Flight Lessons… Cutouts with the Pen Tool!

Hello again everyone! Today, our tutorial comes from Becca (fourluvbugs) and her copious Photoshop knowledge. :o)

There must be 5 or 6 different ways to do extractions in photoshop, but the one I’ve been favoring lately combines my old nemesis the pen tool with layer masks. Now I’ll be the first to admit that the pen tool can be quite pesky at first but if I can use it, I’ll be willing to bet that you can too!

So this is Gabby — isn’t she cute?

This is maybe not my best photographic effort, but its also a straight out of the camera shot, so go easy on me. **grin** Let’s extract Gabby for use in a layout.

The very first step is to make sure that Gabby is on her own layer and that there is a background behind her. I like a plain white background, especially if I’m extracting a photo that has a dark background. That way there is a bit of contrast and I can see if my edges are clean. I’m using a white background here, but I’ll probably check it against a dark background before I use it in a page.

Get out the pen tool. The regular pen tool, nothing fancy. Now start placing points around Gabby. Just click to place a point, DO NOT drag. I’ve found the best places to put these initial points are places where you will want sharp corners. You really can’t do this wrong and if you are going to err, err on the side of too few points rather than too many.

Make enough points to roughly go around the object or person you are extracting and then click once on the initial point to close the path.

Now grab you add anchor point tool — the pen tool with the little plus sign. This is where we start making the path conform to Gabby so that we can get a good extraction. Using the add point tool, click once on the existing path approximately where you need to add a curve. DO NOT DRAG! PS will add a point, complete with bezier handles that extend the exact right amount for you to get a nice gentle curve. Now you can grab that point (still with the add point tool) and drag the point so that the path follows the curve of the photo. Feel free to zoom in as much as you need to so that you can see the curve you are after. Here I’ve place one point and dragged it to follow Gabby’s elbow.

Gabby’s arm is not a perfect curve, so I’ll add additional points on her arm so that my path follows her contour. You can move a previously placed point to adjust it if you need to and you can use the delete anchor point tool (the pen tool with the minus sign) to remove any extra or incorrectly placed points. So now it looks like this:

I continue adding points and moving them until Gabby is completely enclosed in the path and the path follows her contour as nearly as possible.In some areas, I’ve found that I need to click and drag the endpoints of the handles to adjust the curve. The handles can make the curve more or less steep and also adjust its angle. Here is Gabby all enclosed in her own path.

Now its time to add the layer mask which will do the actual extracting. In the layer palette, click the “paths” tab and select load path as selection. It looks like a dotted circle. Now the path around Gabby has turned to marching ants.

Click back to the layer tab and add a layer mask to the Gabby layer. Remember how to do that? (Check out my tut for using layer masks if you missed it)


If you like a softer extraction, you can feather the selection before you add the mask. I like extractions that are pretty sharp everywhere except around the hair and face, so now I get out my brush tool, choose a soft small brush and paint on the mask to soften it up in those areas. I also brush around her hand a bit to clean up the extraction there — it was tricky with the pen tool on those really tight curves because I reduced the size of the photo to 500 px wide for the tut. On a full size photo, its easier to get the curves right in tight spaces. And finally, I soften the edge where her shoe was hidden behind the blanket. I may end up having to blend that or hide it behind an element when I put it in a layout, or even add a bit of the blanket back in, but for now I’ll just smooth the harshness off of the edge.

So the finished extraction looks like this. I usually keep the mask active, just in case I want to go back and change something later.

Thanks so much for sharing your wonderful tutorial with us all, Becca!

That’s all for this week, see you all again next week for another edition of Flight Lessons!

Signing off for now,
Heather (heatherbird)

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