I began adapting my photographic style and philosophy from hard core purist to compositor the first time I ever opened Photoshop. For me, within this type of application were the keys to unlimited visual possibilities.

The only bummer? I had to learn to love and to effectively clip (select and extract) items from images in order to assemble them in another. I used to hate clipping. It was tedious. Adobe knows that and it and other apps have developed better tools to accomplish this task. Now I take a more “Zen” approach by appreciating the process of clipping as a means to a better end. This makes it a bit more rewarding. As an advertising photographer, about 6070% of the jobs I am hired to create require compositing. It is essential to have a workflow that allows me to clip flawlessly. Nothing gives away a composite faster than a poor clip. I have tried many one click tools that provide reasonable results, but I don’t have any clients that would be happy with reasonable results. And quite frankly, I am not either.

I will share other ways I clip images using some of these tools, but the following process is a little more traditional. Its the only way to do super high-end clips, especially with a object shot on site and not on a seamless background.

Here is the approach. First, I find the element I want to clip. My example is a Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II taken on the runway. Once opened, I make a duplicate layer (command J) keeping the original layer and hiding the original layer. Then I create a blank layer between the original and the copy and fill it with black or white or whatever color so I can clearly see the erasure process.

Next choose the erase tool and start erasing the background. I start with a big hard brush and have at it. As I get closer to the subject, I decrease the size of the brush and get as close to the subject possible.

Here is the image with freehand erasing. Next I start clipping up to the actual subject. Generally I will zoom in on the subject to about 300-400% so I am nice and close. This next step is critical. When erasing a subject you need to make sure your brush softness coincides with the softness of your image. Some areas of your subject will be tack sharp and some areas (because of depth of field influence) can be softer. I see a lot of composites where a somewhat soft image is clipped using a hard brush and is just looks fake. This separates a primo clip from a hack job. One of the problems I see with a lot of the tools besides removing part of the subject image is that the sharpness of the selection doesn’t coincide with actual subject sharpness.

I then vary the size and softness according to the softness of the image I am clipping.

Here are a couple techniques that will help you jam through the clipping process.

  • As I clip the remainder of the aircraft I place the ease tool target right on the edge of the image then press down the shift key and click. Then I move the cursor along the edge of the image and with shift key depressed I click again. This provides a straight line from one click to the next. I do not use my pen tool for this, I use the mouse. It makes for an easier and more accurate extraction.
  • As I move around the image I am adjusting the size and softness of the brush to get into tight areas. You can choose the softness/hardness and size of the brush on the fly by pushing the Control and Option key at the same time. Moving the cursor up and down controls softness and moving the cursor right to left controls the size. Once you master this workflow you can clip like a maniac and it will be flawless. Just what you want.
  • As you decrease the size of the brush the softness decreases as well because the brush gets smaller. Its relative to a point. Also I never do extractions using masks. If I want to delete a background I delete it. I don’t want to mess with layer masks on a image that has been clipped. I use layer masks to blend and partially erase, not extract.

Give this a try. Enjoy the journey knowing that it will provide you with a amazing extraction and final image. Its worth it.

Greg Sims is a commercial photographer from Boise, ID with large clients like Albertson’s, Boise State and United States Air Force. To check out more of Greg Sim’s work, see his portfolio .

Note: This is just one way of compositing.