How to Use Adobe Photoshop: Understanding the Basic Tools and Features
Adobe Photoshop offers a variety of tools for graphic artists, photographers, web developers, and other design professionals to improve or enhance their work. Using this software, you can create or alter images, develop logos and other branding, and even create templates for web design. Photoshop works with all of the other Adobe software within the Creative Suite, including Lightroom, Fresco, Adobe Fonts, Illustrator, After Effects, and InDesign. You can also use it with Adobe Acrobat to generate shareable PDF files of your images. Beginners and professionals alike can use Photoshop. Once you get the hang of it, you can create and edit photos in a fraction of the time it would take you to do it by other means.
How to begin
Before you start using the tools in Photoshop, you should set up the workspace to align with your personal preferences. You can leave it locked in place for a more traditional experience or use floating windows, which offer more movement and flexibility. Depending on which version of Photoshop you are using, you may also have the option to choose a workspace template. In addition, left-hand designers will appreciate the ability to adjust how Photoshop submenus appear on screen, particularly when the space on that screen is limited. Although the default option is for submenus to appear to the right of the main menus, you can easily modify this setting to display submenus to the left instead.
Last Updated October 2023
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Once you establish the best workspace environment for your needs, the next step is to create a new canvas and identify the specifications for your project. Along with knowing the overall dimensions of your project, it is important to determine upfront whether your project requires a transparent or solid background. Both have benefits, but if you use a transparent background in Photoshop, you can incorporate your creation into other images without obstruction. This process is possible with the use of layers, a key feature in Photoshop that allows you to build your projects one step at a time.
Photoshop’s layers feature allows you to incorporate many different elements into one file to achieve the desired effect. You can use multiple layers to position photos on top of or alongside one another, add text, and even incorporate video or animation to produce a comprehensive visual. Layers are especially useful in the editing process, as they provide the flexibility to remove or adjust portions without impacting the overall image. Using layers may eliminate the need to start a project over when, for example, text or a logo needs to be revised.
You can easily create or resize layers with the layers tool by going Layer > New Layer. The new layer will then appear on the bottom right hand side of your Photoshop file.
Naming each layer allows you to track the different components of your work and helps you to know which layers to show and which to turn off to achieve the desired effect. Photoshop’s move tool allows you to select an image within a layer. You can then drag it to other areas of the canvas or modify the layer properties. You can also copy existing layers to create variations of the same layer style. This is beneficial, for example, when you want to make several versions of text with identical beveled edges and drop shadow settings but need different color schemes for each layer. You can quickly turn these layers on and off to create and even save unique images, all while maintaining a single Photoshop file. Ultimately, this saves you time in both the creation and editing of images.
Grids and smart guides
Photoshop includes grid and smart guide tools to help you place different elements within your image. Grids appear as floating lines that serve as a guide while not becoming a permanent or printable part of the image. Smart guides, when turned on, help you to “snap” items into place on the canvas. You can also use them to ensure that spacing between objects is consistent.
To display a grid or smart guide, simply go to View > Show > Grid/smart guide
The zoom tool
You can use the zoom tool or keyboard shortcuts to alter the image or workspace view in Photoshop. This tool lets you resize windows, center the view on a location, or zoom continuously.
Photoshop offers numerous options for adding or altering colors, such as changing an image to black and white, adding a sepia tone to create an antique feel, overlaying a portion of the image with color, or changing the background color. The paint bucket and fill tools make it easy to pinpoint the areas in which you want to apply color. The paint bucket (found under the “gradient” tool for myself on the left hand toolbar) fills the entire selection so you can apply color or patterns to portions of your image or the entire background with the fill tools. The gradient tool is an additional option that provides a simple way to shade, blend, or dissolve colors within an image.
Photoshop also includes an eyedropper tool that you can use to pull or match colors from an image. Simply select the eyedropper icon on the Photoshop toolbar, then click or tap the specific color you want to replicate. The color will appear in the palette tool, making it easy to apply it elsewhere in the image. You can also open the palette directly to select a new color or acquire the HTML code for integration into your branding materials or website design.
Selection tools are one of the most basic functions of Photoshop, allowing you to outline areas within an image and apply different effects. Say you have a portrait of a person standing with a house or sky in the background. You can use selection tools such as the lasso tool to draw an outline directly around the person and then alter the clarity or tone of that part of the image without changing the background or other elements within the image. Learn more about how to use the lasso tool here, including its polygonal and magnetic variants.
The quick selection tool and magic wand are simple ways to define an area within your image that you intend to adjust or fill. Once selected, you can integrate a pattern, refine or feather the edges, or add a line stroke of varying weight. You can also use the content-aware fill option, which incorporates existing image elements into the selection area.
The brush tools in Photoshop let you select and alter the colors and opacity of different layers. This is helpful when working with photos that have different color saturations. If you attempt to saturate the entire image with one of the available color tools, you risk oversaturation of either the foreground or the background. Instead of applying changes to the whole picture, the different brush tools allow you to pick and choose areas of the image to change.
The different brush stroke options allow you to target specific areas for application. The spot brush tool is great for removing spots and blemishes from photographs. It is most useful for areas such as a person’s skin or a solid background in which you can blur the same tone and color into the spot you would like to remove. You can also use brush tools to blend colors.
The clone tool
Photoshop’s clone tool lets you replicate areas of an image. It is similar to the spot brush tool but provides more accuracy, making it better for spot or blemish removal. Imagine you have a photo of a view from a window and one area of the window’s edge is cluttered or blurred. You can use the clone tool to select an area that is crisp and uncluttered, clone it, and then layer it over the original area to repair it. This tool must be used in moderation, however, as overuse can make your photos look patchy or doctored.
The crop tool
The crop tool in Photoshop allows you to remove unwanted sections that are easily lifted out. You might use this in images where background elements, such as an unwanted building or person, are far enough away or off to the side that you can remove them without impacting the picture’s integrity. Simply select the crop tool icon and use the onscreen guide to select the area of the image you would like to remove. If you accidentally remove too much, you can use the undo command to revert to the previous image and try again.
More intricate removals require the use of the magic wand selection tool, which allows you to identify the borders of the element you want to keep and then remove everything that is not within the selection. This is useful when you want to completely remove an image’s background, but you can also use it to repurpose elements for use in another image. This tool requires a fine touch to ensure that you accurately capture the edges of the image you want to keep without inadvertently grabbing portions of the background. Artists and graphic designers often use styli and digital drawing pads to ensure the accuracy of their work.
The Photoshop pen and pencil tools can also work to incorporate more accurate outlines or paths, which increases image clarity.
The slice tool within Photoshop (normally found as a drop-down under the Crop tool) also allows you to crop sections of an image but in a different manner. Cropping removes portions of the image, whereas the slice tool defines or “slices” sections that can be exported as individual pieces to rebuild elsewhere. The slice tool is commonly used in web development to create logos, banners, or other interactive features. Learn more about the different ways in which you can use crop tools in Photoshop.
Photoshop’s shape tools (found for me under the line tool) allow you to create drawings using an ellipse, polygon, rectangle, triangle, line, or custom shape. You can then add customizations, such as color, changes to the shape size and edging, and even layering multiple shapes to create the desired effect.
The type tool
The Photoshop type tool lets you add text to your images, using any font installed on or imported into your system. You can use it to create stand-alone graphics, or you can add text directly to an existing image. Photoshop’s type tool also includes options for adding outlines, beveled edges, drop shadows, multi-colored effects, and textures to text. You can adjust the text’s alignment, creating horizontal, vertical, diagonal, and even upside-down text. In the later versions of Photoshop, double-clicking the text will let you edit it directly. This saves time, as it eliminates the need to highlight a section of text before selecting the type tool and proceeding with your changes.
Just as you would with a hand-drawn image, Photoshop lets you remove sections of your work with its eraser tools. These tools allow you to erase mistakes or remove elements you do not want in your final product. Along with a standard eraser feature, you can use the magic eraser to erase similar pixels within an area and replace them with a transparent background. This is ideal when you want to rebuild a portion of your image. You can also use the background eraser tool to completely remove a background while keeping the forefront images intact. To use the background eraser, however, you must first define a selection. You can then wipe away the background, similar to how you use an eraser on a whiteboard.
Smart objects are useful when embedding Photoshop or Illustrator files directly into a project layer. This is beneficial because it allows you to utilize existing images without directly impacting the source files. You can also use a smart object to link files. This saves time, as it allows you to update an image in one location and have it automatically update within the linked files, too. Objects can also be grouped together, making it easier to move them around on the canvas. You can easily ungroup them if you need to make edits to only one part of the object.
For a quick and easy way to convert layers to smart objects, simply right click on your desired layer, and the above screenshot will show up. Select “Convert to Smart Object,” and you are good to go!
Photoshop includes a few additional tools that you may find helpful. The red eye remover is an easy way to correct photographs. It allows you to pinpoint the eye area without altering the rest of the image. The patch tool uses an existing pattern or selection to fill gaps within an image, making it ideal for photos in which you need to replace a blurry spot or a small obstruction that you removed. You can also use healing brushes to pull components from one section of an image to cover or replace another section. Photographers might use this, for example, to capture a person’s skin tone and cover a birthmark or acne scar elsewhere.
Making the most of Photoshop
Like any new software, learning Adobe Photoshop can be daunting at first. From new terminology such as layers, slices, and smart objects to understanding the specifics of how and when to use each tool, it can be a lot to absorb, especially if you plan to tackle it in one or two sittings. Depending on how you plan to use Photoshop, you may not need to learn all the tools before beginning a project. If you are an artist, for example, you will be more inclined to focus on the tools that ensure line clarity and true-to-color print quality. Photographers will be most interested in learning about the crop and correction tools. Web developers and designers will likely focus more on the slice tool and learning how to make color selections that translate to HTML code.
Because Photoshop serves so many purposes and is a staple for a broad range of professionals, many users select five or ten features they need most and use various tips and tricks to create their end products. Udemy’s comprehensive tutorials provide a better understanding of Photoshop while helping you to identify the tools and features best suited to your particular needs.
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