How To Add A White Background In Photoshop (Realistically!)

If you are re-purposing an image, you may want to add a white background in Photoshop to your photo. While you can simply cut out the subject and add a white fill layer behind it, the results are unrealistic.

In many cases, when you take a photo on an actual white backdrop, the color often turns out gray or off-white, and this can be a problem when posting the image on a website or other spaces with white backgrounds. In other cases, you may want to remove distracting objects from the background by adding a plain white one.

I will be showing you how to add a realistic background to your image using shadows and highlights to make it look as though the background was white when you took the photo. The steps may seem complex at first, but follow along, and you’ll see how quick and easy the process is.

Video Tutorial

How To Add A Realistic White Background In Photoshop

Remember that this process isn’t to add just a plain white background but rather a realistic one using the shadows that already exist between the subject and the background.

Step 1: Remove The Current Background Using A Selection And Layer Mask

To add a realistic white background behind your subject, you must first separate the subject from the current background. The best way to separate the two is to select the subject and mask out the background. 

First, create a copy of the image layer and turn the visibility of the bottom layer off. Duplicate the layer by pressing Control + J (Win) or Command + J (Mac). You will need the original layer later on in the process. You can rename the layers to keep the panel organized.

You can use any of these 8 ways to remove backgrounds in Photoshop, but a quick and easy way is to activate the Quick Selection Tool (W).

Then, locate the Select Subject button in the Options Bar. Click the arrow and select Cloud (Detailed Results), then click on the Select Subject button and let Photoshop make the selection.

Once the selection is around your subject, you can add a layer mask to hide the background. Select the image layer and click the Add layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

Note: If you need to refine or correct the selection, click here and follow the select and mask section.

You will now have your subject on a transparent background, and you can add the white background next.

Step 2: Add A White Fill Layer Behind The Subject

To add the background, you simply need to add a Solid Fill layer behind the subject and make it white. This will give you the standard background, which won’t look realistic yet, but if this is what you want, then you can stop at this point. 

Otherwise, follow the next steps to add shadows and highlights to the image.

Add a new fill layer by going to Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color.

Then, you can name the new layer if you want, leave the other settings as they are, and click OK.

You can then select white from the Color Picker window, which uses the hex code: #FFFFFF. Click OK once you’ve chosen white.

Next, move the solid fill layer below your subject layer by clicking and dragging it in the Layers Panel.

Your subject should now be on a white background. You will notice that the result looks Photoshopped, as there are no shadows behind the subject. You may want this result if you are making a passport-sized photo.

However, if you want the result to look like you captured the subject in front of an actual white background, you must add a shadow on the white layer and a few highlights and shadows on the subject to make it realistic.

Step 3: Add A Shadow Behind The Subject

The first step is to add a shadow behind the subject. The shadow should be placed opposite where the light source is coming from. There are many ways to make a shadow in Photoshop

For this purpose, there are two easy ways. You can either create a shadow using the Brush Tool or, if your original image had a shadow, you could use the existing shadow. For instance, if I look at the original image again, I can see the shadow on the lefthand side of the subject.

Using the existing shadow is a longer process but achieves the most accurate results. However, both methods create a convincing shadow.

Option 1: Using The Brush Tool If There Was No Shadow In The Original Photo

If you had no shadow in the original image, you could easily create one using the Brush Tool (B). To make the shadow, add a new layer between the white background and the subject layer. Select the white background layer, then click the Create a new layer icon to add the layer in the right spot.

Then, select the Brush Tool (B) and set the foreground color to Black in the Toolbar.

Once the Brush Tool is active, open the Brush Preset Picker in the Options Bar, select the Soft Round Brush, and adjust the size as needed. You want the size to be relatively big for the shadow.

The rest of the settings should be Mode set to Normal and 100% Opacity and Flow.

Once the settings are correct, you can place your cursor on the canvas. If your brush is too big or small, resize it using the [ to decrease the size and the ] to increase the size. You want the brush to create a nice feathered shadow.

You can now brush around the edges of the subject where you want to add the shadow. You can keep the brush partially behind the subject since you are on the layer below, so parts of it will be hidden.

Once you’ve added the darkest parts of the shadow behind your subject, you can add a more feathered shadow. To do this, lower the Opacity of the brush in the Options Bar. Somewhere around 30% should work well.

Then, add more brush strokes around the edges of the harsh shadow to feather it out a bit.

To blend the shadow into the image more, you can drop the Opacity of the brush layer. To do this, select the Brush Shadow layer in the Layers Panel and reduce the Opacity slider at the top of the panel.

You will now have a relatively realistic shadow behind the subject.

Option 2: Using The Original Shadow If There Is One In The Original Image

If your photo already had a shadow, you can bring this shadow onto your new backdrop for the best results. If you tried the brush option above, delete the layer or turn it off, as you won’t need it anymore.

To bring back the original shadow, duplicate the original image layer by selecting it and pressing Control + J (Win) or Command + J (Mac). Then move the copied layer between the background and subject layers.

You can rename the copied layer to Shadow, then turn off the Subject layer’s visibility by clicking on the eye icon next to the layer thumbnail so you only see the Shadow layer. Ensure the Shadow layer is selected.

Now, you must make the Shadow layer black and white by going to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. You can also use the shortcut Shift + Control + U (Win) or Shift + Command + U (Mac).

Your image should turn black and white on the canvas.

Now, you want to increase the contrast of the image so the shadow is more prominent and the rest of the image is blown out. To add more contrast, add a Levels Adjustment layer by selecting the Levels icon in the Adjustments Panel.

In the Levels panel that appears, drag the Highlights slider (the white arrow on the right) to the left to increase the highlights in the image.

The lighter areas will blow out in the image, and you want all the light areas to become white in the photo.

Then, increase the shadow slider slightly to bring the shadow out a bit more. Drag the black arrow to the right. Be careful not to let the image turn patchy by dragging the slider too far.

Adjust the sliders until you have a soft shadow and most of the image blown out in white. Then, clip the Levels adjustment to the Shadows layer by clicking the clipping mask icon at the bottom of the Properties Panel. This ensures the Levels Adjustment is only added to the shadows layer.

You will now see the layer is clipped by the downward arrow next to the layer’s thumbnail pointing down to the Shadows layer directly below it.

Next, you need to soften the shadow by adding a blur to the area. To do this, select the Shadow layer and then go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

When the Gaussian Blur panel opens, adjust the Radius slider to blur out the details of the image and soften the shadow area. A Radius of around 25 pixels should work, but this depends on your image. Click OK to add the blur.

Next, you want to add the shadow below the cut-out subject, which you can do using a layer mask. To do this, keep the Shadow layer selected, hold in Alt (Win) or Option (Mac), and click the Add layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

You will see the layer mask is added to the Shadow layer, but the thumbnail is entirely black, which means that everything on the layer is hidden.

Now, turn your subject layer back on by clicking where the eye icon should be. You will now have the subject on the plain white background again.

Then, ensure the layer mask of the Shadow layer is selected, shown by the white box around the black thumbnail. 

Now, select the Brush Tool (B) and set the foreground color to White. This will allow you to add to the layer mask and bring the shadow back into the photo.

You should have a soft round brush selected from the Brush Preset Picker, and the Opacity in the Options Bar should be 100%.

Once the settings are correct, brush over the areas where the shadow was on the original photo to bring it back in. The shadow may not look right at first, but I will show you how to blend it in better.

If the shadow is not in the right place and has shifted slightly to the side, select the Move Tool (V) and drag the Shadow layer around to fit it correctly behind the subject.

If you notice there is still some texture from the original photo, as there is in my example, you can edit this out by blurring the layer further. You can do this by selecting the Shadow layer thumbnail (not the layer mask) and then going to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

Then increase the Radius slider until you blur out the texture.

This will blend the shadow into the image a lot better. You now have a more realistic shadow behind your subject. However, both options work well to add a shadow. Using either method, you may need time to get the shadow looking natural.

Step 4: Add A 50% Gray Layer

Once you’ve added the shadow behind the subject, you can add some highlights and shadows onto the subject to match the bright white background. You need to dodge and burn the image to add these to the subject. 

To keep these edits non-destructive, add a 50% gray layer at the top of the layer stack and add the dodge and burn effects to the new layer.

To add the new layer, press Shift + Control + N (Win) or Shift + Command + N (Mac), and the New Layer dialogue box will open. 

You can name the new layer something like Dodge and Burn and then change the Mode setting at the bottom to Overlay. Check the box next to Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray). Click OK to add the new layer. 

Ensure the new layer sits at the top of the layer stack. You won’t notice any changes on the image due to the Overlay blend mode, but the edits will appear when you add the dodge and burn effects.

You also only want the dodge and burn effects to be applied to the subject layer, not the entire photo. You can add a clipping mask to the gray layer by right-clicking or Control + clicking on the gray layer and selecting Create Clipping Mask (ensure the subject layer is directly below it).

Step 5: Add A Glow Using The Dodge Tool

You can now add highlights or glows to the subject by dodging areas of the image. Keep the new gray layer you created selected and activate the Dodge Tool (O) from the Toolbar.

In the Options Bar, leave the Range set to Midtones, and increase the Exposure to about 30%. You want the glow effect to mimic the light that would bounce off the white wall if the subject was photographed on that backdrop. This means you must paint the effect around the shoulder areas.

You can now paint the dodge effect around the image to brighten areas. Adjust the brush size using the [ and ] keys to match the areas on the subject. 

You want to add this effect to the lighter edges (so the edges opposite to where you added the shadow) and any areas where the light would bounce off the subject. You can see the places I want to target in the image below.

Brush over the areas as needed to brighten them up as I have done.

Step 6: Add Shadows Using The Burn Tool

You can add a few shadow effects on the subject using the Burn Tool (O). Select the tool from the Toolbar.

Set the Range to Midtones and the Exposure to 30% as well.

Then, you can brush around the darker areas of the image to darken them and increase the overall contrast of the subject. I will focus on the following areas.

Adjust the brush size as you paint over the areas to darken them.

You have now added a white background with realistic shadows and highlights on and around your subject, so the result looks like the photo was taken in that setting.

Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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