How to Remove Backgrounds from Your Product Photographs

It’s very popular among eCommerce merchants to remove the backgrounds from all their product photographs. Even though great product photography has a neutral background to begin with, cutting out the background has several benefits. Removing the background from product photos results in:

  • Smaller file size
  • Better consistency between images
  • No distractions from the product (not even subtle ones)
  • Ability to replace background with something else
  • A more professional look
  • A better appearance on mobile

It’s also worth mentioning that some online marketplaces, like Amazon, require your products to be displayed on a plain white background. If you’re going to sell on Amazon or another marketplace that has this requirement, the best way to prepare your images is to remove the background completely.

This eCommerce University lesson will explain everything about removing backgrounds from your photos using popular tools like Adobe Photoshop, GIMP, Paint.Net, and more. Before we go into the specifics of how to remove the backgrounds from your images, let’s go over some basics.


Preserving Your Product’s Edges

When removing the background from a product photo, you want to erase the background completely without harming the edges of the product. There are two main ways you can get the edges wrong: you can accidentally leave a thin line of background around the edges, or you can erase too much and end up cutting into the product. To better understand the tools you use to remove the backgrounds, you should understand how these mistakes can happen.

Removing backgrounds can be hard when the product has any small ends or points, especially if there are a lot of them, like feathers or hair. If parts of the product appear to fade out, whether due to the product having some translucency or because of a glare from the lighting, you can have problems finding the actual edge of the product in the photo. Both of these issues can result in difficulties removing the background without taking too much, or too little of it away.

In previous lessons of this course, we explained how to set up your product photography studio and how to take pictures of your products. Those lessons explained how to set up a very smooth background for your images because smooth, plain backgrounds are much easier to remove. If you have trouble removing backgrounds from some of your photos because of problems like camera glare or reflections that make an edge hard to see, consider retaking the photos of that product using softer lighting.

As you work on removing backgrounds from your images, you may need to try a few times before it looks right. Most of the available tools have settings that can be adjusted to help avoid problems with the edges. Be ready to hit “Undo” and change a setting or two before trying again. Always work with a copy of your image so you can start again from the beginning if you need to.


Understanding the Tools for Background Removal

There are many apps and online editors you can use to remove backgrounds, but almost all of them have some features in common. We’ll go over these so you know what to look for no matter which image editor you use. In fact, knowledge of these common tools will make it easier for you to choose an editing app that works best for you and your products.


The Magic Wand Tool

The most common way to remove a background in a product image is to select it and delete it all at once, and then use a more precise tool for touchups in small areas. The tool used to select the background can vary, but is most commonly the Magic Wand tool. Tools may have different names across programs, but work in similar ways — for example, if using GIMP, the Magic Wand tool is called the Fuzzy Select tool.

The Magic Wand tool creates a selection based on color similarity, so if you click it in the middle of a field of white, it will select all the white. There are a few settings you can change to alter how precisely the Magic Wand tool selects a color, although these settings may not be available in all image editors.

  • Tolerance affects the level of similarity a color needs to be included in the selection. A low tolerance will be very strict at selecting only the white. A higher tolerance will allow for more difference, so the selection can also include light or medium grey shadows. If the tolerance is too high, you’ll start to lose the edges of light-colored items.
  • Contiguous is a setting that determines whether or not the Magic Wand selects all the white in the image, or only the white directly touching the area where you clicked the tool. If you have a product photo with several small background areas, unchecking Contiguous will allow you to select them all at once for deletion. This can be very handy in images featuring hair (such as photos that use models), products with lace, and similar images. However, if Contiguous is unchecked, the Magic Wand will also select instances of that color on the product itself, which you don’t want to delete.

By fine-tuning the tolerance setting, you can almost always create a selection that captures all the background and preserves the edges of your product. The Contiguous setting provides a useful shortcut when you need to remove the background from numerous contained areas, but its usage is more situational.


The Pen Tool

The Pen Tool is another useful tool found in nearly all graphics editors. It’s also called the Path Tool (in GIMP for example), because it doesn’t work exactly like a pen — what it does is allow you to draw a vector path which you can then use in multiple ways, including making a selection. A path doesn’t take individual pixels into account, which gives you more freedom as to where you place it.

Drawing a path isn’t freehand. Instead, you place anchor points along where you want the path to be. When drawing a path around the edges of a product, do it just inside the edges — not right on them or outside of them. This is much easier if you zoom in.

Once you’ve drawn your path, you can convert it to a selection. At first, your product will be selected instead of the background, and you don’t want to delete your product! Instead, choose Invert Selection from the menu, and the background will be selected instead. The reason you draw your path just inside the edges is to compensate for inverting the selection — slightly “too tight” edges will become just the right size. You can then delete the background.

The Pen Tool has a built-in feature for creating smoothly curved paths, too. With a little practice, you can draw a complete outline around any product while preserving the natural edges. Just make sure you’ve selected the path functionality from the Pen Tool’s options.

The Pen Tool, and paths in general, are a little challenging to master but extremely powerful. Skilled use of the Pen Tool usually results in the most professional-looking images possible. Click here for a more in-depth Pen Tool lesson.


The Eraser Tool

The Eraser tool is just that: an eraser. You can use it for fine-tuning your edges, with better results if you zoom in to work with precision. It’s not recommended to use the Eraser tool on the entire background, simply because it takes too long.

Almost every single image editor, no matter how simple, includes the Eraser. It’s a much more basic editing tool.


Other Selection Settings

The best way to get rid of backgrounds involves using selections, regardless of whether you’re using the Magic Wand, the Pen Tool, or another selection tool. Here’s a little more information regarding selections and the settings you can change to get more natural edges.

We’ve discussed the Tolerance and Contiguous settings for the Magic Wand tool, but almost every selection tool has a couple of other settings you can adjust. These affect the realism of the edges left behind when you delete the background. If the edges are too sharp, the product will look unnatural. If the edges are too loose, there will be artifacts of the background around the outside of the image, which looks cheap.

The edge control settings in graphics programs are often called anti-aliasing, feathering, or smoothing. Anti-aliasing is the term for creating a realistic edge by basically copying some of the pixels at different transparencies to prevent jagged areas. Feathering applies a slight blur to the edges. Generally, anti-aliasing provides better, sharper results than feathering, but both can be useful on a case-by-case basis. Smoothing, on the other hand, is just the name some image editors use to refer to either of these techniques, so you may have to look closer to determine whether anti-aliasing or feathering is used.


What Happens When You Delete the Background?

Deleting the background from an image, whether you use a selection tool, the eraser, or both, will have different results depending on the software and settings you’re using.

For example, Adobe Photoshop gives you control over the background. You can choose a background color in the color picker tool, and that color will then be used whenever any part of the image is deleted or erased. Selecting white as the background color, and then deleting the background from your image, will get the results you need.

However, there’s another possible outcome when you delete backgrounds: transparency. You can delete the background and leave the image transparent around the product, instead of filling it with white. You can then place the product on top of a different background if you need to, like making a collage.

Different image editing programs have different procedures to create a transparent background. For example, in Photoshop, one method is to select New Layer from Background from the menu before you start work on the image. This turns the image into a layer on top of a transparent background that will show up when you erase, instead of the background color you chose in the color picker. Once the background is gone, save the file as a PNG to preserve the transparency.

An image with a transparent background has many uses, but some eCommerce platforms won’t display them correctly. For example, uploading a transparent PNG to Amazon will show a black background around the product, even though Amazon’s website has a white background. So, even if you need some product images with transparent backgrounds for different design uses, you still need the plain white background for use in your product pages or marketplace.

Getting both is very easy because you can create both versions at the same time. You’d first create the transparent version, and then place the white background behind it and do a Save As under a different file name to get the white version.

For example, here’s one way to do the whole process in Photoshop:

  1. Open your product photograph and save a working copy as a PSD file (this is Photoshop format and may be needed before you can use some of the tools).
  2. Select New Layer from Background from the menu.
  3. Delete the background using your favorite tools, whether the Magic Wand, Pen Tool, Eraser or a combination.
  4. You’ll now have a picture of your product floating on a transparent background. Save the PSD file.
  5. Click Save As (or Save for Web) and select PNG format. You now have a web-friendly product image with transparent background for use in other projects.
  6. Go back to the PSD file and select New Layer from the menu. You’ll now have a new layer on top of the layer with the product image.
  7. Fill this new layer with white using the Paint Bucket or other fill tool. Your product will disappear for a moment; don’t worry.
  8. Look in the Layers box which is usually to the right of your work area. You’ll see two layers: the white one, and the one with your product. You can rearrange their order in this box by dragging the product layer on top.
  9. Now you have a product image with a white background. Save your PSD file again.
  10. Using Save As or Save for Web, save your image in a web-friendly format such as PNG or JPG.

There are other methods for doing this, but you’d follow the same general steps in any software where you’re working with layers. This process also doesn’t take other edits into account, like cropping your image, so don’t forget to crop and size all your images for consistency.

It’s a good idea to save your PSD files with the transparent background and hang on to them for future use. You’ll be able to combine them or add other backgrounds if needed.


Choosing Your Image Editing Program

Now that you know how the different background removal tools work, you can use that knowledge to help decide which image editor you want to use. Consider your budget and the background removal method that seems most comfortable to you.

Some image editors include other tools that aren’t mentioned here because they aren’t common among editing apps. There may be other methods for selecting your background area for deletion. For example, Mac OSX comes with an image viewer and editor called Preview, which includes a tool called Instant Alpha. You can use this to click and drag on the image background to select areas to delete.

While evaluating image editing programs, look for the Magic Wand, Pen Tool, and Eraser as well as any specialized background removal methods like Instant Alpha. Look for the ability to work with layers, as we described in the Photoshop example above. Another method for achieving transparent backgrounds (which you can then place over white) is via Alpha Channels, which are available in Photoshop, GIMP, and others.

Your background removal workflow really depends on how comfortable you are using certain tools, and which process feels best to you. Most software has more than one way to accomplish this, so use your favorite method. This guide can introduce some methods and tools, but can’t tell you which one will be easiest and fastest for you specifically. What matters are your results.

Now, check out our list of graphics editing software for background removal, retouching, color correction, drop shadows, and more.

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