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Tricky Cutout? Grab a Photoshop Pencil!

Image of a bicycle leaning against a shop wall

Photoshop has a powerful set of selection tools that can handle almost any cutout you care to throw them at. Occasionally, however, we’re faced with an image that foxes the likes of the Quick Selection Tool and can be mind-numbing and laborious to select with the Pen or Lasso tools.

This photo of a bicycle is just such an image. Cutting out the frame and the wheels is a fairly straightforward task for the Pen tool, or a combination of the selection tools. When it comes to the spokes, however, it would be a horribly frustrating job. There is a quick way of tackling a task like this, however.

Instead of painstakingly outlining the individual spokes we’ll switch to Quick Mask mode and use one of Photoshop’s oldest tools, the Pencil, to draw in the spokes. Once complete, leaving Quick Mask gives us a perfect selection that takes just a few minutes to create. The reason for choosing this over the Brush tool is because, by default, the Pencil’s stroke doesn’t fade out like that of the brush, so we get a line that remains the same width.

Let’s get started. If you want to follow along, the .psd image can be downloaded here. The bike’s main selection has already been saved as an alpha channel, so you can load it up when required; unless you fancy doing it yourself for practice. No, of course you don’t!

Screen grab showing the Quick Mask dialog

Open up the image of the bicycle. Before we continue, we need to make sure that Quick Mask is set to the correct display mode. Double-click the Quick Mask icon in the Toolbox. This brings up its settings dialog. The default mode is to display masked areas. We want to see only the selected areas, so click its button. Click OK to set the mode.

Screen grab showing a zoomed in portion of the image

Grab the Zoom tool (keyboard shortcut Z). Zoom in to a section of the front wheel. We need to be able to see both ends of the spokes at all times for the technique to work.


Screen grab showing the Pencil Tool's preset panel

Grab the Pencil tool by clicking and holding the Brush tool icon in the Toolbox, or by  pressing Shift + B on the keyboard to cycle through the tools. Go to the Options bar. Open the preset picker and choose the Hard Round preset.


Screen grab showing the brush tip size against the spoke of the wheel

We’ll start by setting the brush size. Hover the cursor over one of the spokes. Use the square bracket keys [ and ] to alter the width so it matches that of the spoke. It may not be a perfect fit but we can adjust it out later.


Screen grab showing a spoke highlighted in red

Now to make our first stroke. Double-check we’re in Quick Mask mode; its icon should be a solid circle, as opposed to a dashed one. Choose the first spoke to work on. Click once at the very end where it meets the wheel rim. Now follow the spoke to the other end where it’s attached to the central hub. Hold Shift and click once more. The two points will be joined up.

Screen grab showing several spokes highlighted in red

Move on to the next spoke and do the same. Continue until all the spokes in the current section are complete. Hold down the Space bar to temporarily switch to the Hand tool. Now pan the image over to the next section. Release the Space bar and continue highlighting the spokes until they’re all complete.


Screen grab  showing all the spokes of one wheel selected

When the front wheel is complete, move over to the rear wheel and continue adding in the spokes. Don’t worry if the lines overlap the other areas of the bicycle, they’ll be merged into the final selection.

Screen grab showing the selection made from the Quick Mask edit

Once all the spokes are complete we can exit Quick Mask by clicking its icon again, or by pressing Q on the keyboard. This creates a selection. Currently the selection will be jagged, as we used a hard edged brush; it’s easier to modify it afterwards that it would be to get it right at the time we drew the lines.


Screen grab showing the selected areas viewed on black using the Refine Edge dialog

Open the Refine Edge dialog from the Select menu, or by pressing Cmd+Opt+r/Ctrl+Alt+r. Make sure all the values are at all set to zero, in case they have been brought over from a previous session. The best view mode for the image is Black. We can choose this from the drop-down list, or by pressing B on the keyboard.


Screen grab showing the selected areas being smoothed out by Refine Edge

Double-click the dialog’s Zoom tool to bring the view up to 1:1. Now use the Hand tool to bring one set of spokes into view. We can clearly see the jagged edges. Start by adjusting the the Smoothness, it doesn’t need much, around 2-3 works well. We’ll add a slight feather, again, a very small amount; around 0.3px. This has given us a much cleaner selection.


Screen grab showing the output area of the Refine Edge dialog

If the brush size was larger than the width of the spokes, we could use the Shift Edge slider to adjust it out but it seems OK here. Click the Output To menu and set it to Selection. Now click OK. We don’t see any difference in the selection as the marching ants don’t reflect such minor adjustments.


Screen grab showing the Load Selection dialog over the selected image

Go to the Select menu. Click Load Selection. We can see the saved frame selection in the Channel menu. Go down to the Operation settings. Choose Add to Selection. Click OK. We now have the whole bicycle selected, including the spokes.


Screen grab showing the Save Selection dialog

At this point it’s worth saving the selection; we wouldn’t want to lose the work we’ve just done. Go to Select > Save Selection. Make sure the Channel is set to New. Give it a name. Now click OK. We can save the image as a Photoshop or TIFF file to ensure the selection is saved with the file.


Final image showing the bicycle extracted from its original background and placed into another image

Now we can use the completed selection to extract the bike from its background and place it somewhere new.

About David Asch (32 Articles)
David Asch is an accomplished author, artist and designer based in Brighton, UK. To date he has written two books on Adobe Photoshop Elements for Focal Press: Focus on Photoshop Elements and How to Cheat in Photoshop Elements, now in its 7th edition. He also co-wrote Digital Photo Doctor for Ilex Press and have had work featured in many UK magazines. As well as books on digital imaging, he is also the author of Creative Web Design with Adobe Muse, again for Focal Press. David also designs websites and the occasional logo. When he's not doing this, he likes to roam with a camera, capturing the sights. Some of these are posted to his photography gallery, others may make a guest appearance in his photomontage gallery.

6 Comments on Tricky Cutout? Grab a Photoshop Pencil!

  1. brackbox // 08/12/2012 at 12:21 am //

    Sorry, Can’t see a link to download an image with the alpha channel.

  2. alice // 08/12/2012 at 6:28 am //

    Very clear and easy to understand Love it 😉

  3. Brackbox. My mistake, the link is now in place.

  4. ashley // 05/01/2013 at 11:59 pm //

    Mr. Asch,

    Just picked up your book and I’m so excited to start fiddling with things. I’ve learned a lot of tricks on here, so I’m hoping I’ll be able to “cheat” photoshop really quickly.


  5. Is it possible to accomplish the bicycle cutout (especially the wheels/spokes) using Photoshop Elements 11? Thanks.

  6. Hi Marysue.

    Yes, it is possible but slightly more trick than it is with Photoshop. I used the Pen tool to make the selection of the bike; in Elements this would have to be a combination of the Quick Selection tool, the Polygonal Lasso and the Freehand Lasso tools.

    The spokes can be done in a similar way but with a few workarounds, as Elements doesn’t have Quick Mask mode.

    Perhaps I should write it up for my next article?


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