Friday Fundamentals: Making Great Selections with Color Range in Photoshop

This week’s Friday Fundamentals covers an amazingly useful tool that was designed to take the place of a less amazing tool with a much sexier name. Yes, I speak of the clumsily named but ever so efficient Color Range command in Photoshop. Despite its delightfully adept ability to make selections based on color and luminance, it often gets overlooked. And yet the tool it was designed to replace, the Magic Wand, still maintains its honored place in most selection-making primers. This may be evidence of the power of marketing.

But for today’s Friday Fundamentals, let me show you the evidence of powerful, one-click selections instead. The Color Range command may be buried in the Select menu, and it may have a dialog box that looks nothing like a selection tool, but by the end of this post, I will prove its superiority over its more sexily named cousin:

Making great selections with Color Range

For our selectee object, I’ll use something instantly familiar and yet cunningly wispy, a fluffy cloud against a blue sky background. Let’s start by looking at what the Magic Wand can accomplish with one click (that be the the rules for this experiment):

OK, I’m actually going to give the Magic Wand one click, plus a second “plus” click, that is a second click in our second cloud with the Shift key down. For the purposes of showing a direct comparison, I’ve set the Tolerance to 160. Here’s what the outline looks like (and a diagram of where I clicked):

the selection made with the magic wand

Looks OK for a single-click selection, but the real test comes when I set it against a red gradient background. At that moment, the blue sky leaking around the selection gives away the limitations of the Magic Wand:

OK, now let’s try with the Color Range command. First thing, you have to find it. Go to the Select menu, then choose Color Range. A fairly complicated (compared to the Magic Wand) dialog box appears. Start by setting the Fuzziness (the analogous but subtler cousin to the Magic Wand’s Tolerance setting) to 160. Then click with the eyedropper (that appears automatically when you evoke Color Range) in the same area of the cloud as above.

Note how you can already see a more nuanced selection (check the wispy areas above and below) in the preview window of the Color Range dialog box. (Anything that’s white will be selected when you click OK; right now that means all the extra wispy cloudiness.)

After pressing OK, if I press Command-J (Ctrl-J) to jump this selection to a new layer, then move it above the same red gradient, I get this:

Of course, both selection benefit from changing the layer with the cloud to a blend mode of Luminance (thus getting rid of any extraneous color). There the superior results of the Color Range command really shine. Check it out side-by-side (or above-and-below) below:

I mean, the Magic Wand selection looks like smushed Australia and an extra crispy chicken drumstick, whereas the Color Range selection looks like…um, clouds. And that’s just comparing one-click to one-click. There are many more subtleties to learn about the Color Range command.

To see more about how you can really leverage the power of the Color Range command, check out Chapter 32 of Deke’s Photoshop One-on-One: Advanced course at lynda.com. And if you need a free week’s subscription to test it out, go to lynda.com/deke and sign right up.

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