Photoshop How To: Selecting With Color Range

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Color Range has always been one of the easiest ways to create an intricate mask in Photoshop. Adobe began improving it with Photoshop CS4, and PS CC now offers more control than ever. Masks are essential for affecting only selected regions, whether you’re correcting an image or being creative. If you don’t already use Color Range, I think you’ll want to try it once you see how easy it is to use. Start by choosing Select > Color Range to open the dialog box.

Using Sampled Colors 

Probably the most common approach is to use the default Sampled Colors option in the Select drop down to target a range of colors in order to change their hue, saturation, or luminance. With the addition of Localized Color Clusters in CS4, masks created this way are much more targeted and accurate than they used to be.

With Localized Color Clusters enabled, only the reds in the main flower are fully selected.

The image of the bouquet and bear below demonstrates how easy it is to generate a mask based on the pink tones in the flowers, while excluding the pink bear and its reflection. By shift-clicking and/or shift-dragging within the flower portion of the image, then adjusting the Range and Fuzziness sliders, I was able to quickly select the flowers alone. Because I had Localized Color Clusters enabled, Option/Alt-clicking on areas outside the flowers removed any areas that were still selected after adjusting the sliders.

It took only a couple of minutes to create this complex mask using Color Range.

The resulting mask retained some grayscale tones, adjusted primarily with the Fuzziness slider, which both prevents harsh transitions and enhances variation in hue and tone, adding depth. Of course, a simple Curves adjustment (Cmd/Ctrl-M) on the mask itself will conceal or reveal more of your alterations, and you can hand paint portions of the mask to further refine it. You’ll still start with a detailed mask that might be difficult to create with any other method, including using channels.

Channels can help make detailed selections, but even after applying a steep Curve to the Red channel, too much of this flower remains selected.

In CS6, Color Range added the option of selecting by Skin Tones. I won’t go into detail on selecting skin tones since there really aren’t many options. Click on Skin Tones in the Select list, and if too much of the image gets selected, try enabling Detect Faces, which becomes available when Localized Color Clusters is checked. Use the Fuzziness slider to restrict the selection even more, if possible. Frankly, I have more luck selecting skin with other methods than I have choosing Skin Tones, even when using Detect Faces, but it’s quick to try, and sometimes it works well.

 

 

In the top image, Skin Tones selected all pinks, but not the red hair. Enabling Detect Faces deselected many pinks, but selected the red hair. In the next image, success was reversed, patchily capturing the face with Skin Tones, but then selecting the hat with Detect Faces. In the bottom images, using Detect Faces with Sampled Color still didn’t guarantee success. 

Using Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows

While selecting regions based on their color often yields good results, selecting based on tonal values has never been customizable—until Photoshop CC. Now you can specify a range of values when you select Shadows, Midtones, or Highlights, and the familiar Fuzziness slider lets you soften the transition between values. The added control will increase your productivity and enhance creative results.

The more high- or low-key an image is, the more you’ll want to be able to influence the values Color Range selects. CS6 can’t help you select only the very deepest shadows, or include a wider range in the highlights, but selections are adjusted easily in CC, as shown in the first two screenshot comparisons below. In the third, more extreme example, Color Range in CS6 isn’t even able to select a desired portion of the image along with other Midtones, but in CC, it can easily reconsider what a midtone should be.

 

In these examples, the CS6 version is on the left. Top to bottom, selections are for Shadows, Highlights, and Midtones, respectively. When images don’t have an “average” tonal range, Color Range in CC demonstrates a distinct advantage over earlier versions.

When you want to take creative control over your image, being able to select your tonal range can make a significant difference. In the B&W image below, I adjusted the ranges in PS CC for each value so there would be very little overlap. I then used Hue/Saturation with Colorize enabled to split tone the image based on the masks Color Range created, which left the highlights uncolored. I decided to warm up the highlights slightly with a Photo Filter Adjustment layer and the adjusted Highlights mask. I repeated the process with identical adjustments in CS6, except those masks were auto-created by the program.

 

The new Color Range in CC (left) lets you adjust your selections to better separate shadows from midtones, and midtones from highlights than the automatic selection in CS6 (right).

Using Camera Raw Instead of Color Range

For the third attempt, I didn’t use Color Range at all, but ran the Camera Raw filter in order to use Split Tone. Split Tone only divides the image into two values, and while it's possible to adjust where the overlap occurs along the tonal range, you can’t isolate one range from another. Although I tried to match the results I’d produced using Color Range with Adjustment layers, split-toning in Camera Raw blended the colors together, tending towards a brownish tint with little color contrast.

Camera Raw’s Split-Tone feature divides the image into shadows and highlights based on user input, and comes closer to creating an overall tint, rather than toning with distinctly separate colors.

There’s no correct or incorrect method to adjust color and tone, but some methods offer you more control than others. Photoshop’s enhancements to Color Range have come a long way towards giving you the kind of control that will reduce your frustration making selections, and increase the amount of time you spend being creative and producing the results you want.

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