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How to Make a Background White in Photoshop

by Alexandra Bateman on Jan 9, 2020

Have you ever taken what you think is the perfect photo on a white background, only to discover that the white comes out gray in post-production? It happens to the best of us, but you can fix it by learning how to make a background white in Photoshop!

While a pure white background might not seem important at first, it can be crucial for your wedding photography collections, website images and commercial photos. After all, an image with pure white edges fades well into most websites. And, white backgrounds are easy to make transparent for design projects!

Today, we’re going to learn how to make a background white in Photoshop, so that you don’t have to waste your otherwise perfect pics. Of course, you’ll need Photoshop to follow along with this tutorial. If you don’t have it yet, you can get Photoshop from Adobe’s site as part of their Creative Cloud Package with Lightroom.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it. How can you make a background white on Photoshop?

In today’s blog, we’ll look at:

  • Why you need a pure white background
  • Steps to make a background white in Photoshop with Levels Adjustments
  • How to make a background white in Photoshop with Selection Tools
  • How to test for pure white

Let’s get started.

Why You Need a Pure White Background

There are many reasons why photographers may need to replace an object’s background with a pure white space. For instance, you might need to:

  • Remove distractions: A white background can give your subject more focus and help your clients look their best.
  • Fix color issues: The wrong colors in a background can make your subjects look pale and reduce the impact of your photos.
  • Prepare photos for commercial use: Images with pure white backgrounds can be used for all sorts of branding initiatives both online, in print and in other advertisements.

With so many uses for photos with white backgrounds, it’s important that you learn how to edit them properly! Let’s take a look at the steps to making a background white in Photoshop.

Steps to Make a Background White in Photoshop

As with most editing operations in Photoshop, there are a number of ways to make an image’s background white. We’ll focus on two of these editing techniques in this tutorial and test them both out on the same image. 

The first step in each approach is the same — getting your photo into Photoshop. Here’s how to import your image to Photoshop:

1. Open Your Image in Photoshop

You’ll first need to open your image in Photoshop so that you can work on making the background white. Simply right-click on your photo, then select Open with… and choose Photoshop. Your photo will open in a new Photoshop window on your screen. 

open image in Photoshop
Original photo by Ospan Ali via Unsplash

Before we can begin making edits, we need to duplicate the original image layer. You could make your edits on the original image layer, but then you run the risk of permanently changing the image file. It’s best practice to edit on a duplicate layer so that the original layer remains intact.

To duplicate the image layer, choose Layer >> New >> Layer from the upper menu bar to create a new layer.

New >> Layer...

Or, click on the original layer in the Layers Panel on the bottom right of the screen, then drag the layer to the New Layer button. This button appears as a square post-it at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

New layer icon in Layers Panels

Once you’ve duplicated the layer, you can rename it however you choose. For the purposes of this tutorial, I’ll name my duplicate layer “Edits,” since it will contain all of my edits to make the image background white.

Renamed edits layer in Layers Panel

Make a Background White in Photoshop with Levels Adjustments

One of the ways to make a background white in Photoshop is by adjusting the image’s color levels. This process is fairly simple for most images with uncomplicated backgrounds. 

By adjusting the color levels, we can desaturate the image so that the background turns white. 

1. Adjust Levels Sliders

In order to adjust the levels, click Image in the top menu, then select Adjustments >> Levels.

Image >> Adjustments >> Levels...

Photoshop will pull up an adjustments slider with three tabs, one for each of the primary color channels. Adjust the Levels sliders until the background of the image is pure white. For some images, this may mean pulling all of the Levels sliders to 0. 

Levels sliders dialog box

Note that adjusting these Levels sliders desaturates the entire image, not just the background We’ll remedy that problem in these next steps!

2. Add a Layer Mask

Now that we have an image with a white background, we can create a Layer Mask to add the subject back into the photo.

We’ll duplicate our original image layer as we did at the beginning of the tutorial. Now, we need to reorder the layers in our Layers Panel so that the mask reveals our duplicate image layer. 

We want the layer containing the edited white background, which we labeled “Edits,” to sit between our original image layer and our duplicate image layer in the Layers panel. Your Layers Panel should look something like this: 

Edits layer in layers panel

Now, let’s add a Layer Mask to our topmost layer, the duplicate image layer. To add a layer mask, select the gray square icon with a circle in the middle, located at the bottom of the Layers Panel. Make sure to select the topmost layer before you add your Layer Mask.

Add Layer Mask icon

You’ll know you’ve added a Layer Mask correctly when you see a white layer attached to the duplicate image layer in the Layers Panel.

Layer mask thumbnail in Layers Panel

This mask will allow us to paint out a portion of the duplicate image layer in order to reveal the layer beneath it. In this case, the layer beneath is our desaturated image layer.

Select the Hard Round brush on the Photoshop Brush Tools Panel, or select B on your keyboard. Set the opacity of your brush to 100%, using the opacity slider near the top of the Photoshop screen.

Hard Round Brush Tool

3. Paint Out the Background

With your hard-round brush selected, change the color to black by clicking on the topmost square at the bottom left of the Tools Panel. Select the Layer Mask, then start painting black onto the mask to reveal the white background. 

Paint out the background around your clients or subjects. Precision is important here, so don’t be afraid to reduce the size of your brush and zoom in closely. Also, know that you can build up the black on the layer mask by releasing and clicking again. This will allow you to add brightness and darkness as necessary to the background.

Layer mask in Layers Panel

The great thing about Layer Masks is that, if you make a mistake, you can repaint the portion of the image you erased by switching to white paint. Photoshop makes it easy to toggle back and forth between white and black by pressing the X key on your keyboard.

A note: If you don’t want to deal with Adjustments and Levels sliders, you can achieve the same effect by creating a new layer and filling it with white paint. This approach saves a few steps without sacrificing the quality of your edit.

Once you’re finished painting in your white background, press Cmd/Ctrl + S to save your progress.

White background painted with layer mask

Use Selection Tools to Make a Background White in Photoshop

The above approach is simple enough, but sometimes you need a more precise edit to make your white background look believable. There’s a ton of room for error when working with Layer Masks and hand-painting out your image’s background. Instead, let’s look at another approach using Photoshop’s built-in selection tools.

1. Mask the Background

Once you’ve imported your image to Photoshop, choose Select from the upper menu, then pick the Select and Mask option. 

Select >> Select and Mask...

Next, in the upper right-hand corner of the sidebar menu that opens, choose the drop-down to select a Viewing Mode.

Overlay Viewing Mode

Photoshop’s Viewing Modes will help us to see our edits against our original image as we make them. For this tutorial, I’ve chosen to use the Overlay Viewing Mode. You’ll notice that the Overlay mode creates a red color cast over the entire image. 

Ovleray Viewing Mode

2. Select the Image Subject

Next, we need to tell Photoshop who or what our image subject is. To do that, we’ll use the Quick Selection Tool to paint our subject in the photo. Simply click on the Quick Selection Tool icon in the upper left of the Viewing Modes screen, then click and drag your cursor to select your subject.

Selecting subject with Overlay Viewing Mode activated

The Quick Selection Tool helps in this process by automatically selecting similar pixels across an area. Because this tool uses AI to detect similar pixels, you’ll want to use this approach on images where the subject stands out from the background, rather than ones where the subject blends in.

After you’ve painted the bulk of your subject with the Quick Selection Tool, use the Refine Edge Tool from the same left-hand sidebar to create sharper edges around your focal point. Remember, you can zoom into our image to make a closer selection, and you can adjust your brush tools within the Viewing Modes panel.

Selecting subject with Overlay View

When you’ve painted your subject selection and you’re happy with the results, you’re ready to output your selection to the main Photoshop window. To do this, select Output To >> New Layer with Layer Mask from the bottom right of the screen.

Output To: New Layer with Layer Mask

This operation moves your image back to the Photoshop home screen in a new layer. This new layer has the background of the photo masked out, which just leaves your subject remaining.

Photo with background masked out

3. Add a White Background

Now that you’ve elminated the background, you can add in a white background behind your subject. Simply create a new layer by selecting Layer >> New >> Layer. Choose a pure white, and use the Fill Tool to paint the layer white.

Move this white layer underneath your masked image layer in the panel to put your subject on a white background.

Reodered layers in Layers Panel

4. Touch Up Your Work

At this step, you may discover that not all of your edges are crisp. That’s okay! Although it uses AI, the Quick Selection Tool isn’t fool-proof. We can fix these edges pretty easily at this point in our editing process.

To further refine your edges, you can simply zoom into the photo and paint with a black brush onto the mask. That will erase the fringed edges of your photo. 

If that sounds too tedious, you can choose to use the Defringe Tool instead. Navigate to the top menu, then select Layer >> Matting >> Defringe

Layer >> Matting >> Defringe...

A dialog box will appear and ask you to input a pixel value. This pixel value determines how many pixels Photoshop will remove from the edges of your subject. I used a x pixel value for my image, but each photo will be different. Play around with the pixel value until you find one that suits your edit.

Now, make sure to save your progress!

4. Check Your Work

Regardless of the editing approach you chose, you’ll need to make sure that you’ve achieved the effect you wanted. While your background may look white, it may not be completely white.

The easiest way to determine if your image background is pure white is to create a new Threshold Adjustment Layer by choosing Layer >> New Adjustment Layer >> Threshold from the upper menu. 

Layer >> New Adjustment Layer >> Threshold

Click OK in the dialog box that appears. Then, move the Threshold slider all the way to the left. If you see any black remaining in the background of your image, then your background isn’t pure white! 

Threshold slider

If you notice a border between your image and the background in Photoshop, go into your menu and select Photoshop > Preferences > Interface. Click “None” for your border options on all of your layers to resolve the problem.

Here’s our final result:

Before and after edit

Making a Background White in Photoshop Has Never Been Easier

There you have it! Everything you need to know about how to make a background white on Photoshop. With these skills, you’ll be able to edit and adjust your images to perfection in no time!

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