Photoshop selection tools In-Depth tutorial (With Detailed Examples)

Selection tools

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“Photoshop selection tools In-Depth tutorial” is part of my Photoshop book “Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures”, which is more revised and covers more concepts than the online tutorials, feel free to check out the book by visiting my Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures Book Page.


Photoshop Selecting tools are among of the most powerful tools in the program. Using these tools, you will be able to control which part of the picture can be modified. Which is one of the main things that separate Photoshop from simple drawing programs, like Microsoft Paint
In this tutorial. I divided Photoshop selection tools into 3 groups, the shapes groups, the lasso/ thread group and the wands group. I won’t cover the pen tool here, because I think it deserves its own dedicated lesson.

The shapes group

The shape selection tools

Exactly as the name suggests. The shapes group make selections that takes after a shape. The Rectangular Marquee Tool make a selection of the shape of a rectangle. The Elliptical Marquee Tool makes elliptical shapes. And the Single Row Marquee tool and the Single Column Marquee Tool makes a single row or column of pixels respectively. We will take a look at each of them in turn:-

The Rectangular Marquee Tool Marquee-Selection-Tool Icon

Obviously, the Rectangular Marquee Tool makes rectangular selections. This is useful if the area you want to edit is of the shape of a rectangle or a square. It is also a nice way to draw rectangles by selecting an area, and then filling it with the brush tool or any other tool.
After you make a selection. The area you selected will be surrounded by a dashed lines, like this:-
Rectangular Selection
You are now free to paint inside this area however you want, without worrying whatever any of your strokes will escape the area you selected.
Paint-On-Rectanglular selection
Candy-Tip-Icon
Candy Tip:- Holding the shift button while making the selection to create a square selection. You can also hold the alt/option button to make the selection center around the point you clicked on to start the selection

The Elliptical Marquee Tool Elliptical-Selection-Tool

Similar to the Rectangular Marquee Tool, the Elliptical Marquee Tool makes elliptical selections. This is a nice way to draw circles in your pictures.
Painting on an Elliptical-Selection
Note
Note:- To access the Elliptical Marquee Tool, click and hold your mouse button over the Rectangular Marquee Tool. After a little time, the rest of the shape selection tools will appear, this is applicable to all Photoshop tools that has a small triangle at the corner of their icon. Like this:- Brush-Tool
Accessing the rest of Photoshop Selection Tools
Accessing the rest of Photoshop Selection Tools

Candy-Tip-Icon

Candy Tip:- The same trick of holding shift or alt/option while making the selection applies to the Elliptical Selection Tool as well

Single Row Marquee Tool Single-Row-Marquee-Tool

The Single Row Marquee Tool select one row of pixels the width of the picture. You can make the exact same selection with some effort by using the Rectangular Marquee Tool, and then selecting one row of pixels from your picture. to be honest, this is a kinda a useless selection tool. The only time I used this is when I am working on a very low-resolution picture. Like a forum avatar, and wanted to select one row of the border of the image.
In this low-resolution picture. I was able to select one row of the pixels with one click of the mouse using the Single Row Marquee Tool
Selecting A Single Row

Single Column Marquee Tool Single-Column-Marquee-Tool

Similar To The Single Column Marquee Tool. The Single Column selects one column of pixels with one. And again, you could also do the same effect using the Rectangular marquee tool.
Here is how I selected one row of pixels with one click of the Single Column Tool
Selecting a single column

The Lasso Group

The Lasso Group Selection Tools

According to The Free Dictionary, Lasso means A long rope with a running noose at one end, used especially to catch horses and cattle. Also called  lariat”. The lasso tool in Photoshop works the same way, but instead of catching cows with it. You catch the pixels you want to edit.
There are 3 types of Lasso tools. The Lasso Tool , and Polygonal Lasso Tool and the Magnetic Lasso Tools

The Lasso Tool Lasso-Tool

If I were to give a name to the Lasso Tool, it would be “The Free Selection Tool”. The lasso tools allow you to draw a curve/thread around the pixels you want to select. This is specially useful way to make selections if you have a graphics tablet. But even with that, the final select tend to be less accurate compared to the other selection tools
Here is a rough selection I made of the cat face using the Lasso Tool:-
Selection A Cat Head With The Lasso Tool

The Polygonal Lasso Tool Polygonal-Lasso-Tool

The Polygonal Lasso Tool works the same way as the Lasso Tool. Except that instead of letting you freely draw the line you want to. It allows you to draw a polygonal shape around the pixels. This is very useful if the shape you want to select is rectangular or polygonal in general. Like this gift box:-
Selecting a gid box using polygonal selection tool

The Magnetic Lasso Tool Magnetic-Lesso-Tool

This is one of the most interesting selection tool. It is one of the reasons you will be happy you learned Photoshop. This tool also work like the Lasso tool. But instead of drawing the selection completely on your own. Photoshop will simply do the work for you by detecting the edges in the picture.
To use the Magnetic Lasso Tool, all you have to do is to click somewhere near the edge of what you want to select. Then keep dragging the cursor around it until it is all selected. Photoshop will do all the work for you, but you can control the selection more by adding more anchor points while you are drawing(by clicking on the left mouse button).
I was easily able to select the man in the following picture using the magnetic lasso tool, it took me only a minute or two to do that
Magnetic-Lasso-Example
I then pasted the man into another picture. Some other parts of the background was caught in the selection. So I erased it using the eraser tool Eraser-Tool. Which works exactly like the brush tool in the Clear Blending mode.
Cleaning the magnetic lasso selection using the eraser tool

Some of the magnetic tool settings

Magnetic Tool Settings

Here are the main Magnetic Selection tool settings. You can adjust these settings to make it easier to make your selections with the Magnetic Lasso Tool.
  • Width:- Determines how many pixels away from the mouse cursor Photoshop examines to look for the edges if the object you are selecting.
  • Contrast:- Similar to the tolerance of the Wand, tool (explained below). This setting determine how much the two adjacent pixels should be different for photoshop to define them as an edge.
  • Frequency:- Determines how many anchor points (the Points of the path you draw to make the selection) Photoshop place while yo drag the mouse. The more the frequency is, the more points photoshop will add to the path you are drawing.

The Wands Group

The-Wands-Group Selection Tools

Instead of drawing the selection yourself just like you do using the Shapes or the Lasso group. The Wands group work with one or few clicks. And Photoshop will make the selection by looking for all the adjacent and nearby pixels that are close in colour to the pixel you clicked on. This is useful when you want to select a large portion of a picture that looks similar, like the sky.

The Wand Tool Magic-Wand-Tool

To use the Wand tool, all you have to do is to click where you want to make the selection, and Photoshop will do the work for you.
In this picture. I was easily able to select the green rectangle with one click of the want tool
Wand-Tool-Selection example
And it was not that hard to select the sky in this picture with very few clicks of the Wand Tools
Wand-Tool-Sky-Selection

The tolerance of the Wand Tool

The wand tool has an interesting settings, called the tolerance. It is found at the settings toolbar (See the picture).
Magic-Wand-Tolerance
This setting allows you to determine how much the adjacent pixels should be similar to the one you clicked on to be included in the selection. 0 tolerance means that Photoshop will only select the pixels that are exactly the same as the one you clicked on. The more the tolerance you set, the less similar the pixels has to be. Setting the tolerance to 255 will cause the Wand tool to select all the pixels in the canvas.
Experimenting with tolerance level can be useful when you use the Wand tool. A good tolerance level to start with is 30. If you are having a hard time selecting the area you want using that tool. Then consider switching to another selection tool.
The following infographic simplify how the tolerance setting words. Feel free to save that picture in your computer and experience with it on Photoshop:-
Click on the picture to view it in full size
Tolerance-Levels Infographic

The contaguous setting of the Wand Tool

Another interesting setting of the Wand tool is the contagious check box:- The contiguous setting of the wand tool

When the Contiguous setting is checked, the Wand tool works exactly like we saw before. By examining the pixels adjacent to the one you clicked on until there is no more pixels to select. When this setting is unchecked, the Wand Tool examines all the pixels in the picture. Disregarding where it is or whatever it is besides the pixel you clicked on or not. Notice how all the red pixels where selected in the following picture with one click after I unchecked Contiguous:. Despite them being all away from each other- Contiguous-Unchecked- Wand Tool Example 1

If you tried to select the sky with Contiguous is unchecked. Some other elements of the picture can be selected. Like how parts of the river got selected in the following picture:- Contiguous Setting Unchecked-Wand Tool 2

When to avoid using the wand tool

Generally speaking. I highly advise you not to use the wand tool when the object you are selecting is so much blended with the background, an example of that is a picture of a cute girl wearing a black skirt, and part of the black skirt is adjacent to a black background(or another black object). Making selections like that with the want tool can be hard and time-wasting. But at the end. It is your decision to decide if the Wand tool is best for the job or now.

Sample All Layers

When this option is checked, Photoshop will examine all the visible pixels in the picture you are working on to see if they fit within the tolerance level of the Wand Tool. When you unchecked this option, Photoshop will only examine the pixels inside the layer you are working on.
To demonstrate how this option work. I created a picture with a black square on one layer, and another smaller black box on the layer above it, Unless you can see the layer panel, you won’t know that the small box actually exists, here is how the layers panel looks like:-
Sample-All-Layers-Layers-Panel
Making a selection with the “Sample All Layers” checked, and clicking on the centre of the black box will select all the black pixels of the black box. Because Photoshop is examining all the pixels you could see in the picture, disregarding whether they are part of the selected layer or not.
Sample-All-Layers-Example 1
Now, making a selection with “Sample All Layers” is unchecked, and with the small box layer selected. Clicking on the centre of the black box will create the following small selection. Which is the contents of the current layer (the one that contains the small box)
Sample-All-Layers-Example 2

The Quick Selection Tool Quick-Selection-Tool

Sometimes using the Wand tool won’t deliver you the results you wanted with one click. Like when you have the following picture where you want to select the cloudy sky. But the clouds won’t be selected because they have a very different colorfrom the sky itself. In many cases, clicking using the wand tool again and again (and adding to the selection each time you click. Something I will explain how to do shortly) can work until you select the whole sky. But this can be done easier using the Quick Selection Tool. Which you could think of as a Wand Tool that works like a bush. Instead of clicking on the canvas like you do with the Wand Tool. You drag your the cursor while holding the mouse button like you are painting with the brush tool. And Photoshop will keep expanding the selection for you based on the pixels you are “painting” on.
If you like, try to select the sky in the following picture using the Wand tool and see how easy/hard it is to select it using the it (It is possible, but that is not the easiest way to do so). After that, switch to the Quick Selection Tool and keep “painting” little on the sky. Photoshop will create a very accurate selection on the sky.
Quick Selection Tool Cloudy Sky Example
Here is how my selection looked like:-
Quick-Selection-Tool Cloudy Sky selection

What about the Pen Tool? Pen-Tool

The pen tool is one of the most powerful drawing and selecting tools in Photoshop. I am still not aware why it got such a misleading name, as it doesn’t do what a pen is supposed to do, which is to write or draw using it. So don’t let that confuse you. The pen tool is a tool for drawing virtual lines one the picture. These virtual lines are called vector graphics. After you draw these lines with the pen tool, you can do many things with them, including converting them into a selection.
The pen tool is a one that is really worth it, but because all new Photoshop users tend to get confused with it, many of them tend to ignore it for a long time. Which is a big waste for them. So because of the importance of this tool, and because of the amount of explanation it requires. I have decided to talk about it in its own lesson, where I could talk about it in details.
The pen tool may sound boring or confusing to use at the beginning, but you should push yourself to learn it as soon as possible.
If you are in a hurry to learn the pen tool. I suggest that you read my piece on the Bézier Game, which is a great way to learn this tool. Or you can jump to the Pen Tool tutorial of this series

Deciding what Photoshop selection tool to use?

At this point of this lesson, you may be wondering what is the best tool to use in each occasion. To save you the trouble, use whatever tool you like darling. Don’t worry much about which tool is the best for the job. Just try to use us much of them as possible when you are new to them. After working with various selection tools for a while, you will be able to make your own decision on which tool to use. You already know the basic differences of all the selection tools now you reached this part of the tutorial. ne? ;D

More about Photoshop selection tools

The lesson is officially done here, and now I will go through some useful options that are so helpful. If you like, you can read this part later and go straight to the examples at the end of the lesson.

New Selection, Add, subtract, intersection selection Options

New-Add-Subtract-Interact-Selection Icons

You may have noticed some little squares icons at the side of each selection tool. These are the options that determines what would photoshop do to the selection you made when you create a new one. I will use the Marquee Tool to show you examples of each one of these modes

New Selection New-Selection-Icon

By default, every time you make a selection, the old one completely disappear, and the new one stays.
With the new selection option is selected. I have the iMac portion of the following picture selected:-
New-Selection-Example
And once I started to make a new selection, the old selection was gone:-
New-Selection-Example

Add to selection

Add-To-Selection Icon

When this option is selected. The new selection is added to the current one, both the new selection and the old one stay. This is specially useful with the Wand tool to make many consecutive selections to select a certain area in the picture. If the new selection is completely within the original selection, nothing really happens
Back to the iMac picture, the new selection was made in addition to the first addition, increasing the area we can edit in the picture.
Add-To-Selection-Example
Then I made a third selection that is partly inside the original one, which made photoshop expands the original one to include the new selection area
Add-To-Selection-Example 2

Subtract selection

With this option, the new selection is subtracted from the current one. If the new selection is completely outside the original selection, nothing really happens
I subtracted a part of the iMac selection in out picture using the subtract from selection option.
Subtract-From-Selection-Example 1
Then I subtracted more from the selection the same way. Creating a gap in the original selection
Subtract-From-Selection-Example 2

Intersection with selection

Intersect-With-Selection Icon

With this selection mode, Photoshop creates a new selection that is the union of the two selections, in other words, the new selection that results from this mode is consists of the shared area between the old and the new selections.
If the new area you selected is completely outside the area of the old selection, both selections will disappear, and you will get the following message:-
No Pixels were selected warning dialog
So I made the new selection intersect with the old one on purpose here, here is how the selections looked like before I released the mouse button
Intersection-With-Selection-while holding the mouse
Which resulted in the following selection
Intersection-With-Selection-after the selection was made

Converting a layer into selection

Sometimes you want to create the a selection that represents all the pixels of a certain layer, which is useful in an innumerable number of ways (like if you want to create a shadow of it).
I have selected the following Louis Vuitton bag and placed it in a separate layer, so if I want to select the content of that layer- which is the bag- I can simply turn the content of the layer into a selection with the following steps:-
Louis-Vuitton Bag
  • Hover your mouse over the the thumbnail of the layer you want to turn into a selection
Place-Mouse-Pointer
  • Hold the Control button if you are using Windows, for Mac users, hold the Command button. The mouse cursor change from a hand to a hand with a selection rectangle alongside it
  • Click on the thumbnail, et voilà, the layer contents has been turned into a selection
Selected-Louis-Vuitton layer

Moving the content of a selection

You can easily move the selection you made using the move tool, all you have to do is to select the move tool Move-Tool and then drag the contents of the selection where you want to

In this picture. I moved the contents of the laptop screen after I chose them with the Rectangle Marquee Tool:-

Move-selection contents laptop ewxample

Candy-Tip-IconCandy Tip:- hold the Alt/Option button before and while you drag your mouse to create a copy of the selection instead of moving the original one.

Candy-Tip-Icon

Candy Tip:- You can move the contents of the selection using the arrow keys in your keyboard as well ←↑→↓,  just make sure that that the move tool is selected.

Moving the selection itself

Sometimes you make a mistake while making a selection, And so you want to move the selection you made instead of making a new one from scratch, to do that, make sure you select any Photoshop tool other than the move tool Move-Tool (It doesn’t really matter which one), then move the selection using the arrow keys in your keyboard ←↑→↓
In the following example, I made a mistake while trying to select the laptop screen, but I fixed that by moving the selection a little to the right.
Move-The-Selection itself
Candy-Tip-Icon
Candy Tip:- Holding the shift button while moving the selection will make the selection move faster

Modifying selections after making them

Modify-Selection-Options Menu

You can make some nice modifications to selections after making them, which is useful in many ways when you create things from scratch or if you use Photoshop for digital painting. Of course, you can use them in more ways than just that. The modifying options I am talking about can be found by selecting Select > Modify from the main menu

Border

Border creates a new selection that from the outline of the current selection, this is useful way to create rectangles in Photoshop.

Border-Selection-Example

To use Border, choose border from the Select > Modify menu, the Border Dialog will appear, where Photoshop will ask you to select the width of the border selection.

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Border-Selection Dialog

Do you remember all the pictures in these series of tutorials where I mark the tool I am talking about with a coloured rectangle on them? The ones that look like this:-

Opacity-Flow demonstration using Border

All these rectangles were creating by making a rectangular selection with the Rectangular marquee tool then using Border to create an outline selection and then paint on them using the brush tool^^

Smooth

Smooth does a very nifty thing, makes the rectangular corners of the selection more rounded, depending on the radius you choose when you apply this option

Once you select Smooth from the Select >  Modify menu, Photoshop will ask you to input the radius for the selection, the bigger the value you enter, you more rounded the selection will become.

Smooth selection dialog

Here is a summary of how the smooth options works:-

Smoothing-Selections Infographic

A good way to use smooth selection is to make a picture more interesting by rounding its corners, which is a common way to create cards, like this:-

Smoothing-Selection- Creating a card by rounding the corner of a selection

Expand

Make the current selection bigger by the amount of pixels you chose

The following selection has been expanded greatly, notice how the corners became rounder because of that

Expand-Selection Example

Contract

Works similar to the Expand options except that it make the selection smaller instead of bigger

This selection has been contracted by 40 pixels

Contract-Selection Example

The select menu options

Select-Menu-Options
Photoshop selection tools allows you to select all the pixels in the canvas, cancelling the selection. select it again, or inverse it.
The Select menu has 4 nice-to-know features that can make your Photoshop life a bit easier, those options are, All, Deselect, Reselect, Inverse.

All

Select all the pixels in the canvas/picture, this is equivalent to making a selection over all the picture using the Rectangle Marquee Tool.

Deselect

Make the current selection disappear, if there is no selection made, this option will not be selectable.

Reselect

Select the last selection you made but then deselected

Inverse

As its name suggests, this option inverse the selection. It deselects all the pixels you selected, and select all the ones you did not. Choosing this option twice does nothing to the current selection.

Examples of how to use Photoshop selection tools:-

Time to play a little with the all the selection tools we looked at, like always, I will give a brief explanation how I worked on all the examples below :)
Remember our friend from the Magnetic Lasso Tool Example? I decided to clone him and send him with his clones on a ship to invade the world.
I resized some of these clones to fit with the perspective, for a detailed explanation about perspective in general, here are my troops:-
Troops Selection Tool Example
And at the end, we reached America~
We-Reached-America Selection Tool Example
Drawing a better sky is one of the most common tricks done with the selection tools in Photoshop, in this normal picture, where the sky looks cloudy and dull, so I selected the sky using the Wand tool (With 30 tolerance). And then pained some blue on it using the brush tool. Note that I reduced the fill of the brush tool and kept some of the pixels at the bottom of the sky because the selection of the Wand Tool was not %100 accurate. If I pained all the pixels I selected, it will be very obvious that the picture has been Photoshopped.
Better-Sky Selection Tool Example
Changing the sky of your pictures can be done in tons of was. And Photoshop selection tools is one of them. 
And here, I added a new model to in the gap between the two at the front. all I had to do is is to select the model at the front using one of the selection tools I explained (Can you guess the tool I used). Placed it in its own layer. Then pasted the new model into the picture (I had to select her from here picture the same way too). After that. I made a few daps with the brush tool so the illuminosity of the new girl is the same as the other girl, or else to will be so obvious that the girl was photoshop into the picture
Fashion-Show Selection Tool Example
Changing the background of images is another common technique of the selection tool. Here, I made quick selections using the Wand Tool using different tolerance level. Then I erased the pixels the wand tools failed to capture, then pasted the new background picture, which I made sure it has the same perspective of the original picture for the best results.
Changing-Background Selection Tool Example
A common use for Photoshop selection tools is to use them to change the background of any picture you have.
I really don’t want you to forget about blending modes. As they are super useful in tons of situations. Which is why I include an example that involves them every now and then. Here, I removed the background of Gary Oldman picture, placed him on the sky of the field picture. Blended him with the sky using the Overlay blending mode. And then I reduced the fill of the layer to make him look like that. I made a few strokes of the brush tool using the Soft Light blending mode to create his superpower.
Superpower Selection Tool Example
Rendering a man using the various Photoshop selection tools, and then placing him in another picture using one of the blending modes can be used in tons of ways, like how I created a superpower for him right here.
And let’s not forget, modifying selections is a great way to add borders for images, like how I did crate the following border to Yuina’s forum avvy:-
Creating-Avvy Selection Tool Example
Photoshop selection tools, and their other options, can be used to create forum avatar like this one.
I really hope you benefited from this Photoshop selection tools tutorial. As a reward for you for completing this lesson, I would like to tell you that I placed a copy of our magnetic tool man in every pictures in the examples sections of this tutorials, so go over them again and have some lols ^^

Would you like to learn Photoshop?

Check my Photoshop book Learn Photoshop CC With Pictures which contains a full course on how to use Photoshop in the simplest way possible.

See Also

SweetMonia
I am an anime artist, and huge fan of digital art. I love drawing with pencils too. But I rarely do that anymore nowadays. Since some aspects of digital art can be tricky, I try my best to explain the concepts as easily as possible.

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