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Selections and subtractions in photo editing that were not long ago deemed “fancy” are now almost commonplace in our digital world. Everyone from portrait pros to doting dads can make use of the myriad of cutting, pasting, and swapping tools in Photoshop. One of the more common ones is simply known as “Magic Wand”, and to harness its power, you must understand its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. In this tutorial, I’ll walk you through the basics and hopefully help you keep the magic wand from turning into a tragic wand.

But first, how does it work? Well, the Magic Wand is one of an array of “selection tools” available in Photoshop. The Magic Wand is built to recognize tone and color, so it is well suited to select large solid areas of color. For example, if I wanted to switch the color of a wall in an interior decorating photo, the Magic Wand would be the perfect selection tool to use because it would “see” all the pixels that are the current color and select them. If you had a picture of, say, antique silver hand mirrors and you wanted to select one of them, the Magic Wand would not be a good choice because of the varying tonalities and reflections in the object.

Here are 5 key terms you should know before we get started:

  • Tolerance: tells the program the range of pixels you are willing to “tolerate” in your selection
  • Contiguous: instructs the program to only select pixels that are within your tolerance and are adjacent to each other
  • Anti-Aliasing: smoothes out the edges of your selection
  • Sample All Layers: applies your edits to all layers of your image
  • Inverse: selects the inverse of (everything but) your initial selection

I’ve created a basic black-to-white gradient with a solid-colored object in the middle (who doesn’t love apples?). This tool is nearly flawless in selecting the pink apple because of its clearly delineated boundaries and flat color, as you can see. For something like this, all you need to do is click anywhere within the object desired and voila! Clean edges ready-to-go!


That’s too easy, I can almost hear you saying. Yes, it’s true- but we’ve just begun! Up next, say you want to select something outside of the bright pink apple. Here’s when we can have the discussion of Tolerance. See that little slider bar at the bottom there? That tells the program how large of a range of pixels to select. My tolerance is set to 32, which means Photoshop will select all the pixels 32 shades lighter and 32 shades darker than the exact point I clicked on:


When I selected the apple, I didn’t have to take tolerance into consideration, because it is a flat object. Meaning, there is no variation in tone or brightness- all of its pixels are exactly the same color. As neat and quick as this is, unfortunately, few objects will actually present this way.

Obviously, the smaller your tolerance, the smaller your selection will be and vice versa. It’s easy to see the range of pixels being selected on a clear gradient, and although gradients don’t look exactly like this in “real life” photos (architectural and scientific photography might be the exceptions), this gives you a visual and precise understanding of how the Magic Wand works. Here is my image again, using a tolerance setting of 67:


As you can see, the wand selected a wider range of pixels- 67 to the brighter side and 67 to the darker side of where I clicked. Now, I bet you’re wondering to yourself why it only chose this set of pixels when there are many others (on the other side of the apple) that fit the tone/brightness profile. Along a gradient, no matter what is in the middle, there is a long line of pixels all with identical properties. This brings us to something called Contiguous!

When the Contiguous box is selected, Photoshop will only choose pixels that are within the desired tolerance range and also touching/adjacent to one another. If I deselect that box, now all the pixels that fall within my desired tolerance range will be selected:


Now, in case you’re wondering about that box below that says Anti-Aliasing, let’s just say it’s always nice to have that one selected. This tells Photoshop to smooth out any jagged edges (some are so tiny you might not know they’re there unless you enlarge) and generally creates a nicer looking product, especially if you’re cutting objects and pasting them into another image. I always leave mine on when editing.

The opposite goes for Sample All Layers. When working with multiple layers, which is always a nice idea, you don’t want to be pulling a selection through all the layers in your image. Selecting, cutting, and transforming objects should be handled on a layer-by-layer basis! Leave this option unchecked.

One last helpful tip, as with all selection tools: don’t forget about the Inverse function. For example, if I wanted to select everything outside of the pink apple, I wouldn’t just go clicking around it. I would select the apple (remember how easy that was?) and then go to the tool bar to Select > Inverse. This gives me reliable, reproducible, and clean results every time!


Well, that about wraps it up- pretty simple huh? I know I didn’t give you a real photo example, but I feel that if you can grasp how a tool works in a technical way, then you’ll not only be able to better utilize it during editing, but it may change the way you think about your images. Thinking in terms of gradients, tonalities, and colors may just take your photo editing to the next level!

Now go make some magic!