A Photoshop Technique For Darkening Around A Soft Outline

A Herdwick Sheep

Introduction
We have just added this photograph of a Herdwick sheep to our range of ecards. The original image had a distracting background and this article explains how I removed it without ‘rubbing out’ the delicate edges of the the fleece.

Love And Economics
The fleece of the Herdwick sheep is a rich brown color, turning to a lovely grey as the animal grows older, as you can see in the photograph below.

However, if pure economics ruled the sheep world, there would not be any Herdwick sheep.

Compared to some other breeds they do not give birth to as many lambs, they do not put as much weight, and they do not have as soft wool. In fact their wool is so coarse that one of its main uses in recent times has been in home insulation.

A Herdwick Sheep

Herdwicks have survived partly because of the legacy of the author, Beatrix Potter, who bought a farm in the Lake District and raised Herdwick sheep, leaving directions in her will about how the flocks were to be protected after her death.

They are lovely looking animals, and the two shown in the photograph in this article are in the Natural World section of our collection of ecards.

Photographs For Our Ecards
Sometimes you might want to take distracting background elements out of a photograph, as I did with the Herdwick Sheep at the top of this article.

This sheep was standing on an open wagon in the square in the village of Masham during the annual sheep fair. He was starring in a show illustrating the different qualities of various breeds of sheep in England.

As you can see in the original shot below, there were objects of a variety of colors in the background, none of which were very attractive. My intention was to take these out, and the easiest way to do this was to darken down the background in Photoshop. In this photograph I darkened it down to black.

Herdwick

The problem is the same as with any subject that has ‘soft’ edges with lots of stray strands such as this fleece: How does one darken down the background without ‘rubbing out’ parts of the fleece?

I could have stitched carefully around the fleece with the Marquee tool, but it is painstaking work and still doesn’t always work because it can leave a sharp edge that looks unnatural.

More to the point, I prefer quick methods, and what follows here is one I have found that works. It is a two-stage technique.

First I use the Magic Wand tool to pick out the area around the fleece. I change the tolerance up or down to suit the subject and just isolate the hairs on the fleece. I ignore parts of the image that are further away from the fleece because I can paint those out later. The important thing is to pick out the area at the edge of the fleece.

Once I have done that, I hide the marching-ants outline because I don’t want the dotted line obstructing my view for the next step. I use a Mac and the command to hide the outline is Command + H. It’s probably Control + H on a PC.

levels-adjustment-1

lelvels-adjustment-2

Now that I have a clear view of the edge of the fleece, I use the Levels tool or the Curves tool to darken the image isolated by the Magic Wand tool. I do this by moving the slider (highlighted here with a red circle) to the right. This darkens the part I have isolated.

I stop when I see that the darkening is in danger of erasing the edges of the fleece.

[Just a note here that if I had wanted to lighten the area around the sheep, I would move the right hand slider to the left.]

Now I have an image that is a bit darker near the fleece, so I am part way to what I want to achieve. This first step using the Marquee tool makes it so much easier to use the Brush tool to darken around the fleece, which is the next step.

I use the Brush tool with a large radius – probably several hundred pixels diameter – and with the hardness of the brush set very low to somewhere around 5% and the color set to black.

That means I have a brush that I can use to gently ‘invade’ the area near the fleece and put color into it.

I move the brush tool towards the edge that borders the fleece, changing the diameter of the brush all the time to suit what I am working on.

At some point I clear the area I highlighted with the Marquee tool so that I can brush over any part of the image, and gently fade out the parts that are still left undone.

It’s easy to go back and experiment until the technique flows quickly and the image has been darkened down – with the whole process taking just a minute or so from beginning to end.

  1. I’ve often wondered (out loud, in fact!) how you do that! Now I know, I shall be giving it a go myself.

  2. Very interesting way of darkening. You make it look so easy. Thank you for sharing I will have to experiment and try to follow your tutorial.

    • David Bennett

      I wish you success in trying the technique.

      I think of it as feathering in towards an edge gently with repeated rounded strokes of the brush – a little at a time.

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