Fall 2009

The true power of Adobe Photoshop (PS) is unleashed when the user is able to make changes or adjustments to certain parts of an image and leave the rest of the image unaltered. I call this the ability to make "local" as opposed to "global" adjustments. There are a few ways to make local adjustments including with layer masks (see article) or by using the history brush. But often the easiest way is simply to select the area that you want to adjust using one of a variety of selection tools. In this article we will look at these tools and how to use them effectively.



This is the most basic of the selection tools. Simply left click and draw in your selection. If you want to add to a selection hold down SHIFT and draw in additional areas or to subtract hold down ALT and draw to remove areas.

Magic Wand

The magic wand tool is the selection tool that I use the most. It works by selecting a similar range of pixels that are close to the ones in the area you click. It is GREAT for selecting backgrounds.If you want to add to a selection hold down SHIFT and click onadditional areas or to subtract hold down ALT and click to remove areas. If the magic wand is selecting too much or too little of the desired area you can adjust the tolerance in the top right corner.

Quick Selection

This tool works by left clicking and dragging around the areas that you want to select. I almost never use it as the magic wand is much more precise.

Rectangular Marquee

Makes a rectangular selection.

Eliptical Marquee

Makes an eliptical selection (great for quickly selecting a subjects eye).



Any time you are using one of the selection tools you can add to your selection by holding down SHIFT and subtract from it by holding down ALT.

For example if using the magic wand to select the background of an image you may not be able to select the entire background in one click. If you hold down SHIFT and click within the areas that were not selected you can quickly complete your selection.

Another example would be that the magic wand did indeed select all of the background - but that it also selected a portion of the subject. You could switch to the normal lasoo tool, hold down ALT and deselect the portion of the subject that was selected.

NOTE: Remember that you can always select the opposite area of your image by going to SELECT > INVERSE.


Once you have selected the area you are trying to select there is one more step to do before you should apply any adjustment. The selection has "hard" edges and any adjustment will be made at 100% on one side of the selection line and at 0% on the other side. This may result in very obvious image alterations that would ultimately be undesirable.

To make an even better selection that will result in a smooth transition between the area being adjusted and the area that has not we will use the "Refine Edge" function. This is located at the top of your screen any time that you are using one of the selection tools mentioned above. Simply make your selection and then click on this box. A window will launch with a variety of options as to how to refine the edge of the selection that you have made. There are 5 display options that let you see how the edge is being refined. My personal favourite is the "quick mask" option that shows the selected area in red and the area that is not selected un-affected.

There are 5 sliders that allow you to alter the way the edge is refined. Depending on the size of your image you will dial in different settings to achieve the desired edge.


If you can quickly make and refine selections in Adobe Photoshop you can take your image editing to a whole new level. Here are a few examples of how I use selections:

  • To remove the noise from the background only
  • To selectively sharpen the subject
  • To adjust the saturation of a selected area - e.g. the water surrounding a bird but not the bird