When it comes to selecting nice solid areas of a photograph, nothing beats the Magic Wand Tool. It’s fast, accurate and customizable. In reality, there aren’t many alternative tools in Adobe Photoshop that are as intuitive and flexible as this one is.
In today’s post, I’m going to introduce you to the Magic Wand Tool. I’ll show you where to find it, how to adjust some of its settings in the options bar and then how you can go about using it in a real life project. For the project, I’ll be using the photo you see above. Don’t worry, I’ll be throwing in a few cool tricks to give you more of a feel of what you can do once you’ve got something selected.
This is the original photo I’ll be using for this post. I already edited it in Adobe Camera Raw, so it’s got some more contrast and color than the original did. It’s the perfect picture to demonstrate how the Magic Wand Tool works.
How To Access the Magic Wand Tool
In order to access the Magic Wand Tool, you’ll need to head over to the left vertical toolbar. From there, it’s in the 4th slot down, under the Quick Selection Tool. To get to the Magic Wand Tool, you’ll need to drag the Quick Selection Tool out to the right and then select the tool below it.
I’ve got the location of the tool circled in red in the above screenshot.
If you’ll notice, when you select the Magic Wand Tool, the options bar at the top of Photoshop will change. I’ve got the appropriate one enclosed in red below.
Magic Wand Tool Options
Before we begin anything, we need to become familiar with the options of this particular tool. It’s with these settings that we’ll obtain the most accurate selections.
Since I’ve already covered the first four options (the type of selections) in previous posts, I’ll skip them here. For now, just know that when you first begin making any selections with the Magic Wand Tool, be sure that the first square is chosen – the New Selection square. And if you roll over the three others to the right of this one, you’ll quickly realize what they do. If you want to learn more about these options, please read this post:
The next option you’ll need to concern yourself with is the Sample Size.
This option controls exactly what it sounds like it controls – the sample in which this tool is to bind it’s selection to. If it’s to use only one pixel as a sample, that’s very limited. The selection will be very small. If you increase the number of pixels that are included in the sample, the selection will grow. If you choose the largest sample size, currently 101 by 101 average, you’ll be taking a sample of the average tone and color of an area. You’ll need to experiment with these averages to see which best fits your own project.
To demonstrate how Sample Size can impact a selection, I’ll show you a few screenshots. In the first screenshot, the Sample Size is set to Point Sample. This is where the selection tool tests the tone and color of only 1 pixel (directly from the center of the small red circle). This is the selection that’s made.
If I increase the Sample Size to something more moderate, such as 11 by 11 average, the tool is testing the average tone and color of an 11 pixel by 11 pixel area. Here is the resulting selection.
Finally, if I increase the Sample Size to the largest setting, the 101 by 101 average, the tool tests the average tone and color of a 101 pixel by 101 pixel area. This is the resulting selection.
As you can see from the above screenshots, the selected areas grew alongside the increase of the sample size.
The Tolerance option is the cousin of the Sample Size option. Here’s how it works – the Tolerance option setting is the data Photoshop uses to decide which tones and colors of an image can be used in a selection. If we set the Tolerance value to 1, Photoshop will only use the one tone and color from the one pixel that’s clicked. Again, the selection area will be very small, unless, of course, there are many solid areas in the image (and a solid area is clicked on). If we raise the Tolerance value to 20, Photoshop will use the tone and color of the 1 pixel that’s clicked, and in addition, will use the tones and colors of any pixels that are 20 shades darker and 20 shades brighter than that 1 pixel. As you may have already guessed, the selection area would be larger this time around. If we increased the Tolerance value again, the same thing would happen and the selection area would continue to grow.
I was going to include screenshots of this happening, just as I did above, but when I did this, the screenshots look almost identical to those above, so I left them out. It’s really the same concept.
Anti-aliasing is a simple concept to understand. In the most basic sense, it’s the smoothing out of something. If you make a selection with this option unchecked, the selection edges may be somewhat jagged. If you check this option off, Photoshop will smooth out the edges by averaging their values. Picture it this way – if your selection area is figuratively black and white, Photoshop will look for some gray to moderate the sharpness of the selection edge blockiness.
This isn’t something you should concern yourself with too much. My advice it to keep this option checked. It’ll make your selections look better overall.
Whether the Contiguous option is turned on or off can have huge consequences. The demo photo for this post will show you exactly what those consequences are.
The definition of contiguous is: sharing a common border; touching. So, if the Contiguous option is checked off, any selection made will be localized, even if the same tonal and color values are found elsewhere in the image, but are separated by a division. Take a look at this screenshot. I’ll keep the Contiguous option checked.
I clicked on an area of black below the smoke. As you can see, only that black area is selected. Now, I’ll uncheck the Contiguous box and click in the same area.
Look what’s selected now. Not only the one area that’s identified by Photoshop, based on the option values in the options bar, but all similar areas. The fact that they’re divided and separated by lines and objects no longer matters. Personally, I keep the Contiguous option checked off because I like the control of making a selection and then holding down the Shift key on my keyboard to expand that selection. I don’t like it when it’s expanded automatically.
Sample All Layers
By default, Photoshop only looks at the visible layer you’re making a selection in. If you check the Sample All Layers box though, Photoshop will analyze and select from any layers you happen to have included in your project, whether they’re visible or not.
The Selection Project
In this final section, I’m going to run through a quick project that can help you understand how the Magic Wand Tool can assist with making selection in an example photograph, such as the one I’m using in this post. You may have already come to the conclusion that smoke is one of those tricky things to select in Photoshop. It’s got weird edges and is filled with tons of colors and gradients. Let’s just say, if I wanted to select the smoke, I’d be sitting here for a good part of the day.
My goal with this project is to select and change the color of the smoke in the photo. I’m not concerned with what color I change it to – I merely want it changed. And since there are solid areas of the photo, I’m going to use them to my advantage.
Making My Selections
To ultimately select the smoke areas of the photo, I’m going to select the top or bottom solid black area with the Magic Wand Tool. I’ll set my Sample Size to 5 by 5 average, the Tolerance to 10, keep Anti-aliasing and Contiguous activated and turn off Sample All Layers. Once I have one large solid black area selected, I’ll hold down the Shift key on my keyboard and select the other large solid black area. This is the output. Look closely at the marching ants.
Currently, the smoke is not selected. The large black areas are. To make everything but the large black areas selected, I’ll head up to the Select > Inverse menu item and click.
This will simply reverse the selections. What’s not selected will be and what’s selected won’t be. Here’s the output of that.
Making an Adjustment
Now that the cigarette and the smoke are selected, I’ll go to the Hue/Saturation icon in the Adjustments panel and click on it. That will create an adjustment layer and will pop the corresponding Properties panel open. From there, I’ll simply move the Hue slider to the right.
This changed the color of the smoke without changing much else. Job well done. It was simple too, when the principles of the selection tool were followed.
If you’ve enjoyed today’s post and found it helpful, please share it with a friend. Also, if you’d like to continue learning and would like our posts sent directly to your email inbox, simply sign up for our newsletter. We’ll send each and every post directly to you. Thanks!