Learn how to use Photoshop's Magic Wand tool to Edit & Enhance Your Digital Photos

Learn how to use Photoshop's Magic Wand tool to Edit & Enhance Your Digital Photos
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An Introduction to the Magic Wand Tool

The magic wand tool is perhaps one of the most important developments in photo editing software. It is used to select areas of similar color using a single click. To activate the tool, all you need to do is to click on the magic wand tool from the toolbox. Important note: unlike the lasso and marquee tools, there are no other options for tool shape with the magic wand.

selecting using the magic wand

The capabilities of this tool become apparent if you want to select consistently colored areas without having to trace outlines. Let’s take for example the photo on the right (click image to enlarge). If you wanted to select the whole background for editing, all you need to do is to click on the part of the image you want and a wide area which has the same color will be selected.

Look at the same image again and notice the selected part. The background on the left side of the image has a lot of areas which are selected. This selection was made by a single click. Now check out the right side, it has the same color as the left, so why wasn’t it included in the selection? Well, the answer is pretty simple - because the pixels of the background are separated by the body of the backpacker - the pixels are not adjacent to each other.

Look closer and you will notice that the area on the left of the image which is nearest to the edge has not been selected. This can be attributed to the tool’s tolerance setting.

The Options Toolbar

Magic wand options toolbar

Just like Photoshop’s other selection tools, the magic wand also has several options. The options bar is located at the top of the window. Working modes available for this tool includes add to selection, subtract from selection and intersect. Additionally, if you right click on your selection, you will see options, such as grow and similar, which are most commonly used to expand the selections.

Aside from the working modes, other options available include the tolerance. In the box, you can type any number from 0 to 255. Basically, when you use a low number, your selections will be strict in choosing pixels, and colors are very similar. A higher number will let you choose a broader range of colors.

Putting a check mark on the “anti-aliased” option will allow you to partially select pixels in the border of your selection. This aims to create a smooth border so that digital editing done on the photo is not easily recognizable. When you put a check mark in “contiguous”, only the adjacent pixels of the same color (or color range, in the case of a high tolerance) are selected. If the photo you are editing has multiple layers, then it is best to leave the check mark on “sample all layers”.

How to Make More Accurate Selections

Not all digital photos have large areas of flat colors. Looking at the image of the backpacker above, you will realize that if you wanted to choose the background you will have to make several clicks and sometimes parts of the arm, or perhaps the face, might get selected. To remedy this, here are a couple of steps you can use:

1. Remove the “contiguous” option so that even those areas which are not physically joined are selected. Remember, however, that this tactic might not work if we are working on images which have small details, for example a picture of a flower.

2. To improve the ability of your wand to select colors, increase or decrease the tolerance setting depending on the area you want to select. For example, if you were working on a face of a woman, sometimes a single click might not work. Also, you will see several islands on the image and if these islands are not added to the selection, it could reduce the quality of the photograph. You can shift from default 32 to 50 and then use SHIFT+click to get a clean selection.

3. Use SHIFT+click to add areas to the selection and ALT+click to subtract from it. When you’ve already created a clean selection, you can now save it, so you can readily load them again in case you have to add new effects.

4. Sometimes, parts of the background will overlap. To remedy this, you can select the layer mask and apply a Gaussian blur using the smallest value you can use. You will also need to apply levels to the layer masks so that the blurred edges become brighter.

Learning About the Selection Tools

Leaning about the selection tools used in any photo editing software constitutes around 80% of the basic workflow. This is no wonder as modifications in any photo need to be targeted, Of course you can’t just remove a person’s hand in a photo and leave “leftovers” which are tell-tale signs that the photo has been edited. After all, photo editing is all about turning good photographs into great ones, and in this digital age, the greatest photos are those which look authentic even if they aren’t!

Take time in learning about the basic selection tools that Photoshop offers, and you will realize that there is more to photography than what our cameras can offer.

This post is part of the series: Using the Basic Selection Tools in Adobe Photoshop

The power of Adobe Photoshop lies in the user’s ability to create more accurate selections. In this series, you will learn how basic selection tools work. You will also learn about keyboard shortcuts which can make your job a lot easier.

  1. How to Use the Marquee Tools in Adobe Photoshop
  2. Learn How to Use Photoshop’s Lasso Tools
  3. How to Use Adobe Photoshop’s Magic Wand Tool
  4. Learn How to Use Photoshop’s Quick Mask Mode