Photoshop: Selective Coloring Creates Stand Out Shots :: Digital Photo Secrets

Photoshop: Selective Coloring Creates Stand Out Shots

by David Peterson 7 comments

Or: How to make one object color while the rest is black-and-white

I really love this effect. When your main subject is in color, and the rest of your image is in black-and-white, you can draw a lot emphasis to your subject. You can also use small amounts of color to highlight otherwise unseen parts of images, conveying a meaning you wouldn’t get if everything were in color or completely black-and-white. With a little bit of Photoshop magic, you can achieve this effect in a few short steps. Here’s how.

Select the part of the image you want to be colored

If you'd like to play-along, you can download the image I used here: Original Image

Start off by figuring out which part of the image you want to stand out. In this case, I want the red flower to stand out, so I’m going to zoom in on that and pick the magnetic selection tool. Note: There are a number of ways to create a selection. I'll explain a second below.

Figure out which part should stand out

Here’s the tool we’re going to use. It’s in the panel on the left. You have to hold down the left mouse button to get it to switch from the standard lasso to the magnetic lasso (which in my opinion is much better for this job).

The magnetic lasso works by paying attention to contrast in your image. It basically clings to the edges of your subject. This helps the selection process go by much faster. Let’s give it a try.

Do you see those little squares? Every time you click with the left button, Photoshop places them on the image to lock the magnetic lasso into place. You’ll notice, as you use the magnetic lasso, that it doesn’t always get things right. I try to click on the edges as much as I can while I’m going along the outline of my subject.

Oh, and don’t worry if your selection isn’t perfect. We’re going to use the polygonal lasso to clean everything up once we’re done. If you click on the wrong location, or Photoshop's automatic squares are in the wrong place, press the Delete key to remove the last one.

You’ll see that we’ve got a few imperfections here, especially near the edges of the image, and the top-left of the flower. To clean these up, we’re going to switch to the polygonal lasso. You can get to that tool by holding down the left mouse button on the magnetic lasso.

We also need switch the type of selecting we’ll be doing. As a default, Photoshop is set to single selection, which means Photoshop deletes your previous selection every time you use a selection tool.

So we’re going to switch over to additive selection, an option that adds to the selection every time we use a selection tool. This option is located on your top toolbar, just above the panel on the left. It’s represented by two opaque icons.

If you hover over the icon, Photoshop will tell you “add to selection.” That’s how you know you have the right one.

Now we’ll go back over the areas we didn’t quite capture properly, using the additive polygonal selection tool to get those errant pixels.

Selecting the Polygon

The area is added to our selection

Once we release the mouse button, these pixels will become a part of our selection. We can also do the reverse and release pixels we accidentally selected. To do that, we simply need to switch over to subtractive selection mode. It’s the icon to the right of the additive selection mode icon.

Advanced Tip:You can quickly switch between "Add" and "Subtract" mode by holding down the Shift or Alt key while making a selection. Holding Shift will add your new selection to the existing, and Alt will remove your selection.

Alright that’s about it.

Invert your selection so you get everything but your subject

Now, we don’t want to make our flower black-and-white. We want to make the rest of the image black-and-white. That means we need to select the inverse of what we’ve already selected.

It’s pretty easy to do this in Photoshop. Just go up to the “select” menu item and pick “inverse.”

Be warned that it won’t look like anything has changed. That’s because the outlines of an inverse selection look exactly the same as the original selection. Having said that, if you zoom out, you should see selection dashes along the outside edges of your images. That is one way to tell you’ve got an inverse selection.

Use Hue and Saturation to make your image black-and-white

Now we simply need to make the selected area black-and-white. This is best accomplished with your hue/saturation controls. There are other ways to do it, but I like this one the best because it gives me some control over the amount of color I want to keep in the image.

To get to your hue/saturation controls, go to image->adjustments->hue/saturation. The main control to turn the color up and down is your saturation slider. As you slide it to the left, your selected area becomes less and less colorful.

At a saturation of -100, your selected area will have no color while your subject will be bursting forth with tons of contrast.

Once you’ve found something you like, click ok, and then deselect everything you’ve selected. You can do this by choosing Deselect from the Select menu.

Here’s our final image. Most of it is black-and-white, and the flower is in full color.

The only difficult part in this entire process is selecting your subject. After that, you can do everything in a few short steps.

Selecting using the Magic Wand Tool

There's a more powerful selection tool in Photoshop that works really well with this specific photo. Because the flower is red and everything else in the image is not red, we can make life simpler for ourselves by selecting all the 'reds' in this image. For that, we can use the Magic Wand Tool. What this tool does when we click in the image is find all matching colors around our click and select those as well.

Once you select the Magic Wand Tool, you'll see additional options in the top toolbar. (If you have Photoshop 5.5 or later, these options are in the Magic Tools Pallette.) As well as the familiar "Add To Selection" and "Subtract From Selection" tools, you'll also see a Tolerance number, an Anti Alias checkbox and a Contiguous checkbox. Here's what they do:

Tolerance: Controls how much is selected. A lower number will only select colors that almost exactly match the color you click on. The higher a number you enter, the more other colors are selected. 30 works well for this photo.

Anti Alias: Allows Photoshop to smooth the edges of the selection slightly. It makes selections better for photos, so keep this enabled.

Contigous: With this checked, the Magic Wand Tool selects only those colors in the immediate vicinity of your click. With this unchecked, the tool will select any colors in the whole image similar to the one you tick. Because the only red in this photo is in the flower, I un-checked this checkbox.

To select with this tool, choose the "Add To Selection" and click on the flower. You'll notice that a lot of reds are selected. Click on an unselected piece of flower, and more will be selected. Keep doing this until the whole flower is selected. It should only take a few clicks. If Photoshop selects too much, undo the change (Ctrl-Z) and try again with maybe a lower tolerance value.

Then continue with the selection inverse and desatuation steps above.

Advanced Pointers

Undo is your friend! If you find you selected too much, the easiest option is to hit Undo and try again.

If you know about Photoshop layers, use an adjustment layer to create the black and white portion. This is much better than desaturating the original image because it doesn't destroy it. Also, you can change the level of saturation afterwards if you aren't happy with it. Choose Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Hue and Saturation.

Desaturation is not the best way to create a black and white image from a color one. A better method to make the black and white part look great too is color mixing as outlined in my Secrets to Great Black and White Photography article.

Update: When To Use Selective Coloring

I’d love to see what you can do with this effect. Upload your photos to the Selective Coloring gallery, and if anything about this process isn’t 100% clear, I’d love to know about it.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Anshita Jawney says:

    Thank u it helped me a lot.

  2. lora says:

    this post was so useful! Really well written, well paced and great use of screenshots/ examples. Really appreciate it thanks!

  3. gustavo says:

    which photoshop you use for that picture ..the photoshop dosen't have some of the tools that you use on the picture

  4. liviu says:

    Thank you David! I enjoy learning new tricks on Photoshop.

  5. Uris says:

    Thanks loads. I have been wanting to do selective coloring for quite a while, but did not know how.

  6. Aldis says:

    First, I would have used magical wand straight away, then fixing the problematic spots.
    Second, if using Photoshop, then I would have used all of its possibilities and power, so instead of desaturating the image itself I would have added an adjustment layer. This adds more possibilities by letting you manage the blending of layers and all that sort of matters. Called "non-destructive editing". Otherwise you must remember to save a separate copy of either the edited or original file. Or at least a separate layer.
    And then there is a strange little filter/plugin called Tintii. The standalone filter is free, the plugin is not free of charge. But it can do interesting things.
    This much form me.

  7. Coreen says:

    Thank you very much. This tip just came at the right time. I have my first wedding in 2 weeks time and bought Photoshop Elements 9 about a month ago. The basic editing I have no problems with but those little extra's is what I am struggling with....

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