How to Feather Edges in Photoshop

By Elizabeth Mott

In the images you edit in Adobe Photoshop, feathered edges create gradual transitions from fully opaque to at least partially transparent. On selections, masks and layers, feathering fades out sharp boundaries. From time-tested automatic and manual methods to innovative and enhanced adjustments, Photoshop includes a long list of commands, tools and features that feather visual imagery.

Create Feathered Selections and Layer Masks

Step 1

Press "M" to activate the Marquee tool and make its settings appear in the Options bar. Press "Shift-M" to switch between the Rectangular and Elliptical versions of the tool. Expressed in pixels, the Feather Radius setting creates a soft edge inside the boundary of the area around which you click and drag with the tool. If you use a large Feather Radius on a small selection area, the result may not contain any fully opaque pixels.

Step 2

Press "L" to switch to the Lasso tool and "Shift-L" to switch among the basic, Polygon and Magnetic Lasso versions. Click and drag the basic Lasso tool to create freeform selections that enclose the area around which you draw. Use the Polygon Lasso to create a selection boundary out of a series of straight-line segments defined by where you click. The Magnetic Lasso follows the boundaries of transitions between colors or light and dark image areas. All three Lasso versions include a Feather Radius setting in the Options bar.

Step 3

Draw a path with the Pen or Freeform Pen tool. Press "A" to activate the Selection or Direct Selection tool. Click on a path to select it so you can create a feathered selection of the area inside the path.

Step 4

Open the fly-out menu at the top right corner of the Paths panel and choose "Make Selection" to turn a path into a selection area.

Step 5

Set the Feather Radius for a path-based selection in the Make Selection dialog box. If you've already made a selection, use the Operation section of the dialog box to replace, add to, subtract from or intersect with the existing selection. In addition to using the Make Selection dialog box, you can "Ctrl-click" on a path in the Paths panel to make a selection, but you can't set feathering options when you click.

Step 6

Click on the "OK" button in the Make Selection dialog box to confirm your selection settings. The animated dotted-line selection boundary appears and your path disappears from the screen. The "marching-ants" selection boundary follows the contours of your path. The original path remains unaltered.

Step 7

Double-click in the Layers panel on the name of the Background layer of an image file to turn it into a regular layer that can accept a layer mask. Background layers can't contain the partially or fully transparent pixels that layer masks create. When the New Layer dialog box opens, name the layer or accept the default "Layer 0" designation.

Step 8

Open the "Layer" menu's "Layer Mask" submenu and choose "Reveal Selection" to create a layer mask that makes the parts of the layer that fall outside your selection boundary become invisible. Choose "Hide Selection" to reveal the parts of the layer outside the selection. Any partially selected pixels at the edges of your feathered selection become partially transparent in the mask and the image.

Step 9

Review your image after the layer mask creates a feathered area within it. The checkerboard pattern that appears around the masked area represents the transparent portions of your image.

Step 10

Turn off the checkerboard to minimize distractions. It can interfere with your ability to see fine details at or beyond the edges of a feathered area. On a Windows PC, open the "Edit" menu's "Preferences" submenu and choose "Transparency & Gamut"; on a Mac, open the "Photoshop" menu to access the "Preferences" submenu. Set the "Grid Size" drop-down menu to "None" to turn off the checkerboard. The white area that replaces the checkerboard does not affect the content of your layers.

Filter Existing Selections

Step 1

Make a selection without activating a Feather Radius option, and the "marching ants" of the animated selection border enclose the fully opaque parts of your selection. If you make a hard-edged selection and want to feather it after the fact, filter your selection in Quick Mask mode.

Step 2

Adjust Quick Mask mode so it shows your selection. By default, Quick Mask applies a red overlay on the parts of your image that fall outside your selection. When you edit selections to feather them, switch Quick Mask mode to apply its colored overlay on the selected areas of your image instead. Double-click on the unlabeled Quick Mask Mode button in the Tools panel to open the Quick Mask Options dialog box. You also can change the overlay color so it contrasts with your subject matter, and raise or lower the opacity of the overlay.

Step 3

Press "Q" to enter Quick Mask mode. While you're there, you can filter a hard-edged selection to add a feathered edge, just as you would blur the edges of part of an image.

Step 4

Open the "Filter" menu's "Blur" submenu and choose "Gaussian Blur" to open the dialog box that reveals the filter's options. The Blur and Blur More filters offer no control over the extent of their effects.

Step 5

Set the Gaussian Blur radius and activate the "Preview" check box so you can examine the filter's effect through two separate previews: a black-and-white close-up in the dialog box and the full image area itself. As you change the radius, both areas reflect your settings. Without an active Preview setting, only the filter window shows the feature's effect.

Step 6

Click on the "OK" button to apply Gaussian Blur to your selection.

Step 7

Press "Q" to exit Quick Mask mode. The "marching ants" that define the 50 percent or more opaque area of your filtered selection enclose a smaller area after you apply Gaussian Blur because the filter makes the selection's edges partially transparent. Click on the unlabeled Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel to reveal only the image areas inside the selection without deleting any part of your layer.

Modify Existing Selections

Step 1

Press "Shift-F6," or open the "Select" menu's "Modify" submenu and choose "Feather," to access another means of feathering existing selections besides using filters in Quick Mask mode.

Step 2

Set the Feather Radius in the Feather Selection dialog box. Unlike the Quick Mask technique, this method doesn't offer previews of the effects it produces.

Step 3

Click on the "OK" button to apply the modification to your selection. After the Feather Selection dialog box closes, the "marching ants" perimeter shrinks inward, reflecting the partially transparent edge of the selection. Click on the unlabeled Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel to apply a layer mask that conceals image areas outside the selection.

Refine Selection Edges

Step 1

Press "Alt-Ctrl-R," open the "Select" menu and choose "Refine Edge," or click on the "Refine Edge" button in the Options bar to access the Refine Edge dialog box and set options for altering an existing selection. Like the Feather modification option, Refine Edge can operate on a selection while you work in regular edit mode. Unlike Feather, Refine Edge offers a preview of its settings.

Step 2

Set the View options to determine how Refine Edge previews your settings. Choose "Marching Ants" to retain the standard selection edge marking. "Overlay" presents the same preview style you see in Quick Mask. "On Black" and "On White" display the selected portion of your image against a background of their respective colors. "Black and White" displays the selection in white on a black background. "On Layers" presents context from the rest of your image content. "Reveal Layer" shows the unaltered image content without any selection outline.

Step 3

Set the Radius in the Edge Detection section. At 0, the setting displays no effects.

Step 4

Increase the Edge Detection radius to soften the selection edges based on the image's gradations in luminosity -- lightness -- and color. Depending on the subject matter of your image, this method can produce irregular, diffuse edges rather than symmetrical feathering.

Step 5

Set the Feather radius in the Adjust Edge section of the Refine Edge dialog box. This setting affects your selection in the same way that the Feather modification and Gaussian Blur radius settings soften selection edges. Click on the "OK" button to apply Refine Edge. Click on the unlabeled Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel to turn your selection into a feathered mask and hide layer content outside the selection's boundaries.

Blur Layer Masks

Step 1

Disable a layer mask to view a layer without it. "Shift-click" on the layer mask icon or open the fly-out menu at the top right corner of the Layers panel and choose "Disable Layer Mask" to turn it off.

Step 2

Examine the Layers panel to see the effects of disabling a layer mask. A red "X" covers the layer mask icon when you turn it off.

Step 3

Alter an existing hard-edged layer mask to add a feathered edge without redoing the work you put into making the selection that defines the mask. Any layer that includes a layer mask displays an icon that shows a thumbnail representation of the area affected by the mask. "Alt-click" on the mask icon to view the mask by itself as a grayscale image.

Step 4

Open the "Window" menu and choose "Properties" to view the panel of the same name. When you "Alt-click" on a layer mask icon to make it active, the Properties panel displays the attributes of the mask itself. Set the Feather Radius to soften the edges of an existing hard-edged mask. With the Preview check box activated, Adobe Photoshop shows you the effects of your settings in the main document window.

Step 5

Open the "Filter" menu's "Blur" submenu and choose "Gaussian Blur" to apply the filter to an existing layer mask. You can edit and filter layer masks just like regular image content.

Step 6

Click on the "OK" button in the Gaussian Blur dialog box to apply the filter to your layer mask. If you look closely at the layer mask icon, you can see that it shows the effects of the blur filter.

Step 7

Apply the Blur tool to a hard-edged layer mask to alter its edges interactively. The Blur tool works like the Brush tool, with adjustable diameter and softness settings. Set Strength in the Options bar to determine how heavily the Blur tool affects the areas to which you apply it. In Normal mode, the Blur tool softens image details. You also can set its Mode drop-down menu to lighten, darken, or to affect hue, saturation, color or luminosity.

Step 8

Click on the layer mask icon in the Layers panel to make it the focus of your work, limiting the operations of the Blur tool to the mask itself. Brush the Blur tool over the edges of the mask. The more strokes you apply, the greater the effect.

Step 9

"Alt-click" on the layer mask icon to view the mask by itself, without any image detail. Brush the Blur tool where you want to soften the mask.