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July 22, 2009

Using Blending Layers to Remove Background in Photoshop

The other night I was playing with this old photo below of an aloe plant at the gardens at Huntington Library. I had previously created some "photo art" from it which can be seen in my plants photo gallery, and at the time had used some of Photoshop's selection tools to essentially trace around the edges of the aloe plant so I could remove the background. Believe me it was wrist-breaking, hand-numbing work, since the background is busy and not all the "contrasty" compared to the plant. In fact since it was such a hard selection to do, I just ended up cropping out a lot of the background.

So since I know more about the power of using layers and blending modes in Photoshop these days, I wanted to see how much of the background I could "knock out" by simply laying different blending modes on top of each other.

Note, you can try this with some of your own photos if you have Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

I opened the photo in Photoshop. The first layer in Photoshop is always called "Background". I immediately made a copy of the background layer. There are several ways of doing that. I like to use the keyboard shortcut which is Ctrl+J. Photo of aloe plant - before

The new layer will be on top of the original layer, and it will be called "Layer 1". Note that I have highlighted the blending mode which is by default "Normal" and with 100% opacity. The photo looks exactly the same as the original at this point.

You can click on the dropdown next to Normal and cycle through the blending modes. Some will make a difference, some won't. Some make the picture darker, some lighter, some funky. You can control how much of the bottom layer shows through by lowering the opacity of the top layer.

I found that the mode called "color burn", which is one of the modes that darkens an image, removed almost all of the background and changed the color of the plant to a very attractive green-blue with the purples and blues of the edge lines emphasised.

This is how it looked after doing that:

Photo of aloe plant after blending mode change Since the whole point of the exercise was to save time and my wrist, the question remained what to do about the remainder of the background that is still visible. The simple option I chose was to blur the edges of the photo creating a "depth of field" effect where the plant is in focus, and the background out of focus. To make the background disappear even more, when I took the image back to Photoshop Lightroom, I created a dark "vignette" around the edges using Lightroom's "post crop" vignette slider. Now almost all of the background was invisible and what remains adds to the overall artistic value of the photo.

The outcome, completed from start to finish in no more than 5 minutes and without a sore wrist can can be viewed in the plant photo gallery.

Below you can watch a video of some of my photos of plants.

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