Photoshop Trick: Separating the Foreground from the Background


Separating the Foreground from the Background in Photoshop is the perfect fix for every awkward posture, off-center subject, and a distracting background.

In this tutorial, you will learn why separating the Foreground from the Background is the best kept photoshop secret that you are not using! Even if you are not compositing and just working with a single photo.

In this example, we will use an image of a runner caught mid-movement and you will learn how by separating the background from the foreground you will be able to easily alter the posture of the runner, make clothing look perfect-fitting, and move the subject to a different position within the image. 

Let’s get started!

Select the Main Subject of The Photo

You can follow along with this Adobe Stock Image of a man running.

First, make a selection around the runner.

There are several different ways to make a selection of the main subject: you can use the Pen tool, Magnetic Lasso tool, Magic Wand tool, or Quick Selection tool. However, these tools will require your time and effort to select the desired areas.

If you are in Photoshop 2020 and newer, you can cut time by simply going into Select > Select Subject.

Using the Select Subject command will automatically make a selection around the subject.

Select Subject uses Adobe Sensei, which is Adobe’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) that uses machine learning technology to figure out what the main subject is.

Click here to learn more about the Select Subject tool!

While ultimately reliable, it can make small mistakes that you can easily correct. Look for areas that may have been overlooked by the AI.

In this example, deselect the space between the arm and the body.

To deselect, use the Quick Selection tool and hold Alt (Windows) or Option (macOS), then click-and-drag around the small area to deselect.

Separating the Foreground from the Background

The next step is to duplicate the background by dragging it down to the New Layer icon. Repeat this step twice to make two duplicate copies.

Note: since we have a selection active, we cannot use the Ctrl J Command J keyboard shortcut to duplicate the layer. With a selection active, this shortcut will only duplicate the contents of the selection and not the entire layer.

Always try to name your layers so that you know what they control. In this case, you can rename the top copy to “Runner.”

With the selection still active, click on the “Runner” layer, and in the bottom of the Layers panel, click the New Layer Mask icon to make a mask out of the selection. This step will remove the background from the current layer.

Then, select the two “Runner” layer, and the Background Copy layer, by holding Shift and clicking on both, and press Ctrl G (Windows) or Command G (macOS) to place them into a group.

You can call the new group “Edit.”

Separating the Foreground from the Background

Now that we have two layers inside the Edit group, we can focus on separating the Foreground from the Background effect.

Make a selection out of the “Runner” layer mask by holding Ctrl (Windows) or Command (macOS) and clicking on the Runner Layer Mask thumbnail.

Then go to Select > Modify > Expand. This step opens the Expand Selection window, and then set the expansion by 3px and press OK.

Next, hold Shift Backspace (Windows) or Shift Delete (macOS) to open the Fill window.

Under the Contents drop-down, select Content-Aware and press OK.

Content-Aware will fill the selection with “content” similar to the surrounding areas in the selection, making it seem like the runner was never there.

Note: With more complicated backgrounds, you may want to try the New Content-Aware Workspace to get better results.

Press Ctrl D (Windows) or Command D (macOS)  to deselect and disable the marching ants.

Although the fill works great, it is not perfect. For areas that need more work, you can use the Clone Stamp tool (S) to apply a seamless transition and keep the consistency between the original background and where the Content-Aware worked on.

After you’re done, you will have a clean background with no runner! Once you enable the Runner layer you will have your original image back, but it is now in two layers!

How to Work Independently with the Subject

One of the many perks of separating the foreground from the background is that you can adjust the subject without affecting a single pixel from the background and vice versa.

To have even more control, you can select the “Runner” layer, right-click,  and select Convert to Smart Object.

Note: A Smart Object is a container that can hold one or more layers. It allows you to apply editable adjustments, distortions, filters, and transformations.

Adjustments That You Can Make To Your Subject

Liquify Filter

  • From the Menu bar, click on Edit > Liquify.
  • On the View options, check the box beside the Show Backdrop. Initially, it will show “All Layers” but click on it to reveal the drop-down menu and click Background Copy.
Check the box for Show Backdrop
  • By separating the foreground from the background, you are now able to use the Liquify tool on the runner without distorting the background details.

    The Liquify Filter can also be used to fix minor issues such as wrinkles of the clothing or refining the subject’s body.

Puppet Warp

  • On the Menu bar, click Edit > Puppet Warp.
  • To see the guides, click the checkbox on the Options bar to Show Mesh
  • To create points, place it strategically where the joints are, such as the neck, elbow, shoulders, ankles, and knees.

    By adding these points, you can distort the subject’s posture by clicking on the points and dragging them to where you want them to be.
  • To adjust angles of feet or hands, hold Alt (Windows) or Option (macOS) and click on the points to rotate it to your desired placement or angle.

Move tool

  • Press the V on your keyboard to use the Move tool, this allows you to move the subject anywhere in the frame just by click-and-drag.

These are three ways you can adjust your image once you have separated the foreground from the Background.

For more Photoshop tutorials, make sure that you check out the PTC YouTube channel and hit the subscribe button! 

Final Image

Drag The Slider To See Before & After

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Leonardo Rojas

I want to separate the subject and change background for a plain black background. I have tried it for several days with no avail. I don’t know what I am doing wrong

Tools don’t work, when I first open the picture it goes to the right and I have: RGB, RED, GREEN and BLUE.

I am not able to advance and get nothing.

Some of Adobe don’t have “Select Subject”.

Can’t find the way