The Background Eraser Tool

Bill sent a question to the Ask a Question page that made the Background Eraser tool shout "Tell him about me! Tell him about me!"

Here is Bill's question: I have a number of portrait photos with a plain white background and would like to change to a colored background. Is this possible?

Not only is it possible, it's pretty easy with Photoshop Elements as you'll see in the following tutorial.

So let's get started.

STEP 1
Open an image you want to change the background color on.

photoshop elements background eraser

Duplicate the Background layer by pressing Control-J (Mac:Cmd-J). You will see in the Layers panel that this added a new layer that's an exact duplicate above the Background called Layer 1.

STEP 2
Create the new color layer.

Before we actually create the new Layer we have to choose the color we want our new Background to be.

You do that by choosing that color from the Color Picker for the Foreground Color which is located at the bottom of the Toolbox. Actually there are two squares at the bottom of the Toolbox. The top square represents the Foreground Color and the bottom one represents the Background Color (not to be confused with the Background in our Layers panel).

First press the letter D on your keyboard. That will assure that the Foreground and Background Colors are set to their Default state where the Foreground is black and the Background is white as shown below.

photoshop elements background eraser

Click on the Foreground Color square to open the Color Picker dialog box. This is where you select the color for your new Background.

I'm going to choose blue for my color but you can choose any color you want.

The Color Picker gives you several options for choosing a color. You can use the slider on the vertical color bar or click inside the big color area and move the circle around to get different colors.

You can also enter HSB, RGB, or Hexadecimal values. You'll get the hang of how it works by playing around in there for awhile.

The color you have selected will be on the top half of the current/new box in the Color Picker.

photoshop elements background eraser

Now you will see your Foreground Color is changed to the color you just chose in the Color Picker.

Go to your Layers panel and click on the Background Layer to make it active. Click on the the square icon with the curled up corner in the Layers panel to create a new Layer above the Background Layer called Layer 2.

Press Alt-Backspace (Mac:Option-Delete) to fill Layer 2 with the Foreground color.

STEP 3
Set-up the Background Eraser Tool.

Go to the Toolbox and click on the Background Eraser Tool. It looks like an eraser with a scissors over it. It might be hidden under the Eraser tool. Click and hold on the tiny black arrow next to the Eraser to see it, and then choose it from there.

photoshop elements background eraser

Go up to the Options bar. In the Limits field you can choose either Contiguous or Discontiguous. Select Discontiguous and set the Tolerance field to 50% for now.

photoshop elements background eraser

Put your cursor over your image and you will see a circle with a cross in the center. The circle indicates the size of your Eraser and the cross is the "hotspot" of the Background Eraser.

If you had chosen Contiguous that would mean that whatever color the hotspot was over would be erased within the circle, but only if those color pixels were right next to each other.

By selecting Discontiguous, it will still only erase the color under the hotspot but that color doesn't have to be connected to the pixels right under the hotspot. As long as that color is within the circle it will be erased. This will be helpful when we erase the background around strands of hair as you will see.

STEP 4
Erase the Background.

Go to your Layers panel and make sure it looks like the image below with Layer 1 (the duplicate of the Background layer) at the top and Layer 2 (your color Layer) between Layer 1 and the Background.

photoshop elements background eraser

Click on Layer 1 to make sure it's the active layer. Now move your cursor over a white part of the photo and start erasing by dragging your mouse. As you erase the white away the color from the Layer below will show through.

Continue erasing but don't get too close to the part of the photo you want to keep. In this case the woman. Erase all of the Background except for the area right next to the person.

photoshop elements background eraser

Now let's zoom in to finish it off.

Click on the Zoom tool from the Toolbox to make it active. It's near the top and looks like a magnifying glass. Click once on your photo near the edge of the person and your photo will be enlarged to 200%. You can see in the image below where I circled in red the Zoom percentage.

photoshop elements background eraser

Look at the image below and notice where the Background Eraser cursor is. The hotspot is over a white area so all the white within the cursor circle should be erased when I click the mouse.

photoshop elements background eraser

The image below is the same shot AFTER I clicked the mouse. It did erase all the white area that was within the circle of the Background Eraser. But notice where I circled in red inside the hair you can see some blue showing through.

photoshop elements background eraser

Why is that? Well it has to do with that Tolerance setting in the Options bar. Remember we left it at 50%.

The Tolerance tells Elements how similar the color under the hotspot has to be to be affected by the Background Eraser. A low tolerance setting erases areas that are very similar to the color under the hotspot. A high tolerance erases a wider range of colors.

Since our click included some of the lighter areas of the hair that means our Tolerance was set too high for that area. If you run into that problem press Control-Z (Mac:Cmd-Z) to undo the eraser. Then go up to the Options bar and try lowering the tolerance 10 or 20% and try again. You will find that for different parts of the photo you might have to use different Tolerance settings.

For instance when I erased the area next to her sweater there was a slight white line left around the edge of the sweater. Since the Background was so light and the sweater so dark I could really crank up the Tolerance setting. I redid the erasing in that area and the line went away.

Now lets look at the fly away hair area. This is an example of why we set the Limits field in the Options bar to Discontiguous.

Notice where my cursor is in the image below. The hotspot is over a white area, but within the Background Eraser circle there is not only white but also some hair. If we had set the Limits field in the Options bar to Contiguous, only the white on the left side of the hair would be erased. That's because Contiguous tells the Background Eraser to only effect areas that are the same color as the pixels under the hotspot and also right next to each other.

But since we chose Discontiguous, Elements knows that any pixels that are the same color as those under the hotspot and are within the circle of the cursor should be erased.

Let's click and see what happens.

photoshop elements background eraser

You can see from the image below that after we clicked the mouse that all the white (the color under the hotspot) was erased. Not just the white that was surrounded by other white. Exactly what we wanted!

photoshop elements background eraser

As a finishing touch, I used the Smudge tool (it might be hiding under the Blur tool) at a Strength setting of 20% and made the brush size very small. Then I dragged it along the edge of the hair on Layer 1 to make a smoother transition to the Color background.

That was a lot of information to absorb, but the more you use the Background Eraser the more sense it will make to you.

Here's a before and after of my photo:

photoshop elements background eraser

That wraps up this Photoshop Elements tutorial on how to use the Background Eraser to change the background color. Click on the following link for lots more tutorials. Photoshop Elements Tutorials .

Until next time,
Rick

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