Photoshop isn’t just a graphics editor–it’s a way of life.
The tools found in the platform are indispensable not only in creative industries, but in any instance of information presentation. Even at 30 years old Photoshop is constantly growing, with updates happening as often as every few months.
Because of this, it would take weeks to go through all of Photoshop’s features. Instead, we’re going to scratch the surface of what Photoshop can do by highlighting some of the most-used features for marketing and graphic design work.
Time to zoom in on a few of the most popular features, along with tips for their best use!
Color mode determines how colors combine and results in different levels of color detail. Graphic design in general typically works with two basic color modes: RGB and CMYK.
RGB: Red, green and blue, also known as the three colors of light that generate all other colors when combined. Use none of them and you have black, the absence of light–use all of them together and you create white, the brightest color.
CMYK: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (typically black) are the four colors usually used in printers. Since ink absorbs light, this is a subtractive color model–meaning when you mix all of the three colors together, it generates black. Fun fact: when black is created using other colors it's called "rich black"–as opposed to using only the black ink, which is called "true black".
In a nutshell, RGB is the color mode for screens, while CMYK is the most common color mode for print. However, there is also a third mode that’s used in printing: pantone.
Pantone: Pantone is the most used solid color system. It is supposed to be used in full-color, without mixing–contrary to CMYK, which mixes ink. Pantone is typically used in one of two cases: a) when printing materials a short range of colors (usually up to 2 or 3), or b) when colors are unachievable with CMYK.
Changing color modes
While it’s easy to transition between RGB and CMYK in Photoshop, keep in mind that the CMYK color range is shorter than RGB–meaning you’ll always lose something when going from screen to print colors. Adjustment layers work differently on each color mode, and they cannot be matched automatically. It’s a bit of a Sophie’s choice: either discard them and mess up all of your document, or flatten it and lose the ability to edit further.
If it’s absolutely necessary to change color modes, we suggest that you either:
make an editable copy in the original color mode; or
convert everything in the document to a Smart Object and change the color mode of the document afterward.
Up next, selection tools! Selection tools are a major part of any Photoshop composite, as they are used to isolate regions where adjustments interact or to cut out objects to create mockups. As a result, it’s important to understand your options and use whichever tool is best suited for your needs in each situation.
Manual selection tools
Rectangular/elliptical marquee tools
Have a super simple selection to make, where precision isn’t a need? The rectangular or elliptical tools may be a great option for you, allowing you to select inside of a geometrical form (just as their names suggest).
You don’t have to be a cowboy to use these lassos. Lasso tools are used for more controlled selection in Photoshop, and include three types:
Lasso tool: The regular lasso is a free-draw tool–meaning you can drag the cursor to create whatever shape you need.
Polygonal lasso tool: Much like the pen tool (we’ll get to that one later!), the polygonal lasso allows you to create anchor points to generate a straight-line geometrical selection. As its name suggests, though, this is really only useful for straight selections, not for curved ones.
Magnetic lasso tool: The magnetic lasso is just like the polygonal one, with one key difference–it automatically creates the anchor points as you drag around the edges of an object. It does this by identifying the contrast between two objects and creating a selection based on that contrast. In our experience, though, it’s not the most precise tool–one reason why we list it last.
Automatic selection tools
The magnetic lasso is a great segue to our next set of tools: those which allow for automatic selection. These tools use a proprietary algorithm to try and understand what the user wants to select, and therefore can help save you loads of any time. But much like any shortcut, they do have shortcomings and work the best if you know how and when to use them. Here’s a breakdown:
We may not be able to get you admittance to Hogwarts, but we can help you out with the oldest auto selection tool in Photoshop: the magic wand.
The wand works by selecting a color or range of colors in a document–meaning it’s often best to select objects that are isolated in a white background.
It has a few settings, but the main one to know is tolerance, where you can control how many shades of the color is going to be selected. It’s often a process of trial and error–select shorter tolerance and it gets very specific, while higher tolerance sometimes selects too much.
Another important option? Contiguous. When checked, this will make sure that the wand only selects that color until it reaches boundaries. When not checked, though, it will select that color within the whole document.
If the magic wand had a baby with the magnetic lasso, this would be it. This tool does not need solid color isolation–it selects as you drag the tool around an object and learns as you go.
The main drawback? It's not the most precise tool when you have a complex background, as it has a hard time distinguishing between objects and colors.
Extra, extra, read all about it! Just released this year, Object selection is the newest Photoshop tool.
It's very powerful and it can understand different ranges of focus to perceive different objects. But keep in mind that just like most automatic tools that Photoshop has, it works better or worse depending on the photo you have.
The color range selection tool allows you to select one or more colors within the whole document, and gives you more controls over the shades and hues that are selected. So if you want to select all of the plants in a background, for instance, this would be a good choice since it can create low opacity selections.
Focus, focus, focus. The focus tool is used to (you guessed it!) select objects based on the image focus.
This tool works extremely well if there’s an object that is very focused in contrast to the background. Like every automatic tool in Photoshop, though, it is not perfect–as you can see below, where the background is easily identified but the countertop is not.
As you can see, automatic tools do not always furnish optimal results when working on professional composites, especially in cases where precision is needed. Therefore, it’s good to mix and match tools in order to achieve the perfect output.
Here are some of the tools that enable the level of precision and care that projects often require:
Believe it or not, the most precise tool for selection is not an actual selection tool–it's the pen. It allows users to create curved and editable outlines of the object, zoom in and out and undo/delete anchors during the process.
To work with the pen tool, be sure to first select the Path option on the top left of the screen in order to ensure it won't create an object:
Then, draw the line on the edges of the object, right-click the screen once finished, click Make Selection, select the Feather Radius, and end by clicking OK. Remember that patience is key!
Quick mask mode
The quick mask mode is a mode where you can create or edit selections using the brush. In our opinion, it is best used to perfect an already created selection.
To go to the quick mask mode, just press Q. You will notice that the whole document takes on a red filter, with only the selection itself left in its original color.
By using the brush tool you can add or subtract from the selection, creating a more precise selection. Once you’re done, simply press Q again to exit the mode and see the final result!
Final note on selection tools
Selection is a huge part of any Photoshop composite–you can use the tools to isolate where adjustments interact, or to cut out objects to create mockups. There are even more complex methods to select that we do not cover in this article, like using channels or creating a very high contrast version of the document to guide the selection process.
Regardless of the way you do it or tool you use, evaluate your options in each scenario and don’t be afraid to combine them to create a perfect selection.
Another big part of Photoshop? Brushes.
Brushes allow you to paint on different layers, and the standard Photoshop brushes can be adjusted to fit your needs. You can use the brush settings tool to do everything from changing the brush angles, spacing, count, jitter, and more.
There’s one setting that’s leagues away from the others, though...
Cue the angelic chorus! The smoothing tool came in the last two updates on Photoshop, and we couldn’t be more pleased. It’s a setting that allows for the brush to be dragged instead of pushed, which allows for much smoother curves. It's good for when you want to create freehand curves or swirls, or even for calligraphy.
We won’t cover all of the brush settings here, but just know that if you still aren’t satisfied after trying multiple ones out, you need not fear. You can always add new brushes by downloading them! Two of our go-to websites are Brusheezy and DeviantArt.
Next up: the eyedropper. Just like in other platforms such as PowerPoint and more, the eyedropper tool helps users pick specific colors from within the document.
However, there is a lesser-known but very valuable feature of the eyedropper in Photoshop: multi-point selection. This allows you to match an average color instead of a specific pixel color. When your sample is a very complex photograph, for instance, it might be good to use a multi-point sample for skin color.
Another recent development that we love is content-aware tools. Introduced to Photoshop only a few years ago, the technology is relatively new and highly useful for micro-treatments in a photo or to create same-content fillings.
There are 4 main tools that we use:
Spot healing brush: This brush doesn't use colors, but instead fills the brushed area with content taken from the photograph. Once you familiarize yourself with the possibilities and limitations of it, you can clean up a photograph in the blink of an eye.
Move: This tool allows users not to fully erase, but to move objects.
Fill: An option on the fill tool, users can use content on the document to fill in blank parts of the canvas.
Scale: Say goodbye to unwanted distortions with this tool. The scale feature allows users to scale an image creating progressively more content in between, as opposed to stretching or squeezing the content.
The fun stuff
These final tools are ones that while may not be used in everyday design work, can come in handy–not to mention fun to play around with!
Face-aware liquify tool: A relatively new feature of the liquify tool which allows you to change features relatively easily
Puppet warp tool: Lets you distort an image based on anchor points (while it's a bit tricky to understand the logic as to where to place these points, still fun nonetheless!)
Learning Photoshop will always be an asset, no matter your industry–it’s the tool every trade can’t do without. And after 30 years, we don’t see it going anywhere anytime soon.
And if you’d like us to take care of a Photoshop change for you, don’t hesitate to get in touch!
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Divya is a corporate lawyer turned copywriter. After switching from left brain to right, she worked on integrated brand campaigns in India. It’s been an exhilarating journey so far, and she’s just getting started.