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Team Think Labs | Become a Master Masker with the Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop CS5
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Become a Master Masker with the Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop CS5

If you work within layered Photoshop files, you know that you spend a good chunk of your life cutting out, masking and editing images. We all know how time consuming this can be, especially if you’re working with fine details such as human hair or complex photographs. The Refine Edge tool is new to CS5 and is a lifesaver – this tool has probably saved me hours on projects and the quality of work you can produce in such a short time is exceptional.

To get started, open your image and select the Quick Selection Tool (located underneath the Magic Wand Tool if it’s hidden). Check the Auto-Enhance option from the toolbar and drag to select the image you’d like to cut out.

You may adjust your brush size by using the bracket shortcut keys ( [ to decrease your brush size / ] to increase your brush size) and the Option key to deselect an area you may have not wanted to include. My image isn’t on a complex background, but I wanted to show how well this tool handles complex masking in the girl’s hair in this image.

Once you’ve got a good selection, hit the Refine Edge button in your toolbar, also accessible from Select >Refine Edge

In the Refine Edge Menu, you’ll see a dropdown of view options. I like to view my image on black to clearly see what areas of the image I need to work on masking, but you can toggle through the options to see which one works best for you. Once you select black, you can see the areas you need to refine.

Now it’s time to refine our mask. Select the Refine Radius Tool from the pop-up menu and simply paint over and around the edges you’d like it to work on refining and… Bam – magic! You’ll see the problem areas of your image start to evaporate before your eyes. If you feel like you’ve subtracted too much of the image in an area, you can switch the brush to Erase Refinements tool (or shortcut key Option) and paint the image back in.


Once you feel like you’ve got your image looking pretty clean using your Refine Radius Tool brush, take it a step further with the additional image refining options. Here you’re able to adjust the edge of radius you’ve worked on (toggle it by clicking the Show Radius button at the top of the pop-up window), smooth or feather your edge, or adjust the contrast. Playing around with these settings a bit can get you a really nice clean, crisp image.

Another nifty feature of the Refine Edge Tool is that you can output your image directly from this menu. I’ll choose New Layer with Layer Mask to preserve the mask I worked on in the tool and allow me to tweak it directly in my file if I need to.

Now I can see that Photoshop has created a new layer with the image and a mask so I can go in and make any tweaks necessary right in my file or go back in and refine the mask further if I’d like with the Refine Mask Tool.

Now duplicate your layer over the environment you’d like to place your image and voila! It takes a little practice and tweaking but the Refine Edge Tool is a definite game changer that will save you time and headaches when cutting out images. Happy masking!