I'm a graphic designer and web developer managing my own business in South Africa.
What Is Deep-Etching?
Deep-etching is a graphic design term used to describe the process of removing a specific section of a photograph or image from its background so that it stands alone. This means that you can use just that part in a different way or on a different background.
When I'm designing websites I usually have an image in my head of what the final product is going to look like. I have one problem though: It is exceptionally rare that I find a finished photograph that has the elements I'm looking for and arranged in a pleasing pattern that I'm happy to work with. Invariably, the background is cluttered or I only want to use one sunflower (for example) not an entire field of them in my final design.
Enter the art of deep-etching.
By making use of deep-etching in Photoshop, I have saved myself countless hours of frustration and hair-pulling melancholy. Once you've mastered the art of deep-etching, you can let your imagination have free reign and create that amazing header graphic for your new website or publication in a matter of a couple of hours (not days).
Let's take the below maple leaf as an example.
Methods of Deep-Etching
There are three methods of deep-etching used in Photoshop, each with its own little tricks of the trade.
Using the eraser tool to manually erase the sections of the photograph or image that you don't want. The main problem with this is that it's not particularly precise and you end up with jagged edges and an image that looks as if it's been touched up. As with the maple leaf above, it has really detailed edges that give it its yummy look. Were I to use this method, I'd either be spending 6 hours zoomed in to the max with a 1-pixel eraser or I'd lose the detailed edging.
Making use of the Colour Selection option of Photoshop to select and delete specific colours from the image, hopefully leaving the bits you want behind. The problem here is that your standard photograph has millions of different coloured pixels and if you don't know what you're doing, you'll end up deleting too much or too little, and you have to manually go and erase the ghost pixels anyway ala method 1. If you look at the background on the maple leaf, you'll see there are at least 30 shades of brown there.
My preferred method?
Making use of the Pen Tool in Photoshop to deep-etch the part of the image that I want to use. The advantages of using this method:
- You don't delete anything on the original picture during the process, which means that you can tinker with it until you're 100% happy with the result.
- You have very fine control over the tool, so you can adjust and edit it to your heart's content The final result of your deep-etching looks professional.
- Once mastered, no one would be able to see that the image has been touched up. (A personal bugbear of mine ... image touch-ups looking contrived and badly executed.)
It takes a bit of practice to master, but once you have it ... the sky's the limit.
It took me just an hour to deep-etch the maple leaf in the above photograph out of the background. So, let's get stuck into using the pen tool in Photoshop. A couple of things to bear in mind:
- For your first deep-etching adventure, choose an image with high contrast between the section you want and the bits you want to remove. This gives you a precise edge with which to play and makes it much, much easier to know where you are, even when zoomed in.
- The Pen Tool creates a separate layer in your Photoshop document called a shape layer. This is overlaid on your image which means you're not tinkering with the original.
- The Pen Tool creates a path - a dynamic vector outline that allows you to edit it even after you've completed it. This is what makes the Pen Tool so powerful in deep-etching.
The icon on your Photoshop interface for the pen tool looks like the tip of a fountain pen.
Step 1: Starting Out
Select the pen tool and click on your image on the border between the bit you want and the background; in my case, where the stem of the maple leaf starts. You will see that it creates a point on the image.
Step 2: Adding Additional Points Along the Outline
Now, click on another part of the image to create a second point. While you still have the mouse button depressed, drag the mouse a little to the left or right. You'll see that you've now created a point with two handles and a line connects this point to the next one. Move the mouse around until the line sort of follows the contour of the image. Don't worry about the handles too much at this stage, we'll be using them to fine-tune our outline later.
Continue to add points outlining the entire image that you want.
As you can see, I now have a rough shape outline of the maple leaf. It's not perfect, but the basics are there. Just an aside: The black you see in the image above is just a masking layer - the maple leaf is still there, but this masking layer (automatically created when you use the pen tool) helps you to visualise where your outline is going.
For the next couple of steps to fine-tune the outline, I set the opacity of the shape layer to 50%: I can still see where my outline is, but I can also see the maple leaf underneath. Now, I can go and perfect my outline.
To see the points that I've put down, I make use of the Direct Selection tool (the icon looks like an arrow).
Click-click on my outline and voila ... I can see all the points or nodes that my outline contains.
Step 3: Fine Tuning the Outline
I've zoomed in quite close to my outline so that you can see the individual points and that it needs some work to get it to align perfectly with the maple leaf.
With the Direct Selection tool selected, click on the specific point that you want to edit. You'll see the little handles appear. By selecting one of the handle ‘knobs' you can move them around until the line conforms to the outline of the image.
Now, just as it is, if you move one handle, the other handle will move as well because the two are connected. Here's a little trick: If you only want to move one of the handles, hold down the ‘alt' key on your keyboard while moving it. This effectively ‘breaks' the connection and you can move the handles independently of each other. This is particularly useful when you have a sharp corner or edge, such as where the stem meets the leaf in the image below.
Looking at the image, I notice that I'll need additional points to make the outline exactly the way I like it. All you do to add additional points is to click and hold the Pen Tool Icon to see a pop-out contextual menu with additional options for the Pen tool.
- To add a point: Use the Add Anchor Point tool.
- To delete a point: Use the Delete Anchor Point tool.
Below, you can see that I've added an additional point at the bottom right.
Continue working around your entire image, adding points and manipulating the outline until it looks the way you want it to. I usually work zoomed in on my image so that I can get it to match exactly. Work at a zoom level that feels comfortable for you. Me, being the perfectionist I am, I tend to work zoomed in at least 400-800%.
And here you go. If you compare the outline below with the one we started with, you can see that I've added in quite a couple of additional nodes and manipulated the outline to fit the maple leaf exactly.
This is the step that will probably take you the longest to master. Don't despair, a little practice, and you'll be deep-etching like a pro in no time.
Step 4: Deleting the Unwanted Bits
Here comes the fun part: Removing the unwanted bits from your picture. You have your outline, you've made it perfect ... now, let's make it work!
On your layers tab, you'll see the Shape Layer created with the previous steps. Make sure it's selected (highlighted blue). Now click on the Paths tab. You'll see a layer called Shape 1 Vector Mask or similar.
Double click this layer; it will give you a pop-up box allowing you to name your path. Choose a name and click OK. You've now saved your outline, so even if you delete that shape layer by mistake, you still have your outline safe and sound.
I called my outline ‘mapleleaf'. You could use a generic name, but when you're deep-etching multiple sections of an image, it helps to name your path layers something meaningful so that you can find them again quickly if you need them.
Select the path you've just saved (highlighted blue), in my case, mapleleaf. At the bottom of the panel, you'll see several options that allow you to manipulate the layer. We're going to use ‘Load path as selection' - the third icon from the left that looks like a circle with a dashed outline.
Click on the icon and then go back to your ‘Layers' tab.
Here you can see that it's converted your path outline into a selection—the ‘marching ants' you can see around the maple leaf above.
At this stage of the process, I'd strongly recommend that you duplicate your original image layer, so that you have two copies of it - one for back-up just in case something goes wrong.
On the top grey bar, go to Select > Inverse Selection. This will change the marching ants outline from the bit you want (maple leaf here) to the background that you want to delete.
Now simply hit ‘delete' and there you have it. One deep-etched image that you can use in any way that your heart desires.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
DEE on July 30, 2020:
This tutorial has just helped me trememdously. It is soooo easy to follow. Thank you so much!
Mostafa Kamal on April 16, 2020:
Great Photoshop tutorial. it really helpful for every on who need to know about Deep Etch.
Ella Zoye on July 22, 2018:
Here we can see an important issue so we want to say please mam upload an video and that will be great for us .
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Ali Reza Raju on March 20, 2017:
If you uploaded a video ,that would great.
Patrick Kamau from Nairobi, Kenya on January 30, 2017:
Well, well, I have been using the magnetic lasso tool but I have learnt something new here. I agree with you pen tool is better off because you can edit your points and fine tune them they you want. Thanks for sharing.
David Cristofano on August 11, 2016:
Chaendryn, I read this article and followed everything and I did it perfectly. I have a question to you about a tutorials package.
One Facebook friends of mine suggest me Patrick's video tutorials. But before I purchased Patrick's tutorials I need to know the quality of the tutorials. Can I improve my Photoshop skill by watching Patrick's video tutorials? If I can then I will buy it. If not then I shouldn't. So, I need your opinion. You can see it on the below website which is given my FB friend.
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Please reply my question. And I am waiting for your answer.
Robin on June 15, 2016:
Chaendryn, I have finished your tutorial about "How to Use Photoshop to Deep-Etch an Image". And I think its for newbie people. So, I was looking for advanced tutorials and I got http://www.advancedphotoshoptutorial.com and I hope their video tutorials make me an expert in photoshop. What do you think?
Labonno Mehtab on August 01, 2015:
Truly say it's clipping path = deep etch, very quickly and beauty. thanks for share with us. keep it up...
Jignesh on February 27, 2015:
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sliman on May 01, 2013:
Thanks, this is really helpful your the best.
Sk. Abu Sadat on July 15, 2012:
Ying on April 18, 2012:
Can you explain the considerations for getting the image?
Regina on February 04, 2012:
Recommended for you
Thank you for sharing the tut. It's really clear and helpful.
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Vinko Grgic on September 25, 2011:
Good article and a well presented tutorial...but, I have to completely disagree with you on the method. You said it took you an hour to make the Maple Leaf deep etch!! I just used my own method and did it in 3 minutes. Same result quality.
My method, very simple:
1. "Duplicate" the image layer after opening in PS.
2. Zoom in to around 300-600%.
3. Use "Polygonal Lasso Tool".
4. Set "Feather" to 1px (MOST IMPORTANT STEP!).
5. Trace the edges of whole object and close selection.
6. Right-click and "Select Inverse"...delete. Done.
Almost 95% of your result in only a fraction of the time.
Madeleine Ginn on August 29, 2011:
HI, what do you do if there is more than one piece of background, i.e. if there is a section in the middle of your subject, eg, a flower that needs to be removed. I tried creating a new path but for some reason in those sections I landed up with a white background so when I try to place it in indesign those sections are white? Hope u are still around.
Jerry Smith on June 12, 2011:
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Fana on June 02, 2011:
Thnx really made a difrence
Appleuser on February 22, 2011:
Although this tutorial give good background to what deep-etching is all about, PS has a quick mask function which is so much easier to use and infinitely editable. It allows the use of softer edges to seamlessly integrate a deep-etched pic into another one.
sajidfdsfdfdf on February 03, 2011:
You really got me out of a bind tonight. Thanks for your help. I managed to change the text on my .psd image, though I still found when I uploaded it, there is a gap in the text box on the theme. So more research for me tonight to see what I have done wrong or need to change the image.
Glad you found your blurb though. Cheers!
Jo on January 24, 2011:
Cool. Thanks for the interesting tut. I do the exact same thing in Corel Draw, except it would take about 30 mins to perfectly deep-etch the same maple leaf image. What I do is, once the outer shape is drawn, the photograph is powerclipped into the image. That part takes about 3 seconds. It pretty much eliminates step 4 of your tut.
jennifer on December 08, 2010:
Was good right up to the end when clicking delete and a message pops up: 'Could not complete your request because the content of the layer is not directly editable'
maria on October 02, 2010:
Thank you for a very useful tip. Very Grateful.
Mimosa on June 15, 2010:
Thanks so much! I've been trying to do this for SIX MONTHS and now I finally know how. My question: What do I do to get the etched image onto the page I'm working on? Do I just save the image to the desktop as a new graphic and then drop it onto the page? Thanks heaps
Mary on April 09, 2010:
Great tutorial, thanks.
I've done something wrong because the "content of the layer is not directly editable" error is coming up and I only a background layer and a shape layer in my document. Should I have another layer that is directly editable?
Bruce on April 01, 2010:
Very good... Thanks
Deep Etch Service on February 25, 2010:
thanks for sharing Good skills.
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Fiona on January 25, 2010:
This was fantastic. Thank you so much. I never ever leave comments online but this was so helpful for a complete novice that I wanted to thank you. Cheers
Azhar Kamar from Singapore on December 04, 2009:
Great tutorial, Chaendryn. I learnt something new today. Kudos!
yellow on December 04, 2009:
Anila Balliu on October 14, 2009:
wow awesome tutorial ...
mistika on August 10, 2009:
very very good and informative explanation, very simple and effective, thank you!
eonsaway from New Mexico, USA on May 09, 2009:
Excellent instructions, very Excellent writing.
Gabe Strine on May 01, 2009:
Good article. I use this method all the time. One thing I do differently is once you get to the marching ants selection, I mask the image inside the ants by clicking the mask button at the bottom of the layers palette. That way I get the same result without eliminating the rest of the image entirely. It's a good backup for inevitable future edits. This only works if your image is a layer independent of the background.
Camping Dan on April 01, 2009:
Thanks for this how-to. I have a lot of pics of flowers that I would love to remove from their background.
GlobalizeThis from Wichita, Kansas on March 01, 2009:
Very detailed. I like your style
Chaendryn (author) from South Africa on February 19, 2009:
That particular error usually happens when you're trying to do something on the shape layer and not the image itself. Remember, that shape layer Photoshop creates is a masking layer. These are used to make changes to how the image looks without actually editing the image itself, which, if you were to try and delete the background off it (for example), would give you that error.
So make sure that you have the right layer selected that you want to make your changes on i.e. your image or text layer and try again.
Bahleza on February 19, 2009:
Hey sometimes it says it cannot complete my request because the content of the layer is not directly editable. What am I doing wrong? Also I just want to thank you for the tutorial.
Steve Jones on January 01, 2009:
Great hubpage - really simple to follow and well presented. Many thanks!
JKras on November 12, 2008:
this really helped - i have been trying to do this with a lassoooooo and it really doesn't work
keep up the good work
roshan on October 21, 2008:
its good for the new one n helpful too.
Chaka on September 03, 2008:
Good tips, simple and straight forward. Thanks
Om Paramapoonya on June 17, 2008:
Wow, great tips! Thanks for sharing:)
my-hair-tools from Ohio on June 17, 2008:
Great article and extremely helpful. Photoshop tips are always important and this one is very good! thanks!
jim1307 on June 16, 2008:
Good article, very well written and presented. As a piece of technical authorship its easy to follow and understand. Well done!
C.S.Alexis from NW Indiana on June 15, 2008:
This is something I have wanted to learn to do. Thanks so much for sharing, good write! C.S.Alexis
iamtheknower on June 12, 2008:
Great Info On Photoshop. One of the best and most informative hubs.
paulmcp from Central Ontario on June 12, 2008:
This is one of the best hubs I've seen - I'm always interested in new Photoshop techniques. Keep it Up - I look forward to seeing more. Bravo!