Photoshop tricks for a newbie
December 19, 2005 2:08 PM   Subscribe

What tricks separate a Photoshop/Illustrator newbie from a master?

I am an experienced developer who knows the basics of Photoshop and can manage to do all the last minute little tweaks (like cropping, changing colors, etc...) that I need to, but am in awe of the talents our inhouse designers. My question is, what are the keyboard shortcuts, processes, and websites/tutorials that will help elevate my skills? I am not looking to become an expert -- just want to learn more than the very basics and work more efficiently. Focus on web-development applications, not photo processing.
posted by gregchttm to Computers & Internet (35 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Always use adjustment layers. Never do anything directly. So much more flexibility and you can go back twenty steps and change things.

(My unwanted photo tip is to never use Desaturate. Always use the Channel Mixer in monochrome mode.)
posted by smackfu at 2:14 PM on December 19, 2005

Just being able to find things in a program with a learning curve the size of Mt. Everest. Knowing what the differences are between all the versions that are out there.
posted by SpecialK at 2:15 PM on December 19, 2005

Learn the keyboard shortcuts for the tools you use the most ('B' and 'E', in my case, for Brush and Eraser, and occasionally 'V' for the Move tool), then keep your left hand on the keyboard and your right hand on the stylus (or reverse those, if you're left-handed). Having one hand to switch tools (and to hold down various modifier keys) while the other says where you want to use them is a big way to smooth out the process, and that's what expertise is all about.
posted by wanderingmind at 2:24 PM on December 19, 2005

Even though you specifically said no photo processing, I have to post this:

A knowledge of Dan Margulis and his techniques for color correction draws the line for me.Dan Margulis articles

But other than that, WanderingMind has it right. Keyboard shortcuts speed you up so much. Especially in Illustrator.
posted by Brainy at 2:34 PM on December 19, 2005

Keyboard shortcuts are definitely what I am looking for. Any non-obvious ones that you find yourself using often?
posted by gregchttm at 2:43 PM on December 19, 2005

Something that can sometimes take the place of keyboard shortcuts is the Record Actions function - you can use that to turn a sequence of any number of operations into a macro, where you just hit the button and it does it all on autopilot. For web stuff, that's most obviously useful when you need to batch convert things like image size and compression, and save the results elsewhere, but it also comes in handy elsewhere.
posted by -harlequin- at 2:52 PM on December 19, 2005

The keyboard commands that I use most often, and would be lost without are:

B: switch to brush mode
E: switch to eraser mode
X: reverse foreground and background colours (most handy when editing masks)
spacebar: hand tool
]: bigger brush
[: smaller brush
shift-]: harder brush
shift-[: softer brush
Command+: zoom in
Command-: zoom out
F7: finding that pesky layers palette when it disappears

And another vote for adjustment layers. No need to change the actual layer.

Also, resist the temptation to use the eraser tool to crop things out, and start getting comfortable with layer masks.

Then when you've mastered that -- combine your knowledge of adjustment layers WITH layer masks and you're well on your way down the road to being a power user.
posted by Robot Johnny at 2:53 PM on December 19, 2005

Oh, another favourite: holding down option (or alt on Windows) when in brush mode, will turn your cursor into the eyedropper tool.
posted by Robot Johnny at 2:55 PM on December 19, 2005

Okay, one more:
If you've got oodles of layers, especially ones that you didn't bother labelling, and can't remember what layer something is on, hold down Command (Control in Windows) and click in the editing window on the actual part of the image you're trying to locate the layer of, and that layer will be automatically selected for you. (Although this doesn't work if there's an adjustment layer on TOP of what you're trying to find, since you'll just end up selecting the adjustment layer)
posted by Robot Johnny at 2:58 PM on December 19, 2005

You will probably get many links to tutorial websites, so I'll talk about something else (okay, okay... here are a COUPLE of links: check out the forum at photoshop techniques and the tutorials at Worth1000).

You'll also be told to memorize keyboard shortcuts. And it's true that this will help you immensely. There are a gazillion keyboard shortcuts in PS (and Illustrator), and it's daunting to try to learn them all at once. It's also somewhat futile to ask someone to tell you the "most useful" shortcuts, because what's useful to me might not be useful to you. Still, I'll throw caution to the winds and list the shortcuts I use most often. I can't imagine using PS without having these memorized.

[ and ] (bracket keys) = resize brushes.
--note: these work for ALL brushes, including clone tools, history brush, healing brush, dodge tool, burn tool, etc.

Shift+[ and Shift+] = soften/harden brushes.

D = set color swatches to black/white.

X = switch foreground/background swatches.

COMMAND+DELETE (PC: CONTROL + BACKSPACE) = fill selection (or whole canvas, if there isn't a selection) with the background color.

OPTION+DELETE (PC: ALT+BACKSPACE) = fill selection/canvas with the foreground color.

HOLDING DOWN THE SPACE BAR = hand tool to scroll in canvas.

HOLDING DOWN THE OPTION/ALT KEY = temporary eyedropper tool (i.e. while you're using the paintbrush).

V = select to move tool.

Q = toggle in/out of Quick Mask Mode.

SHIFT+use any selection tool = add to a selection that is already there.

OPTION/ALT+use any selection tool = subtract from a selection that is already there.


Here are general PS topics that you MUST learn well to be a real guru/master:

1) ALL selection tools (marquees, wand, Quick Mask, Image > Color Range, lassos).

2) Layers (including grouping techniques, layer masks, layer effects and adjustment layers).

3) Color correction with Curves and Levels.

4) Channels

5) Paths

If you can find a (sadly) out-of-print book called "Photoshop Channel Chops", BUY IT. It will demystify a great deal of the program for you.

Re: color correction. The big secret is that ALL the color correction tools DO THE SAME THING. They could dump all of them and just keep Curves and you could do everything in that one tool that you can do in levels, variations, color balance, etc.

Why do they all do the same thing? Because all color correcting can do is to change the color of pixels. And pixels (assuming you're working in RGB) are all mixes of red, green and blue. You can change a pixels color (change the amount of red, green and blue in that pixel) or you can leave it as it already is -- and that's ALL you can do to a pixel. A pixel is just a block of color.

Since people have trouble mastering RGB, Adobe keeps adding more and more tools that, via different interfaces (sliders, graphs, numerical inputs, etc.) do the same thing -- allow you to change the color of pixels. This is why some people swear by Curves and others swear by Levels. If you know how RGB color works (or CMYK), you can get the job done in pretty much any tool.

I HIGHLY recommend that on a lazy Sunday afternoon, you open a blank document, fill the whole canvas with black, bring up the Channels palette and select individual channels. Select the Red channel and paint on it with a white brush. Now try the same thing on the green and blue channels. Keep viewing the mix (the RGB channel) to see how painting on individual channels affects the entire document. You'll never use this technique to get real work done, but it will teach you how RGB color works -- which is something every guru needs to know.

[Note: once you've reached guru status, you can shoot for super-guru status by learning all about LAB color mode, which is PS's internal way of thinking about color.]

As for Illustrator, my advice is to LEARN THE BEZIER PEN TOOL. As with Channels in Photoshop, Adobe makes it possible for you to use the program without understanding what is going on under the hood. Channels is what's under Photoshop's hood. Bezier paths are the cogs and wheels of Illustrator. If you've only using text, shapes and freehand-drawing tools, you don't really know Illustrator.

Bonus: once you learn the Pen, you han wield it in Illustrator, Photoshop, After Effects, Flash, and dozens of other applications.

One more thing: after I had been using Photoshop for a couple of years, I pretty much knew how each individual tool and menu-option worked.

Still, I would read tutorials -- i.e. how to make text look like it was on fire -- and, though I understood each step, I would be left with a feeling of, "I could never have figured out how to combine all the tools like that in a million years."

My problem was that though I understood how all the tools worked, I didn't yet have them in my gut. I still had to think about them. But after a while, I knew the tools backwards and forwards. At this point, by magic, they started combining themselves in my head. But you have to get super-experienced with each tool on its own before you can learn to use them in unique combinations. And this takes time. Now -- scary as this is -- I can "use" Photoshop when I'm lying in bed with my eyes closed.
posted by grumblebee at 3:00 PM on December 19, 2005 [3 favorites]

[ and ] (bracket keys) = resize brushes.

I third this. I forgot that I even do this so often. Changing it in the brush dropdown is SO much more work.
posted by smackfu at 3:05 PM on December 19, 2005

Amateur PSD: A flat image with changes painted directly on the background.
Enthusiast PSD: 400 layers (one for each change, half of them turned off).
Pro PSD: Features masks & adjustment layers; layers are grouped into folders. No layer is wasted.
Guru PSD: Adjustment & paint layers are intelligently named & linked directly to the individual elements being modified, which are outlined with vector masks. Distinct sections are grouped into color-coded folders.
posted by designbot at 3:12 PM on December 19, 2005

I think one of the big keys is how you conceive the toolset. Photoshop doesn't give you tools to do a job so much as a set of tool-components that you combine to make the real tools for the job. So, thinking in terms of using tools and layers to enable other tools and layers to do something, gets you a long way. (For a simple example, using the magic wand tool to create a selection set that you then invert, then turn into a path that you then use to brush a white soft-edge paintbrush around, to subtly and seamlessly remove a rough outline or edge against a white background. It's probably quicker to do the same thing by cutting out a layer and giving it a glow. Whatever, it's just an example :-).

But the point is getting in the habit of thinking beyond what the tools do to how the tools interact with each other.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:17 PM on December 19, 2005

Wow - more keyboard shortcuts I didn't know about (how did I get this far without knowing about [ and ]?). This is turning into a great thread.

Also, there's a lot to be said for just plain messing around. Draw a colorful squiggle, then run random tools over it with various settings, just to get a feel. Go wild with filters, just to see what they do. That way, when you have some image in your head you'd like to reproduce, you can just think back and go "ohh, I know what filter makes something look like that".
posted by wanderingmind at 3:28 PM on December 19, 2005

- Curves over Levels for everything except black point/white point setting.
- CMD-SHIFT-OPT-E to merge all visible layers into a new layer
- Using LAB for color correction and sharpening
- Understanding the math behind Blending Modes
- Understanding how to print in a color calibrated workspace (and knowing what all the various settings do).
- Keyboard shortcuts are useful in as much as the let you work faster, but you still really need to understand the space your working in (what harlequin said).
posted by doctor_negative at 3:40 PM on December 19, 2005

I'd say it's not tricks that separate a master from a novice. It's knowing all of the tools and knowing which one to use in each situation. Being intimate with Curves, channels, paths, feathering, and so on.. rather than guessing or hacking around, etc. :)
posted by wackybrit at 4:10 PM on December 19, 2005

What is the best Photoshop tutorial on the web to learn more about everything doctor_negative just said? Or is best to buy a book?
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 4:17 PM on December 19, 2005

Thanks for mentioning the Photoshop Channel Chops book, grumblebee. I'd never heard of it before, and after a little googling, it looks like it's some kind of holy grail of computer books. Used copies are going for up to $500!!! For a used 8-year old softcover computer book! I am so intrigued.
FWIW, here the author recommends Photoshop Masking & Compositing (2004) as his book's most worthy successor.
posted by designbot at 4:21 PM on December 19, 2005

I found this book to have a lot of useful stuff in it about Photoshop's blending modes, which is an oft-overlooked part of the program.
posted by kindall at 4:51 PM on December 19, 2005

Any non-obvious ones that you find yourself using often?

One non-obvious keystroke is the shift-mouseclick.

1) You click with the brush tool and paint a dot.
2) Move the mouse to another part of the screen.
3) A regular click will draw another dot.
4) But a Shift-click will draw a line between the new click location and the old click location.

This works with all the brush based tools and can be a timesaver for certain things.

These are the tool keystrokes I've used enough to memorize:
rubber stamp: S
move tool: V
marquee tool: M
crop tool: C
hand tool: H

also handy:
deselect: ctrl-D
posted by scarabic at 5:02 PM on December 19, 2005

And yes, there is more to the graphics guy at work than pshop skillz. But asking what he knows about pshop that you don't is a good question.
posted by scarabic at 5:04 PM on December 19, 2005

I can't believe nobody's mentioned TAB! It makes all your tool palettes disappear and re-appear. This is vital on any monitor less than 19".

(Has anyone ever actually LEARNED this trick, though? I assume everyone pressed it by mistake, freaked out, and eventually figured out what was going on after pressing each key one by one frantically.)
posted by Ian A.T. at 5:36 PM on December 19, 2005

use of shadows and filters. if someone is using them you can tell their photoshop skill level in a second.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:55 PM on December 19, 2005

I'm definitely out of my league in this august group, but one keyboard shortcut that I don't think was mentioned is the repeated pressing of the various keys. E.g., repeatedly pressing "i" cyles you through the eyedropper, the color sampler tool, and the measure tool. (Yes, that's where they hid the measure tool. The logic escapes me.)
posted by bricoleur at 5:56 PM on December 19, 2005

repeatedly pressing "i" cyles you through the eyedropper, the color sampler tool, and the measure tool.

In recent versions of Photoshop, this nifty feature is turned off by default. For instance, M will only get you the first marquee tool. To cycle through all of them, you have to use Shift+M. I hate that, so whenever I install or reinstall PS, I go to preferences and luckily you can make key-cycling worth the old way!
posted by grumblebee at 6:07 PM on December 19, 2005

By the way, there are GREAT PS training DVDs available from, though they aren't cheap. and offer online video training for $25 a month and $30 a month, respectively. Lynda has some great videos by Bert Monroy, a PS genius. The Lynda video on choosing colors is pretty good, too. vtc has an amazing, advance video by Jayce Hansen, called "Advanced Photohshop Artistry."

Though those sites are pricey, neither has a minimum-time requirement. So you can join one of them for a month, watch all the PS videos, quit, and then do the same with the other one. Both sites -- plus TotalTraining -- offer free-sample videos so that you can check them out and see if you like them.

Speaking of which, Jayce Handon, who I know slightly, gave me a GREAT tip, which is to start your own PS (or Illustrator) notebook in which you write down all the tips and techniques that you discover and that appeal to you. This will become your personalized manual. As you learn these complex apps, you'll be hit with tips right, left and center. Keeping a book like this will help you remember the ones that are meaningful to you.

If you are in NYC, I do Photoshop training via
posted by grumblebee at 6:19 PM on December 19, 2005

For my $, the single most useful shortcut has to be [command]-Z, the undo command, which reverses the previous step. (I used to work with a very talented designer, who so frequently resorted to undoing that she tried to use [command]-Z while typing emails and memos, even dialing the phone!)
posted by rob511 at 6:21 PM on December 19, 2005

Save often?
posted by fire&wings at 6:22 PM on December 19, 2005

Wow, my Channel Chops book has made it to MeFi. I'm humbled. I do indeed feel that Katrin Eismann's essential "Photoshop Masking & Compositing" book is the most useful way to learn about channels and advanced masking today. The only thing really not covered in it is my take on greenscreen and bluescreen compositing and the corresponding interchannel math formulas for matte extraction and spill suppression. Channel Chops is the only place you'll find those techniques.

One of the things to remember in Photoshop is that if you leave the Tool Tips feature on (check the General portion of the Preferences dialog to make sure it's on), the Hot Key for any tool will be displayed when you hover the mouse over the tool icon in the main tool palette. In my own experiences, it's not the memorization of hot keys that makes a great Photoshop user, it's the ability to be a creative visual problem solver.

Echoing what others here have said, the Curves control is the most important tool for color correction. If you can successfully absorb the "Professional Photoshop" book by Dan Margulis, you'll be light years ahead of the general pack. Doing color correction by the numbers is the way of seasoned pros, and that means learning the Info palette inside and out. Adjustment Layers are your friends, and the Unsharp Mask filter is the single most important finishing tool for any photo, regardless of source or final destination.

And then there's alpha channels, masking and that whole area, also covered in great depth in Katrin's book. Another great book for photographers wanting to come at Photoshop from that angle is "Photoshop Artistry", by Barry Haynes and Wendy Crumpler.
posted by dbiedny at 6:55 PM on December 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

dbiedny, what do you think about Dan Margulis' new book, Photoshop LAB Color?
posted by designbot at 7:22 PM on December 19, 2005

designbot, given that I wrote the forward for "Photoshop LAB Color: The Canyon Cunundrum", you might say I like it. A lot.

I suppose I could sum it up with my pull quote on the back cover:

"The most deeply advanced, inspiring, insightful, maddening, awesome, demanding, and illuminating educational effort ever created for Photoshop".

It takes some real effort to get comfortable with the revelations of the power of LAB that Dan's mind has come up with, but the rewards for the reader are simply innumerable.
posted by dbiedny at 7:38 PM on December 19, 2005

I still have my well loved copy of PSCC dbiedny! Thank you thank you thank you (and Bert and Nathan) for helping me become a PS black belt! I think I'll re-read it for the millionth time between the holidays. Seriously, it changed my life.
posted by Scoo at 9:58 PM on December 19, 2005

two words: lens flares :D
posted by suni at 5:18 AM on December 20, 2005

My most frequently used keys have been mentioned.. but I just started using "backslash?whatever" key above enter to toggle visibility of the working layer. TOTALLY fricking awesome for working on masks, or the previously mentioned adjustment layers, or even channels, where it toggles off and on the highlight color.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 7:31 PM on December 22, 2005

In recent versions of Photoshop, this nifty feature is turned off by default. For instance, M will only get you the first marquee tool. To cycle through all of them, you have to use Shift+M.

It's much more convenient the default way. I wrote a little utility to fix it in previous versions of Mac Photoshop and I believe that utility is one of the reasons the feature was added in later versions, as the way they do it is exactly the way my utility did it.

The reason the new way is better is because if lowercase letters switch tool variations, you can't just press e.g. "m" and start using the marquee, because, if the marquee is already the current tool, it'll switch variations on you when that's not at all what you wanted. I found myself following this procedure regularly:

1) Press m to select the marquee tool.
2) Start making a selection.
3) Swear loudly because the selection is oval rather than rectangular (tool variation was switched).
4) Press m a few more times to get back to the rectangular marquee.
5) Start making the selection again.

The new way eliminates three of these steps and is thus 60% better.
posted by kindall at 12:30 PM on December 23, 2005

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