is that you can use it to create a mask that applies your edits only to the background of the photo.

remove backgrounds in photoshop elements

To apply texture to the background of this image, I applied a series of color tint and texture layers.

I put these layers into a folder and loaded the selection that I saved earlier. I inverted the selection by typing command/control I so that only the background of the image was selected. Finally, I added a layer mask – Elements automatically added the selection to the mask.

You can see my layers panel here:

The Photoshop Elements Auto Select tool contains Adobe’s latest edge detection technology. Try it for any local edits you make in PSE – it’s helpful for much more than removing backgrounds. Do you use other selection tools in Photoshop Elements? Which is your favorite?