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Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing Backgrounds

on October 18, 2007
Yellow flower
Yellow flower on black

What if you could make your ordinary digital photos extraordinary? Whether you want to use your photos on a website or just as your desktop wallpaper at home, you can easily learn how to make your photos pop. It takes just a few simple techniques to remove a photo’s subject from a distracting background and really let it shine. With this tutorial, I will show you how easy it is to remove a photo’s background using the free photo editor GIMP. (Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.)

To get the best results from these techniques, choose your photo carefully. Pick a photo with a compelling subject that would really shine on a plain background. Especially for your first efforts, choose photos with contrasting backgrounds and smooth outlines. Difficult photos would be closeups of pets where individual hairs would have to be painstakingly detailed, or photos of foliage where hundreds of individual leaf points will have to be cut out.

1. After choosing your photo and opening it in GIMP, take a look at the workspace. The menus, currently on the right, can be dragged anywhere on your screen, and the photo window can be resized as needed. (Click on the photo to enlarge it.) GIMP workspace

2. Begin by adjusting the image view so you can see the entire photo on your screen. GIMP workspace

3. Select the Magic Wand tool (circled) from the menus.

Magic Wand selection

4. Click, or press Shift and click, to select large areas of similar colors with the Magic Wand. Click along the outside edge of your color as well. If you select something accidentally, use Control Z to undo your last selection. When finished, your photo should look something like this. Photo selected with the Magic Wand

5. Next, select the Quick Mask in the lower left corner.

Toggle the Quick Mask

6. The Quick Mask is a red layer that allows you to select more precisely. It can be toggled off and on again by click the button shown above. Quick Mask

7. Select your tools for the next task. First, click on the Brush tool at #1. Next, switch the foreground color to white by clicking the arrow in the circle at #2. Then, click the circle next to the word Brush to choose your Brush size, at #3.

Select your tools

8. Use a large brush size to “erase” the red mask from the area you wish to select.

Use the Brush tool to select

9. Switch to a smaller brush size to do the details on the outside edge. You may want to switch to a larger view, such as 400%. Use the Brush at 400%

10. Using the Brush to select the object is the most time-consuming part. With some practice, you will become faster and more accurate. If you erase too much, use Control Z to undo, or switch the Foreground back to black (as in #2 of Step 7). This will let you paint the red mask back onto anything you’ve accidentally uncovered. When you think you have everything selected, switch back to 100% to check your work. It should look something like this. Finished using the Brush tool

11. Now toggle the Quick Mask off again (as in Step 5) and check your work. If you see any shimmering spots in the middle of the area you wanted to select, just toggle the Quick Mask again, make sure your Foreground is white (see #2 of Step 7), and brush over the area. Toggle the Quick Mask off again. Areas that weren't selected properly

12. When you’re happy with your selection, go to the Select menu at the top of the photo window and choose To Path. This is a little insurance in case you make a mistake later.

Select to Path

13. Now go to the Select menu again and choose Invert. It may not look different, but this command selects all the background behind your object.Invert Selection

14. Choose your tools for the next steps. Click on the Fill tool at #1. Double-clicking on the Foreground color at #2 will let you choose another color. Make sure FG color fill is selected at #3.

Choose Fill tools

15. With the Fill tool selected, click in the background of your photo to paint with the Foreground color you picked. Fill the background

16. If everything looks right, go to the Select menu and choose None.

Select None

17. If you see some mistakes after you remove the selection, never fear. Remember the insurance we took out in Step 12? If you want your selection back because you noticed you have something extra attached to the part of the photo you want, go to the Select menu and choose From Path. Your object is now selected again, so you can toggle the Quick Mask and erase anything that shouldn’t be there. If you need to undo further, go to the Edit menu and choose Undo History. This will let you choose how far to undo.

Select From Path

18. I haven’t mentioned saving yet. If you want to be able to use the Path you saved later, be sure to save using the .xcf format. If you also want to put your photo online or print it out, then save it as a .jpg too. If you want to adjust your photo now, you have options in the various menus in the photo window. You can go to the Image menu and choose Scale Image to resize your photo. You can go to the Tools menu, then Transform Tools to Crop your photo. More tools

I hope this tutorial has been useful and enjoyable. GIMP has many more features to explore, and there are many ways to expand on even these simple techniques. Please leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions. I am still learning myself, but I’ll do my best to help you. If you want to learn more about GIMP techniques, here are some tutorial links to get you started:

Stop by tomorrow to get the flower photo in a larger size for use as a desktop wallpaper.

37 Responses to “Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing Backgrounds”

  1. Dee says:

    Very detailed and helpful post. I need to add more photos to my blog so this is very useful to know. Thanks.

  2. CSS says:

    Thanks, Dee!

    Please let me know if you have any questions, and I’ll do my best to answer them.

  3. […] Simple photo editing using gimp. 2. How to add a plug-in function calls without breaking your theme. 3. How to solve a […]

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  8. Thanks for this great entry. I also apologize for the late comment. Have stumbled and promoted you post and you can check the winners on the 30th.

    It was very much appreciated that you participated as I really love this one. Gimp has always been a bit of a mystery to me so I will learn heaps from this alone. :-)

  9. CSS says:

    Thanks Monika! I’m glad you liked my post. I hope it’s useful for you.

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  12. dateson says:


    I learn something new today!

  13. great tutorial.. may i link this tutorial from

  14. […] 1) Terry Didcott – How to Install a Self Hosted WordPress Blog 2) Adam – Adding a Blog to Flickr 3) CSS – Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP […]

  15. good tutorial gimp can be such a useful too

  16. Shen-Tong Lew says:

    Hi CSS,

    Thanks for sharing your experience with GIMP with the rest of us.
    I am following your GIMP tutorial on Replacing Backgrounds and could not finish Step 4.

    Specifically, I am having trouble interpreting your statement “select large areas of similar colors with the Magic Wand”. What is “similar colors”? If one click will starts a selection, then how does on finish that particular selection?

    I will keep on trying, but a response from you will be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You,
    Shen-Tong Lew

  17. TMH says:

    Extremely helpful. I followed it step by step. Thank you so much!!!

  18. […] Shared Here to Create » Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing Backgrounds […]

  19. Orzabal says:

    Nice tutorial! Well explained and the pictures helped a lot

  20. Liz says:


    Quick question. I would like to change the background of all my pictures in my ETSY shop to white, but since my items have multiple colors, the magic wand only chooses bits and pieces of my pillows. Is there some other way to do this?

  21. Haritha says:

    This is a great post, really very informative, thanks.

  22. […] Here to Create В» Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing … Oct 18, 2007 … I use Photoshop for my photo editing? But I will have to give Gimp a try to see how it compares. … […]

  23. […] Here to Create В» Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing … Oct 18, 2007 … Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing Backgrounds. Thursday, 18 October 2007, 8:00 | By C.S. … […]

  24. […] Here to Create В» Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing … Oct 18, 2007 … Simple Photo Editing Using GIMP: Replacing Backgrounds. Thursday, 18 October 2007, 8:00 | By C.S. … […]

  25. heru sb says:

    easy to learn,thank

  26. jhoe says:

    its so amazing…………

  27. talha says:

    wow wha t a posknjdhj

  28. Seojeong says:

    Thankyou thankyou so much for this I needed it so badly!!! Many other tutorials were confusing but this one really broke it down and I successfully could edit my photo! I will promote you!! :)

  29. Emma says:

    I would like a safe photo program for windows to edit and write on a photography (Ex: Photo by …..).
    Gimp is ok?
    Thank you.

  30. Emma says:

    I would like a safe photo program for windows to edit and write on a photography (Ex: Photo by …..).
    Gimp is ok?
    Thank you.

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