How to Feather Edges in Photoshop

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.

Feathered edges show gradual transitions in opacity.

Create Feathered Selections and Layer Masks

Step 1

Adobe Photoshop's selection tools include feathering options.

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

Draw with the Lasso tool to create irregularly shaped selection areas.

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

The Pen tool creates paths and shapes that consist of vector objects.

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

Switch to the Paths panel to select, edit and use image paths.

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

The Make Selection dialog box adds options to the process.

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

Less than 50 percent opaque areas of a selection fall outside its marching-ants border.

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

The Background layer forms the sole image content in new Photoshop files.

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

The Layer Mask submenu offers masking options that you can't apply through the Add Layer Mask button.

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

Adobe Photoshop's checkerboard pattern shows where your image contains transparency.

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

The checkerboard can obscure small details or flaws in an image.

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.

Adobe Photoshop's selection tools include options that automatically soften the edges of the areas you click on or marquee around. The Feather Radius settings on these Marquee and Lasso tools control the width of the area in which the transition takes place. Likewise, you can invoke a feathering option when you make a selection based on a vector path. Soft-edged selections can form the basis of operations that adjust color or opacity, hide parts of layers or images, or vignette subjects in geometric framing details.

Filter Existing Selections

Step 1

Rather than make a new selection, edit the appearance of an existing one.

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

Quick Mask mode's default appearance hearkens back to the rubylith used as a masking material in graphic arts production before the era of software-based tools.

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

The command you use to enter Quick Mask mode also toggles it off when you finish working in it.

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

Ellipsis points after a command's listing in an Adobe Photoshop menu indicate that choosing it leads to further choices.

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

At high radius settings, Gaussian Blur can soften an entire selection.

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

When you apply Gaussian Blur near the edge of an image, its effects stop at the boundary of the file.

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

Step 7

While it's active, Quick Mask shows up as an alpha channel entry in the Channels panel.

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.

When you make a selection without feathering it and need a softened version, you can blur its edges after the fact. Press "Q" to enter Quick Mask mode and use Photoshop's Gaussian Blur filter to soften a selection just like any other pixel area. The Select menu's Modify submenu offers a feathering command to alter active selections. The Refine Edge command smooths and feathers selection edges interactively through a combination of brush tools and adjustment settings. Its Erase Refinements tool reverses the feathering effect wherever you brush.

Modify Existing Selections

Step 1

The Modify submenu's commands date back to early versions of Adobe Photoshop.

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

Undo the effects of the Feather command and reapply it with a different radius setting if your initial choice doesn't produce the effect you want.

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

The Feather command produces the same effects after the fact as the feather settings on selection tools produce when you make a selection.

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.

Pixel-based layer masks hide and show parts of an image area. Built from combinations of selection-tool output and hand-painted refinements, they constitute grayscale layer-specific alpha channels whose luminosity controls content visibility. When you blur the edges of a photo in a border treatment or isolate image details for any creative reason, layer masks avoid the penalties associated with destructive alternatives, such as erasing image details. If you delete or deactivate the mask, its effects disappear, leaving your image intact. Because layer masks consist of pixels, you can edit them just like any other layer. "Alt-click" on a layer mask thumbnail to view the mask as an image. While the mask remains visible, you can filter, blur, soften, refine and otherwise alter it to feature its edges.

Refine Selection Edges

Step 1

The Refine Edge command has gained powerful flexibility since its introduction into Adobe Photoshop.

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

How you preview an effect can determine your ability to evaluate it.

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

When filters appear to produce no effects, check your preview settings.

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

Step 4

Experiment with Refine Edge to find unique effects based on the content of your image.

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

Adobe Photoshop offers numerous means of reaching a specific result.

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.

When you add a permanently feathered edge to any Adobe Photoshop layer or image, you lose the ability to remove the softening blur and return the image to its original state. To preserve the unfeathered original, rely on layer masks, turn a layer or file into a Smart Object and add a softening blur that you can refine or remove, or save an altered file under a new name. Unless you take these steps, feathering alters your master image forever. In the midst of an editing session, you may think a soft vignette adds a distinctive finishing touch to a portrait or outdoor scene. The next time you open the file, you may view the image in terms of new editing alternatives that a permanently feathered file no longer supports. Nondestructive alternatives, including feathered masks, preserve your options as well as your images.

Blur Layer Masks

Step 1

Disabling a layer mask doesn't delete it.

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

A disabled layer mask has no effect on an image.

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

Check the Layers panel to confirm that you're editing the mask instead of the layer.

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

Layer masks consist of grayscale images used as layer-specific alpha channels.

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

Editing a layer mask changes its effects on an image layer.

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

Layer mask icons accurately represent masks in miniature.

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

Blur parts of a layer mask with the Blur tool.

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

The Blur tools effects increase as you apply it multiple times.

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

You can alter a layer mask without being able to see it, but making it visible eases the process.

"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.

Information in this article applies to Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Photoshop CS6. It may differ slightly or significantly with other versions or products.

Tip

To constrain a Marquee tool selection to a square or circular area, press and hold the "Shift" key after you press the mouse button and as you click and drag inside your image area. Press and hold the "Alt" key to turn the spot on which you click into the center of the area you select with the tool. Combine "Shift" and "Alt" to combine their effects.

Hold down the "Alt" key while you use the basic Lasso tool to switch temporarily to the Polygon Lasso.

To add a layer mask without using the Adobe Photoshop menus, click on the unlabeled Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel. The button looks like a gray rectangle with a white circle inside it.

Layer masks work non-destructively: They hide or reveal parts of your image without deleting a single pixel from your file. You can remove, edit or replace a layer mask without disrupting the underlying details of your image.

Alpha channels represent the range of opacities in a feathered selection with a corresponding range of shades from black -- fully selected and therefore opaque -- through shades of gray. When you press "Q" to enter Quick Mask mode, Adobe Photoshop creates a temporary alpha channel that disappears when you exit.

Warning

You can't apply a layer mask to a Background layer.

Before you alter a layer mask, verify that you've targeted the mask and not the image content. The white box around the appropriate Layers panel icon clearly shows which you've targeted, the layer or the mask.

Information in this article applies to Adobe Photoshop CC 2014, Adobe Photoshop CC and Adobe Photoshop CS6. It may differ slightly or significantly with other versions or products.

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