How to remove the background from an image

Cutting out the background from an image can be time-consuming and fiddly, especially if a lot is going on within it. Fortunately, there are several tools to make the job quick and easy — and some of them don’t even require a download.

Remember, removing a background means eliminating everything behind the foreground object. You want this background to be nothing more than a grid of gray squares, signifying that it’s now transparent. This allows you to use the resulting image as a layer to place over another image, like adding a mustache to someone’s face.

Read on to learn how to remove a background from an image!

Further reading

Use online tools

Perhaps you want to place a mustache onto your co-worker’s face in an image, but every mustache you find has an annoying background — removing it will be a real pickle. Or maybe you want to tweak an image, but you don’t want to pay for Photoshop.

Here are a few online tools that will remove that annoying background without much effort on your part.

Background Burner

This tool will remove the background and create a PNG file for free. However, you’ll need to create a free account to download the resulting image, but doing so is easy, especially if you allow the site access to your Facebook or Google credentials. But remember: Granting access to your social media accounts comes at its own cost in privacy!

Step 1: Download and save the image in question to your computer.

Step 2: Go to Background Burner in a web browser.

Background Burner

Step 3: Click the big blue Choose a photo button, or simply drag and drop your image into the box labeled Drag and Drop Image Here.

Background Burner will now process the image using algorithms that isolate the foreground subject and remove the background. When the processing is complete, you will see several options made available to you.

Step 4: Click the green Select button to choose the best result.

Note: If the best result still isn’t perfect, you can select Touch Up to make additional changes. You can also choose Replace Background to directly import a new background at this point, which can save a lot of time if everything looks good.

Step 5: Once the image preview on the right looks correct, click the green Log In to Download or Download button.

Removing complex backgrounds

Looking to remove the background from an actual photograph, not just some clip art with a white background? Don’t worry — Background Burner can handle that, too. However, be a bit more precise when marking up your image. For example, the picture below is pretty good, but the background doesn’t quite fit. We want to replace it with something a bit more impactful.

To begin removing the background, do the following:

Step 1: Download and save the image in question to your computer.

Step 2: Go to Background Burner in a web browser.

Step 3: Click the blue Choose a photo button in the bottom-right corner, or simply drag and drop your image into the box labeled Drag and Drop Image Here.

As shown below, the tool’s edge-finding algorithm did a decent job of finding the model and provided four results.

Step 4: In our example, we chose the one that kept most of his body intact but nixed the grill and various partygoers. If you’re happy with the initial results, simply click the green Select button and skip to Step 6. If not, move on to the next step.

Step 5: Click Touch Up and fine-tune your image.

Using the first image as our outline, we started painting green lines on the parts of the image we wanted to restore.

To make it more accurate, we needed to zoom in and get more precise with our markings. You can change the size of your brush in the top menu, but we’ve found that’s it’s far easier to zoom in. Once you’re close enough to see where the algorithm missed the edges, drop a few green marks to encapsulate the part of the image you’d like to keep.

Once done, zoom out to see if the finished product looks OK. Ours isn’t perfect, but it’ll do. Now, do the same with the red brush (aka, the Mark Background tool).

Step 6: When you’re happy with your product, click Use This in the bottom-right corner.

Again, you’ll need to create a free account to download the resulting image, but doing so is easy if you allow the site access to your Facebook or Google credentials.

Now we can add a new, more appropriate background …

Perfect! Note that Background Burner is working to get integrated with major marketplace sites like Amazon and eBay to make it easier to upload product images when selling. Currently, this service is available for Bonanza, so if you sell there, you can use Background Burner directly from the marketplace.

If you like Background Burner’s approach and have a lot of images to modify, you may want to consider the Background Burner Professional Edition, which comes in personal, small biz, and professional packages starting at $10 per month. You get image centering, cropping, and color enhancement, as well as the ability to have your photo reviewed by an expert so that it’s the best it can be. It’s an excellent alternative if you’re posting outstanding product images regularly.

Clipping Magic

Clipping Magic

If you want to explore a more detail-oriented option, check out this alternative to Background Burner called Clipping Magic. It does require a free subscription to download your finished photo, but the results can be impressive, with plenty of formats to choose from and a reliable editing process. To start, simply drag, load, or even paste your image into the site.

Clipping Magic uses automated software to detect edges — all you have to do is mark the foreground and background with red and green strokes. If you leave it unmarked, Magic’s algorithm will decide what the background is on its own.

Clipping Magic also provides a useful live preview, which lets you tweak the results on the fly. The web app offers basic options for shadow and color adjustment, too, along with a couple of other tools that allow you to adjust the resulting image better. This makes the software more suitable for detailed projects or ones in which you want more control over how your image looks. You can also configure the default settings to always behave in a certain way, which is useful if you are editing a batch of similar photos and want to get done fast.

Use desktop software

If you want more control over your images other than removing backgrounds, like combining images into a single sharable file, desktop software may be the way to go.

Adobe Photoshop (paid)

Photoshop is a pretty amazing program, and with such a massive selection of tools, the program offers several different ways to strip backgrounds from images. It isn’t the cheapest, but there is always a free trial that you can take advantage of. We’ll start with the easiest method, which works well if you’re dealing with a neutral, solid, or otherwise basic background.

Step 1: Open the image in Photoshop.

Step 2: Select the Magic Wand or Lasso tool, the latter of which is excellent for customizing your selection.

photoshop interface magic wand tool

Step 3: Click the background and hit the Delete button, which will cause the background to disappear.

Step 4: Save your new image as a PNG.

Removing complex backgrounds

To strip away a more complex background in Photoshop, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper into your toolbox. Photoshop is a full-featured program, and as such, it supplies you with a myriad of different ways to remove backgrounds. Some of these methods carry far steeper learning curves than others, so for this tutorial, we’ll go over a fairly straightforward method. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1: Open your photo in Photoshop.

Step 2: Select the Background Eraser tool.

photoshop screenshot

Step 3: Adjust the brush size to your liking and set the Sampling to Continuous.

Step 4: Set the Limits to Find Edges and adjust the Tolerance. Lower is generally better since a high setting will remove more colors.

Step 5: Hover over an area of the background that’s near your object. Now, simply click, and it will be removed.

Step 6: Continue this process until you’ve created a background-free border around your entire object. Feel free to adjust the tolerance as needed, where your image gets lighter/darker around the edges.

photoshop screenshot 3

Step 7: Once you’ve created a solid border around your object, switch to the Eraser tool and remove the rest of the background.

GIMP (free)

Many photo-editing programs have borrowed the look and feel of Photoshop’s highlighting tools for their own removal tools. So, even if you’re using freemium software like Pixlr — or other tools highlighted in our roundup of the best free photo-editing software — knowledge of these tools can carry over.

In this case, we chose GIMP, an open-source alternative to Photoshop that costs you nothing but time to download and use. Removing the background is mostly similar to Adobe’s subscription software, although the toolset isn’t quite so robust.

If you’re removing the background from a simple image, like deleting a white backdrop draped behind a black mustache, the Fuzzy Select Tool may be your quickest option.

Gimp Fuzzy Select Tool

Step 1: In the Layers window, right-click on the image’s layer and select Add Alpha Channel on the pop-up menu. This adds transparency to the layer, which we want if we’re sticking this mustache on a co-worker’s photo.

Step 2: Click the Fuzzy Select Tool on the Toolbar.

Step 3: Click on the subject. In this case, we chose the black mustache. You’ll then see a strobing outline appear along the inside edge.

Step 4: Click Select followed by Invert on the drop-down menu. This tells GIMP to revert the selection to the background, not the subject.

Note: We took this route because the Fuzzy Select Tool selected the mustache from within the black area. Had we used the Select By Color Tool, the result would have created a fuzzy white border around the subject.

Step 5: Press the Delete key. The white background should disappear, leaving the transparency grid.

This is a quick method to delete the white background, but it’s obviously not perfect. The edge is jagged but you won’t have the white debris associated with the Select By Color Tool.

Gimp Use Paths Tool Remove Background

The more unpleasant process to eliminate all the white is to utilize the Paths Tool. This method is tiresome and requires a lot of time, but the effects are significantly better than the other two techniques.

As we showed you earlier, this means implanting anchors and modifying their handles, so the resulting lines curve around the mustache. It’s comparable with the conventional approach of cutting color overlays with an X-Acto knife and a collection of French curves, except it’s digital, and you don’t withdraw blood.

Removing complex backgrounds

Sadly, there isn’t a super simple way to delete complicated backdrops, as you’ve witnessed with Photoshop. Doing so requires a few steps and — if you want to be a fancy pants — learning how to set anchors and their handles to create the curvy outline you need.

These directions assume the picture is loaded and its layer possesses an alpha channel.

Gimp Remove Complex Background

The swift way is described in the opening two steps. If you’re looking for a clean, clear-cut edge surrounding the subject, we suggest skipped ahead to Step 3 instead — we promise you won’t have to do any significant bulk erasing.

Step 1: Use the Rectangle Select Tool to box in large portions of the background you want to remove and then press the Delete button. Repeat this step until you’ve removed as much background as possible.

Step 2: Zoom in and use the Erase Tool to manually remove everything just outside the subject that the Rectangle Select Tool couldn’t remove. You can also use the Fuzzy Select Tool, but erasing it all with the swipe of the mouse is quicker, especially when using a large brush.

If you decide you need a sharper edge, after all, move on to the next step.

Step 3: Use the Paths Tool to set your starting anchor.

Step 4: Click to set the next anchor, but don’t release the button until the first segment of the line has the correct curve. You create this curve by moving the mouse before releasing the button.

Step 5: Set the next anchor and do the same. Rinse and repeat.

Note: You can go back to each anchor and adjust their handles any time to fix the curvature of each segment. This is tedious work, we know, but after a while, it will become second-nature.

Step 6: When you’re done, press the Enter key to turn that path into a selected area.

Step 7: Click Select followed by Invert on the drop-down menu. This tells GIMP to revert the selection to the background, not the subject.

Step 8: Press the Delete key to remove the remaining background.

Remember, the image’s layer must have an alpha channel if you want the subject to have a transparent background. Otherwise, everything you delete defaults to whatever background color you have set.

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