How to Use the Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop

Refine Edge Photoshop

What is the Refine Edge Tool?

Photoshop offers a variety of selection tools which are all incredibly versatile and potent.  However, none of these tools possess magical capabilities. 

When dealing with complex or intricate subjects, achieving a PERFECT SELECTION often demands a significant amount of time and energy, regardless of the tool you use. 

To help with this task, Photoshop has included a tool for this exact purpose called the Refine Edge Tool.

Lightroom and Photoshop Facebook Group

When to Use the Refine Edge Tool?

The Refine Edge Tool is helpful whenever you need to make intricate selections—for example, animals, people, or trees.

Whenever the edge of your subject has small details, the Refine Edge Tool will help you to do more precise work in less time.

Even for more straightforward selections, you can use the Refine Edge Tool.  For example, to remove the fringe that often remains on selected subjects.

This type of work is needed whenever you want to make a cut-out, a collage, or a photo composite.

Photoshop Refine Edge

Where to Find the Refine Edge Tool?

If you use Photoshop CS6, you can find the Refine Edge button on the Options bar (at the top of the canvas) whenever you use a selection tool.  Alternatively, you can go to the menu Select>Refine Edge or use the keyboard shortcut CMD+Opt+R (Mac) or CTRL+Alt+R (PC)

If you use a CURRENT VERSION of Photoshop, you will need to enter the Select and Mask Workspace.  To do this, click the Select and Mask button on the Options bar of any selection tool.  You can also access it through the menu by going to Select>Select and Mask.

How to Refine Selection in Photoshop

From there, go to the toolbar on the left and click on the second icon, the Refine Tool.  You can also click the “R” key on your keyboard as a shortcut.

Refine Edges Photoshop

Quick tip: If you want to open the Refine Edge panel like the one from CS6 while using a CC (Creative Cloud) version, go to Menu>Select.  Then, hold the Shift key while you click on the Select and Mask option from the menu.

What are the Refine Edge Settings?

The Refine Edge Tool has multiple settings that will help you to make a more precise selection.  Let’s review some of the important settings:

How to Refine Edge in Photoshop

View Mode

The first setting you can change is the View Mode.  This will help you to see more clearly what your selection looks like and the adjustments you make with the Refine Edge Tool.

Here are some of the Refine Edge View Modes you can select:

  1. Marching Ants:  In this mode, the selection shows the standard animated dashed line border that appears around the selected area with the image still visible.

  2. On White:  This mode displays the selection against a white background.  It helps you assess the edges of your selection more clearly, especially if your subject has dark or complex edges.

  3. On Black:  Similar to the “On White” mode, this mode presents your selection against a black background.  This mode can be useful for evaluating light or intricate edges.

  4. Overlay:  The Overlay mode superimposes a red overlay on your image, indicating the areas that are included in your selection.  This mode can help you identify areas that need further refinement.

  5. On Layers:  In this mode, the selection is displayed against the original layers of the image.  This is helpful for understanding how your selection interacts with the rest of the composition.

Depending on the mode that you choose, there may be additional options.  For example, you can change the color and adjust its opacity if it’s a view that includes an overlay mask.

How to Refine Edges in Photoshop

Refine Modes

These edge Refine Modes are ONLY available when using the Refine Edge Tool INSIDE the Select and Mask Workspace and are used by Edge Detection, Refine Hair, and the Refine Edge Brush Tool.

    • Color Aware:  Use this option for simple and contrasting backgrounds.
    • Object Aware:  Use this option for hair and fur on busy backgrounds.

Refine Edge Refine Mode

Edge Detection

Within the Edge Detection settings, you can adjust the Radius.  This defines how many pixels around the edge will be considered by the Refine Edge Tool.

Keep in mind that enabling the Smart Radius option gives Photoshop the autonomy to decide the radius.  It will use a bigger radius for complex edges and a smaller radius for simple edges.

When you enable or disable this option, you won’t see any changes unless you start brushing over the selection with the ACTIVE Refine Edge Tool.

Photoshop Refine Edges

Global Refinement / Adjust Edge

Inside the Select Mask workspace from Photoshop CC, you will find these settings on the Global Refinement Panel.

In Photoshop 6’s Refine Edge panel, this section is called Adjust Edge.  They work in the same way regardless of which panel you are using.

These settings will affect the selection as you move the sliders WITHOUT manually going over the edge.

    • Smooth:  As the name indicates, this slider makes the selection edges smoother or sharper.
    • Feather:  This slider softens the edges making a smoother transition.
    • Contrast:  This slider increases the contrast of the selection creating harder edges.
    • Shift Edge:  This slider expands or contracts the edges of the selection.

Refine Edge Global Refinements Panel

Output Settings

The Refine Edge Tool provides various output settings that allow you to select how you want to use your refined selection.  For example, how the selection is displayed, saved, or applied within your workflow.

Here are some of the more common Output Settings:

  • Output To:  Here, you can tell Photoshop how to apply the selection you just made.  You can have it on a different layer, as a layer mask, etc.  Use the drop-down menu to select the option that works best for you.
  • Decontaminate Colors:  Enabling this option helps eliminate any color cast caused by the background.  If enabled, you can use the slider to determine its strength.

Refine Edge Output Settings Panel

How to Use the Refine Edge Tool

Now that you know what the Refine Edge Tool is, where to find it, and are familiar with the various settings, let me show you how to use the Refine Edge Tool on an example subject:

1. Select the Subject

For your initial selection, you can use the selection tool of your choice, including the Quick Selection tool, Lasso tool, Magic Wand tool, Marquee tool, Object Selection tool, etc.  The choice should depend on your skill level and the type of selection you want to make.

For this example, I used the Object Selection Tool.  It successfully isolated the tree, but the edges were far from perfect, not just around the tree but also between the branches and leaves.

This is a situation where the Refine Edge Tool can save you a lot of time and effort.  So, click the Select and Mask button on the top to launch its workspace.

Refine Edge in Photoshop

2. Choose the Refine Mode

Next, choose the Refine Mode you want to use.  I chose the Object Aware mode for this example, despite Photoshop’s recommendation to use it with hair and fur.  This is because the leaves in this image create an intricate pattern that’s just as complex for the algorithm as hair would be.

Refine Edge Tool

Step 3. Choose the View Mode

Next, choose the View Mode that’s more comfortable for you or the one that works best for your particular image.  I like to use the Overlay to see where I need to brush over with the Refine Edge Tool.

Then, typically switch to Black and White mode to check my work and adjust the settings.  But these are personal choices.

You can cycle between View modes by pressing the F key on your keyboard and choosing the View Mode that works best for you.

Refine Edges in Photoshop

Step 4. Apply the Refine Edge Tool

Next, we will use the Refine Edge Tool.  Make sure the tool is active by clicking on the second icon on the toolbar.  You can also activate it by pressing the R key on your keyboard.

Define the number of pixels using the Radius slider.  You may also enable the Smart Radius option if you want.

Then, click and drag the mouse around the edge of your selection to refine it.  I find it’s better to do small bits at a time.  However, this depends on the complexity of your selection and how powerful your computer is.

Where is the Refine Edge in Photoshop

Step 5. Adjust Global Refinements

There aren’t any precise instructions for this step, as it will be different for each selection you make.

Simply drag the sliders until you find the right balance.  I like to use the Black and White View Mode to make these adjustments.  Then, I review them in two or three DIFFERENT View Modes to ensure the selection is as precise as possible.

You can also enable and disable the Decontaminate Colors option to see if it improves your selection.

How to Refine Selection in Photoshop

Step 6. Choose the Output

When your selection is ready, you can decide how you want Photoshop to output it from the Select and Mask workspace into the standard workspace.

Your selection will depend on the editing work you are doing.  For example, outputting the selection on a new layer is helpful if you want to add a new background.  Also, using a mask allows you to work non-destructively. 

For this example, a New Layer with a Layer Mask is best.

You might also want to use it in a different document or just as a selection.  The choice is yours. 

Once you’ve chosen your output option, click OK, and you are DONE.

Refine Edge Brush Tool


Doing precise selection work on intricate subjects is one of the most challenging skills to master.  Thanks to the Refine Edge Tool, you can do them so much easier!

You will likely need some practice to get the hang of this tool, but it’s totally worth it.  Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!

Do you have any questions or comments about How to Use the Refine Edge Tool in Photoshop?  Leave us a comment below – we would LOVE to hear from you!  And PLEASE SHARE our tutorial using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!

Portrait Photoshop Actions

Source link