How to use creative cut outs in the yearbook

Written by Bill Trueit

One of the most popular visual building blocks of modern yearbook design is the cut out, also known as a cut-out background or COB. A cut out is an illustrative technique of using image-editing software to extract a subject from the background. While a majority of cut outs seen in yearbooks are a full extraction of a subject from its background, just a little creative imagination can add spice, variety and interest to this technique.

Many designers use the Pen tool to create cut outs, and it works. The Quick Selection tool, teamed up with the Refine Edge dialog box, has made creating cut outs easier and less time consuming. While the technique looks sophisticated and intricate, and the directions here for CS5 look long, give it a try. You should like the options provided and the results you get.

The Quick Selection tool is part of the menu of Photoshop selection tools that includes:

  • Rectangular Marquee tool
  • Lasso tool
  • Elliptical Marque tool
  • Polygonal Lasso tool
  • Single Row Marque tool
  • Magnetic Lasso tool
  • Single Column Marque tool
  • Magic Wand tool

Like every tool in the Photoshop toolbar, once selected, a set of controls and options appears right below the main menu, called the options bar. Three brushes are essential to success, and are located as a group on the top left of the screen: New Selection, Add to selection, and Subtract from selection.

Soccer-with-ground_Trueit copyMost of the time, when you see the Quick Selection tool demonstrated, the image used has a subject that was shot against a solid contrasting background or green screen. Beginning your photo shoot with the goal of using an image for a cut out will make the task easier. Fortunately, the updated tools in Photoshop make successful extraction of a subject next to a busy background a likely prospect, although with a bit greater effort required.

Remove the background

Begin by opening a processed image with the best exposure, color correction and sharpening possible. (If you’ve used adjustment layers in Photoshop, use a flattened copy of your processed image.) Select the Quick Selection tool on the top fourth of the tool bar. By default, the New Selection brush is highlighted in the option bar, below the main menu. Keep in mind that you do not have to make a perfect selection.

It is called the Quick Selection tool, but drag your brush deliberately and slowly from the inside of the object you have selected. As you drag, Photoshop is crunching the numbers in its algorithm to guess what you are trying to select.

It is also important not to move your brush past the edge of the object you are trying to cut out, but like a baby with a milk bottle, accidents will happen. Return to the options bar under the main menu and select the Subtract from selection brush. Return to your image and subtract, or remove, unwanted portions of your image.

At some point, prepare for hand-to-hand combat, pixel by pixel, or a dramatic way of saying that you’ll likely need to zoom in to 100% magnification or “actual pixels” in order to see where to make accurate selections.

Additionally, you may find success between moving from the Quick Selection tool to another selection tool. In some ways, the Quick Selection tool works like the Magic Wand tool in that both are looking for similar or contiguous tonal ranges. Sometimes when a person’s arm blends in with the background, the Lasso tool will make selecting a portion of an object easier. When switching between selection tools, remember to hold the shift key. This allows you to add to your selection when using a different tool.

Dance-team_Trueit copyTime to refine

Once you are happy with your selection, the option bar of any selection tool will reveal the Refine Edge button. This button provides several controls that help you get accurate selections. The View Mode at the top of the collection allows several views to see what your end product will look like. An option that provides contrast against your object is best.

Wisps of hair and other fine details have always made the process of cutting out most difficult. Here the Smart Radius check box combines with the Radius slider to force Photoshop to look beyond the selected edge of your object for additional artifacts that may be connected with your object. The paint brush to the left of the Edge Detection area can be used to paint around the outside of your object to identify additional details such as hair.

Sliders in the Adjust Edge area of the Refine Edge box do as advertised. The Smooth slider does an excellent job of smoothing the “jaggies” on the edges of cut outs created in Photoshop. The Feather slider creates an opposite effect, creating a softened edge that bleeds from the object to the background.

In the Output area, the Decontaminate check box allows for a control that will help remove bleeding of color from the background to the object being cut out. Next to the words “Output To,” you can select several options. The option that will allow you to continually refine your cut out is the New Layer with Layer Mask option.

Check your cut out

Click the OK button, but your work is not done. Photoshop will create a new layer with a mask as promised. To check your selection, do two things. First, click on the background layer and select the New Layer button to create a new layer between your original background and your masked background copy, a.k.a., the cut out. Navigate to the main menu and select Edit, Fill and move to the Contents drop-down box to select White.

Basektball-photo-cut-out_-imageNext, activate the mask by clicking on it in the Layers panel. At the bottom of the tool bar, make sure your top color swatch is black and your bottom color swatch is white. Select the Brush tool, zoom into the object at 100% magnification, or actual pixels. The double-headed arrow next to the color swatches in the tool bar alternates between black and white. You can “paint” any defect that needs to be covered by the mask with black, or use white to uncover items. Be advised, this technique of covering up an area without erasing is advanced, so it will take some practice.

Keep in mind that you are not required to cut out an object completely from its background. An object can appear to be popping out of its background to create a visually effective illustration.

A stand out cut out

Once your mask is as clean as you can get it, several options exist to make your cut out stand out. From the bottom of the Layers panel, you can Add a Layer Style, such as Drop Shadow and Outer Glow.

By deleting any added layers between the original background layer and the background copy with the mask, and turning on the eye ball on the original background layer, several additional effects can be used to add pop to your photos.

With the original background layer selected, add a hue and saturation layer and move the saturation slider to the far left to make the background a grayscale image or move it to the far right to create intense coloration. You can add filters such as Motion Blur, Rough Pastels, Cutout or Poster Edges to give a look that stands out.

Another contemporary design option is to combine a cut-out object with paint brushes and ornaments. To do this, the cut-out object must be removed from the masked layer and reside on its own layer. Here is the shortcut method for doing that — hold the option key (Win) or Command key (Mac), and click on the mask area of the layer with the Layer Mask.

With the selection active, select the Refine Edge button from any of the selection tools. While any of the options are still open to you, the option needed most is the Output to drop-down box and New Layer. With this new layer, additional layers can be added above and below the cut out. Using different brush tools and ornaments, you can create a multi-colored light show around your selected object. This is a popular style for current magazine ads and portfolios of leading graphic designers.

Save options depending on how you are creating your layouts. If using InDesign, you can save your file as a Photoshop document. If you use Walsworth’s Online Design program and you want to maintain the transparency of a traditional cut out, save your image as a .PNG file.

Cut outs can be a way to add a contemporary effect to your publication. With a little work, added layers, layer styles and color manipulation combined with artistic filters can create a cutting-edge graphic presentation.

Bill Trueit

Bill Trueit is the former yearbook adviser and photography teacher at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Washington, and a part-time photographer. He has covered professional soccer and concerts, and has been known to shoot photojournalistic photos even while working as a radio reporter.