Removing the background of iconic images and photos

"Lunch atop a Skyscraper" picture with the background edited to be a green gradient



Some of the most iconic images in history are etched in our minds. We can close our eyes and picture them as clearly as, well, pictures.

Think of “Lunch atop a Skyscraper,” the famous black-and-white photo taken Sept. 20, 1932, showing a group of iron-stomached ironworkers sitting on a steel beam high above New York City.

The image depicts 11 immigrant workers eating lunch while sitting on a steel beam on the 69th floor of the nearly completed RCA Building — the Comcast Building at Rockefeller Center today — in Midtown Manhattan. The picture was actually arranged as a publicity stunt, part of a campaign promoting the new skyscraper, with other photos showing workers throwing a football and pretending to sleep on the girders.

The men in the foreground are the main subject, of course, but the background is what makes the image unforgettable. Far below the workers’ dangling feet, we see the great expanse of New York, conveying how grand and growing the city was. It adds scale and drama and makes us think about just how scared we might be to be perched on a beam 850 feet up in the air.

In the background, the Hudson River is visible, alongside the Upper West Side, as well as Central Park — beyond which lies Harlem and other uptown neighborhoods where many immigrants lived. In this way, the background adds narrative to the personal stories of those mostly unidentified immigrant ironworkers who helped build New York and define the American Dream.

Why image background matters

The background of an image, according to the Digital Photography School, “is vital in that it gives your photo context.” The way that your primary subject interacts with the background adds narrative to the image and helps strengthen its story. Among the most important design elements in composing a photo with the background are leading lines and subject positioning, patterns and textures, minimalism and avoiding clutter or unwanted items, and framing.

Some of the most awe-inspiring and recognizable images ever taken, including “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” and “V-J Day in Times Square,” are awe-inspiring and recognizable in large part because of their backgrounds.

Victor Jorgensen’s famed 1945 picture, “V-J Day In Times Square,” portrays a triumphant US Navy sailor embracing and kissing a woman in New York City. The busy setting of Times Square lends an air of size and significance to a fleeting, intimate moment, with smiling and jubilant-looking Americans celebrating the end of the war with Japan in the background accentuating the mood and message of the image.

You don’t even need to see NASA’s “A Man on the Moon,” one of the defining images of the 20th century, to picture it in your mind. Taken by Neil Armstrong, it shows fellow astronaut Buzz Aldrin in the foreground, with the curved surface of the moon behind him and the vast blackness of space stretching out beyond.

Without the stunning background, the “magnificent desolation” of the craggy, cratered moonscape — otherworldly looking, literally — and the empty dark eternity of the universe, the image could have looked like it was taken anywhere. Imagine the conspiracy theories alleging the moon landing was faked if the photo had a less compelling background.

Certainly, iconic images are iconic because — whether conventionally, unconventionally, posed, candid, or otherwise — they so exquisitely capture their subject and convey their story, with the background a key component of that.

How would iconic images like “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” and “V-J Day in Times Square” look if their backgrounds were changed?

"Lunch atop a Skyscraper image edited to have a background of the Grand Canyon "V-J Day in Times Square" image edited to be in a desert with a blue semi-circle background with yellow circular lines extending outward

Reasons to remove background from images

Without their background, many images would be less interesting or impressive. The background provides essential color and context. It makes a great photo picture-perfect, and you wouldn’t ever want to remove it.

But we don’t all take the perfect photo every time. For one reason or another, something — and often something in the background — is just not quite right. Maybe you snapped a candid picture of your partner smiling on the street, but you noticed later there was a telephone pole behind them that looks like it’s sticking out of their head. Or maybe you took an otherwise idyllic photo of your kids building a sandcastle on the beach, but you then realized a stranger was staring at you in the background.

For many small business owners and solopreneurs, removing background from images is important for improving their marketing and increasing their sales.

You may decide to remove the overcast sky from a picture of your just-opened storefront. You may wish to ditch the desk or table from an image of your newest ecommerce product. You may need to make the background transparent or change it to a more suitable base color to add promotional copy and turn your photo into an advertisement. Perhaps you want to add visual elements, like your business logo or website, which would blend into the image’s natural background but pop out on a more static one.

Background removal is one of the most commonly used photo manipulations. It allows you to get rid of undesired or unnecessary elements from images to make them better. Whether you’re aiming to make a picture look more attractive or professional, you want to avoid any imperfections that distract the attention of the viewer and take away from your main focus.

There are many reasons why you might want to remove the background of an image, but here are the most common ones:

  1. Eliminating unnecessary objects. Even the best photographers make mistakes. A background remover enables you to fix them in the post-production process.
  2. Adding special edits. It’s easier to add effects like shadows, reflections, and more when the background is removed. You can then work with a blank canvas.
  3. Making it transparent or changing its color. Whether for aesthetic purposes or sales, some photos benefit from background modification.
  4. Optimizing photos for ecommerce. Most online shopping platforms require images to be uploaded with no background or neutral background for ecommerce use.
  5. Switching it for better visuals. Once you’ve removed the original background, you can swap in a more interesting or appropriate one.
  6. Improving visual impact. By removing the background, you can target the viewer’s focus toward the main subject of your image.

A person running edited onto a yellow background with various colored shapes, lines, and dots and the word "FLY"

Whether you’re an amateur photographer or small business owner, casual creative, or solopreneur, you don’t always have the time or ability to take the perfect picture or painstakingly edit it to be just right. You’re focusing on having a great family vacation and commemorating it with some memorable photos. Or you’re busy trying to run your business, serve your customers, and grow your digital operation by showcasing professional-looking product images.

For these people and many others, a quick and easy — and no-cost — tool for removing backgrounds from photos can help them produce better images, whatever their needs.

Adobe Express can help you easily remove the background from photos, then edit them and add new backgrounds, graphics, and more. You can create transparent cutout backgrounds for your photos, remove the background from your picture and download instantly, and do much more with your image. With more than 100,000 templates and assets to start from, you have endlessly inspirational possibilities at your fingertips.

Fast, free, and easy to use, the Adobe Express background removal tool is one of the app’s most popular and powerful tools.

Remove image background now.

How to remove the background from a picture

You can use the background removal tool to turn your newly edited image into a professional business logo, eye-catching profile picture, attractive product photo, stunning flyer, beautiful holiday card, engaging socialmedia post, vacation photo book, and unlimited other creative designs.

To remove the background from any image, follow these simple steps:

  1. On the home page, under Try a Quick Action, click Edit Your Photos > Remove Background.
  2. Choose one of the following:
    1. Drag an image to the drop zone.
    2. Browse a file from your device.
    3. Select a sample image. You can later upload your image.
  3. Adobe Express removes the background of your image and refines the edges.
  4. Download your image.

A bike edited onto a background of a blue sky as if it were floating with white flowers A person with headphones on edited onto a background full of interesting visuals

With Adobe Express, you can remove the background of any image. For the best results, choose an image where the subject has clear edges with nothing overlapping. After you upload your image, the background will be automatically removed in an instant. Then you can download the new image as a PNG file with a transparent background to save, share, or keep editing.

Depicting the process of uploading a photo to Adobe Express and removing the background by using a sample image of flowers in a vase

To see the tool in action, watch this short video on how to remove the background from an image in Adobe Express.

Upload your photo now.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve removed the background, you can add the image to your project, create collages, or give it a new background. To add a new background using Adobe Express, select Backgrounds, search from more than 50,000 images for a suitable background, and simply apply a new one to your photo.

The Adobe Express background remover tool uses intuitive, professional-quality tools to remove backgrounds in seconds. Best of all, it’s free to use anytime, anywhere, on both desktop and mobile devices. So even if you’re out and about, taking photos at an event to promote your business, you can edit the images with your phone and post them to social media instantly and effortlessly.

In 2016, Time named “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” one of the 100 most influential images of all time, and it’s been used, imitated, and re-created in countless artworks since. The photographer remains unknown, but the image was acquired by Corbis Images in 1995. Ken Johnston, manager of historical collections at Corbis, has called it “a piece of American history” and said, “It’s visceral — I’ve had people tell me they have trouble looking at it out of fear of heights.”

That visceral, almost breathtaking feeling is only possible because of the background. The fog surrounding the men, New York City’s burgeoning cityscape behind, and the seeming smallness of the buildings below demonstrate the true elevation and suggest a sense of danger. The contrast in size underscores just how small people are compared to the world we’ve built around us.

While iconic photos such as “Lunch atop a Skyscraper” don’t need their backgrounds removed, your images could benefit from such a tool with Adobe Express.

Remove the background from your images.

Try Adobe Express today