Efficiency & Productivity, Fundamentals, Software for Retouching

Selection Tools Overview

One of the most powerful tools for retouchers in Adobe Photoshop is the ability to select and modify pixels, referred to as making selections. Located on the tool bar, Selection tools are used to isolate one or several parts of our image.

The tools we have available to us come in the following categories, Marquee RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_RectSelect, Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_LassoIco and Quick Selections RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_quick_select_tool. While not officially considered a “selection toolQuick Masks RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_QuickMaskMode can also be used to make selections. Selections can be cut, copied, moved and pasted anywhere in our document using layers. We can transform them, mask them, add filters and add adjustment layers. One of the great things about working with selections and layers in general is the ability to work non-destructively.

There are also other ways to make selections, including the Color Range feature and selections based on Luminosity of the pixels in the image, and we will look into those in a separate article.

Before we get started, it’s important to note that Photoshop hides many of the tools we’re about to be discussing in sub menus. To access the different tools simply click and hold the tool group button on the tool bar and a drop down menu list will appear.


From here we can select our desired tool, once set, they will also coincide with their respective keyboard shortcuts as we’ll see coming up. So with that said, let’s jump right in and take a brief tour of the various ways we can make selections.

Marquee Tools

First up is the Marquee tool (keyboard shortcut “M”). This tool allows us to select pixels using geometric shapes, by means of clicking and dragging. Simple, straightforward and it comes in four flavors.

  • Rectangular Marquee RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_RectSelect
  • Elliptical Marquee RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_EllipseSelect
  • Single Row or Single Column Marquee

Note: Single Row and Column Marquee do just as the name suggests and only selects a single horizontal or vertical row of pixels, and, to be perfectly honest, as a retoucher I’ve never needed to use either of these.


Making a selection using the Rectangular Marquee.

While the Marquee tools may not seem very precise and potentially limiting, as retouchers, we would typically use this tool in concert with layer masks, allowing us to paint in and reveal or conceal areas of the image in a non-destructive way.

Lasso Tools

For more precise selections, we have the option to use Lasso tools, which also come in three flavors.

  • Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_LassoIco
  • Polygonal Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_PolyLassoIco
  • Magnetic Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_MagLassoIco


The Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_LassoIco (keyboard shortcut “L”) is a freehand method of drawing out the area which you want to select, while Polygonal and Magnetic use adjoining anchor points. To use, simply click your starting point on the image and trace out the area of your selection. In order to complete the selection we must return our path back to its origin point, otherwise the selection will remain incomplete.

Lasso Tool

Making a selection using the Lasso.

Polygonal Lasso 

The Poly Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_PolyLassoIco, as I like to call it, works by clicking invisible anchor points using straight lines to draw out an area to make the selection. The closer you position the anchor points, the more precise the selection becomes. Because the lines are rigid, it’s not as precise as the Lasso or Magnetic tools, but you can add more anchor points to refine your selection outline.


Making a selection using the Polygonal Lasso.

It’s still quite useful as an alternative to the Marquee if we want to create geometric selections beyond the rectangular or elliptical variety. Like the Lasso we must always return to our point of origin to complete our selection.

Magnetic Lasso

The Magnetic Lasso RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_MagLassoIco is a bit of a mix between the Lasso and the Polygonal Lasso, but also has some help from Photoshop. It works best when used to isolate a geometric object in an image, or an area that has different colors and values than those of its surrounding areas.

When we draw out our selection Photoshop sets the anchor points as the line forms itself to the area your following. Just like… you guessed it! A magnet! Alternatively, we can also manually set anchors by clicking while we draw out our area.


Making a selection using the Magnetic Lasso.

If you accidentally place an anchor point in an undesired position, don’t panic! The backspace key on your keyboard will remove each anchor point in reverse order as you press it, similar to using “ctrl + Z” undo shortcut for the History Panel.

Quick Selection Tool

The Quick Selection tool RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_quick_select_tool (keyboard shortcut “W”) works by adding or subtracting selections of areas of an image. This is done by clicking and painting inside the area you want to select. It effectively guesses based on the values and colors of the area you click.

Making a selection using the Quick Select Tool.

Making a selection using the Quick Select.

Auto-Enhance: Softens the selection boundary. Selecting this option will automatically refine the edges similar to what can be done using the former Refine Edge tool. 

Magic Wand Tool

Sometimes referred to as the “Tragic Wand“, due to a lack of knowledge on how to properly use this tool.

The Magic Wand RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_MagicWand works by detecting colors and brightness levels to make pixel selections. When clicking an area of the image, the wand will select all pixels with the same color and brightness values, which makes it great for selecting large chunks of solid color such as the sky.

Working in smaller areas with varying tones can make isolating areas a little bit more difficult. We can however, adjust its sensitivity by increasing or decreasing the pixel area for which it detects, called Tolerance.


Selecting colors and tones using the Magic Wand.

The Tolerance setting can be found in the options bar above our document window. It works by setting a square pixel radius which the tool sample from as we click on our image.

If we set our Tolerance to 50 pixels, the Wand will sample a 50 X 50 pixel radius, selecting all the colors and values within that sample area.

Increasing the Tolerance just increases the sample area for which it measure the colors and tones, resulting in a much larger selection. Therefore the larger the Tolerance the less precise and vice versa.

The Tolerance range is from 0 to 255, where 0 is a 1 pixel radius while 255 is the entire image. There are two other settings you’ll notice, Anti-Alias and Contiguous, both are enabled by default. Anti-Alias creates a smoother edge for our selection. Contiguous on the other hand, selects areas which are adjacent using only the same colors. If disabled, it will select all the same colors in the entire image.

A good example on when to use the Magic Wand tool would be when attempting to isolate specific colors, highlights and shadows.

Quick Masks

Probably the fastest way to make a selection is to use Quick Masks. By Selecting the Quick Mask button at the bottom of the tool bar RA_SelectionTools_GerryKingsley_QuickMaskMode (keyboard shortcut “Q”). We can start painting in the area in which we want to make our selections. Once we have painted in our desired area, hitting the tool icon or “q” again will exit Quick Mask mode and the selection will remain drawn.


Using Quick Masks to isolate only the eyes.

The Quick Mask tool works the same as any other mask, painting with a white brush will reveal the selection area and painting with a black brush will conceal. Once the final selection has been made we can finalize the mask by selecting whichever adjustment layer we intend on using.

RELATED: Working With Selections: The New Select and Mask Feature

Select and Mask Tool

Formerly known as the Refine Edge tool, it is only accessible when any of the selection tools is active (apart from Quick Mask). This tool allows us to refine our selections even further by way of opening a new document window with a new set of tools.


Using the Select and Mask tool to make a selection of the image excluding the models head.

The new properties panel lets us adjust the view mode, edge detection, global refinements and selection output settings.

It’s important to note using this tool is hardware intensive, so those with limited hardware might find this tool difficult to use efficiently.

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2 thoughts on “Selection Tools Overview

  1. Atiq Sumon says:

    Quick mask tool, there is an another thing to use this tool to check out the mask area . So, This is an important tool for Photo Editing Industries. By the way, I’m just thinking about your own tools panel.

    1. Gerry says:

      Thanks for the feedback!

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