Mourning Dove in the Fall Color - Before & After
Photo Processing

Add the Photoshop Select Subject tool to Your Nature Photography Workflow to Make Your Images Stand Out

Adobe added a “Select Subject” tool to Photoshop in Photoshop CC 2018 and has continued to improve the tool in future versions of Photoshop.

The Select Subject tool in Photoshop isn’t only for Portrait and Model photographs?  Turns out that it works pretty well for nature photographs (birds, wildlife, flowers, macro, etc.) too.

Why would I want to select the subject of my nature photographs?  By selecting the subject, you can edit your subject separately from your background.

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Here are a few ideas of things can do to improve your nature images using the Select Subject Tool.

  • Add texture to only the background of the image
  • Blur the background of the image
  • Apply sharpening to only the subject
  • Apply noise reduction to only the background
  • Replace the background
  • Darken the background

In this blog, I’ll give you some examples of why you would use the Select Subject tool and walk you through the steps to create a layer mask using the Select Subject and Quick Selection tool.

Examples

Here are a few example images where I used the Select Subject Tool on my nature photographs. I’ve included a screen print of how well photoshop did selecting the subject, and I also included before and after images where I used different techniques on the background.

Flowers

Select Subject Result on a Wildflower
Select Subject Result on a Wildflower

The Select Subject Tool did a pretty good job selecting the wildflower from the background. I just needed to use the Magic Wand Tool to remove some of the background that is surrounded by the flower.

Dutchman's Breeches Wildflower - Before & After Gaussian Blur
Dutchman’s Breeches Wildflower – Before & After Gaussian Blur

In this example, I applied a Gaussian Blur to only the background of the image to make it less distracting.

Bird Photographs

Select Subject Result on a Bird Photograph
Select Subject Result on a Bird Photograph

The Select Subject tool did a great job selecting the bird from the sky. I didn’t need to touch up the selection at all.

Seagull - Before & After - Background Replacement
Seagull – Before & After – Background Replacement

I did a sky replacement in this image to make the sky less drab than the original. This is another way to do a sky replacement in addition to the Sky Replacement feature added in Photoshop 2021.

Macro

Select Subject Result on a Butterfly
Select Subject Result on a Butterfly

In this nature photograph, the Select Subject Tool did a good job selecting the butterfly but didn’t select the leaf where the butterfly landed. I added the leaf into the selection with the Quick Selection Tool.

Bronze Copper Butterfly - Before & After - Texture
Bronze Copper Butterfly – Before & After – Texture

I replaced the background and then added texture to the background of this image without affecting the butterfly.

The Select Subject Tool is easy to use and while the selection might not be perfect, it’s a great starting point that can be touched up using the Add To and Subtract From options for the Quick Selection Tool.

Steps to Create a Layer Mask using the Select Subject Tool in Photoshop

1. Open your nature image in Adobe Photoshop

2. Create a duplicate layer (Command + J Mac / Ctrl + J Windows).  I like to work on a copy of the background layer.

Magic Wand and Select Subject Tools
Magic Wand and Select Subject Tools

3. Select the Quick Selection Tool from the Tools panel.

4. Click on Select Subject at the top of the window.  Photoshop will use its Sensei AI technology to create a mask of the subject.

5. Use the Add to Selection and Subtract from Selection options for the Quick Selection Tool to touch up the selection. If the selection isn’t perfect, you can also clean up the layer mask later by painting on it.

6. Click on Select and Mask at the top of the window.

Output to Layer Mask
Output to Layer Mask

7. Select Output to: Layer Mask.  Click OK.  A layer mask will be added to your duplicated layer.

Additional Tips

With the subject as a layer mask, you can now do additional processing on just the subject or the background.

  • I like to create a duplicate of the layer with the mask and make it not visible by clicking on the eye icon next to the layer.  This was I always have the original mask available to copy even if I Merge Visible Layers
  • To copy a layer mask, hold down the Option Key (Mac), Alt Key (Windows) and drag the layer mask to the new layer
  • You can invert a layer mask so you’re only editing the subject or background.  With the Layer Mask selected, press Command + I (Mac) or Ctrl + I (Windows)

Written by Martin Belan

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