Decompose vs. PhotoshopThe situation is common; you want to remove the background from an image and the subject/foreground object is a person. The trick is masking things like hair, glasses, and other subtle areas that can make or break the final result.

There have been numerous Photoshop plugins and stand-alone applications over the years that claim to do the job quickly and easily with stunning results. However, it has been my experience with most of these methods that they simply don’t work, or are more difficult than masking the objects manually in Photoshop.

I recently came across Decompose from metakine software, who’s tagline for the app is “Extract objects from images with ease.” Indeed, they promise “easy and flawless extraction of elements from pictures in order to use them to make composite images.” Those are some bold statements, so I decided to give it a shot to see if things have improved in the years since I’ve used other masking applications such as OnOne’s Perfect Mask (which crashed every time I tried to use it for the purpose of comparison in this article, so I’ve left it out).

For the purpose of this article, I’m not going to go into the controls and features of Decompose. Instead, I’m only going to focus on the results.

Original image

The original image features a simple background

I started with a relatively simple image (above) of my son. As you can see, the image has a relatively simple green background that contrasts his outline. His hair is wet, but does have some wispy areas, and you can see that his eyelashes are noticeable against the background. I wanted to keep as much of that detail as possible without spending too much time or effort masking those areas.

I fired up Decompose and began using the foreground and background masking tools to define the parts of the image I wanted to keep and remove. It took me a few tries with poor results before I decided to read the FAQ in the hopes of achieving better results. After doing so, I spent considerably more time (about 10 minutes) to define the edges to achieve the “easy and flawless” masked image. Below are the results.

Decompose mask

Masked image using Decompose

I placed a solid color background color in the background to make viewing the results easier. As you can see above, Decompose did a fairly decent job at first glance. But upon closer inspection, you can clearly see hard and jaggy edges around his head and shoulders. In particular, the wispy areas of his hair are clumpy and not very realistic looking.

Decompose results zoomThe closeup at the right of his eyelashes really illustrates the relatively poor results of my masking efforts.

If I were to drop this masked image into another image with a similarly colored and busy background, you probably wouldn’t notice it much. But against a solid color background as seen here, it’s unusable in my opinion.

I tried several more times using a variety of different masking tools to get better results, but what you see above is about as good as I could get using Decompose.

Next, I tried masking the same photo using Photoshop’s Color Range Selection feature (found under the Select menu). The results are below.

Photoshop mask

Masked image using Photoshop

Selecting the background color with a moderate feathering amount in the Color Range Selection tool yielded much better results right away. In fact, I would have been comfortable using the resulting masked image, but I knew I could improve it even more.

Photoshop mask zoomedUsing the Refine Edge feature (also found under the Select menu) to further improve the mask yielded even better results. As you can see in the closeup image at the right, I was able to get a nice soft feathered edge around even the most difficult areas like the hair and eyelashes.

The great thing about the results I got using the standard Photoshop tools is that it took about 5 seconds to select the background, and another few seconds to further adjust the mask using the Refine Edge tool.

The moral of the story here seems to be that sometimes, the hard way is actually the easy and fast way. While I don’t claim that Decompose doesn’t do what it claims to do, but it certainly doesn’t do it as quickly and easily, with the “flawless” results that it claims to.