Understanding Photoshop is a biweekly column that takes an in-depth look at how digital photographs are built and manipulated. It is a college-level course in plain english for free at Photofocus. To learn more see this article.

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Mastering Photoshop’s interface

Photoshops interface can be pretty intimidating. Among all those panels, tools, and menu commands its easy to get lost. However, its worth it to master these components. Adobe Photoshop is by far the most-used image editing application on the planet, and knowing how to properly use it unlocks a world of design opportunities. Working professionals use it for a variety of tasks, from enhancing magazine photos to designing Web animations and from creating television graphics to performing medical imaging.

Photoshop CC001

Most important is to learn the essential features you need right away and then gradually learn the rest as needed. I frequently tell students of all levels that often there are three or more ways to perform the same task in Photoshop. Adobes software engineers have tried their best to make the program intuitive (and everyone certainly doesn’t think the same way). Additionally, new features are often unveiled with product updates, yet the old features frequently remain for those who resist change or prefer the older method.


Learning Photoshop is a very doable task, especially if you take a balanced and measured approach, matching learning new features with practical application. I have seen older professionals as well as young students become proficient Photoshop users. Just remember that a Photoshop expert is usually just someone whos mastered the skills to put three or four basic skills together in the right order to solve the task at hand.

TIP: A Great Frame-up

Photoshop CC keeps all your documents and panels in an Application Frame to keep the interface clean. On a Mac, you can toggle the frame off or on by choosing Window > Application Frame. Experiment to see which look you prefer.

If you have not done so already, launch Photoshop. Since many of Photoshops panels will be new to you, well tackle them in the order in which you’ll likely encounter them. The goal here is to get the lay of the land and just figure out what each panel is used for. Throughout the rest of the book you’ll dig much deeper into how (and when) to use these specific panels and tools. As you learn Photoshop, you’ll often need to use features before youve had a chance to learn about them in depth, so a basic knowledge right away is very important.

  1. Open the file 02_Eagle.psd from to explore Photoshops interface. Many of the panels in Photoshop require an image to be open before they display any detail.
  2. To ensure that the application is in its default state, choose Window > Workspace > Essentials (Default).
  3. Choose Window > Workspace > Reset Essentials to ensure that all the panels are in their default position.


All the hands-on tools are contained in the Photoshop Tools panel (typically displayed on the left edge of the screen). Photoshop groups similar tools together. You can access these hidden tools by clicking and holding on a particular tool. Whenever you see a triangle in Photoshop, click it to open additional options.

The first keyboard shortcuts you should master are those for the Tools panel. Frequently, the first letter of the tool is the keyboard shortcut. If you can’t remember the shortcut, click the tool while holding down the Option (Alt) key to cycle through the available tools.

An alternative method to cycle through the tools is to press the keyboard shortcut multiple times while holding the Shift key (for example, Shift+M cycles between the Rectangular and Elliptical Marquee tools).

If youd like to simplify the shortcuts even more, press Command+K (Ctrl+K) to call up the Preferences dialog box.

Photoshop CC002

In the General category:

  • Deselect the Use Shift Key for Tool Switch option. You can then press a shortcut key (such as G for Gradient tool) and cycle through the tools contained in that tools drawer. This speeds up your ability to switch tools.
  • Select the Zoom with Scroll Wheel option if you have a three-button mouse. This makes it easier to zoom in or out of your working document.

In the Interface category:

  • Make sure the Show Tool Tips feature is selected to assist you in learning common keyboard shortcuts. Tool tips teach you the proper name as well as keyboard shortcut for each tool. Just hover over a user interface element to learn more about it.
  • Set the UI Font Size to Medium or Large if you’d like to increase the size of screen elements so they are easier to read on high-resolution monitors.

Fig 02_03 Toolbox MARKED

Many tools are available and each has multiple purposes (as well as strengths and weaknesses). Throughout this book, you’ll learn how to effectively use these tools. With patience, you’ll get the most from Photoshops powerful feature set.

The Options panel


The Options bar is essential because it contains the majority of controls for the currently active tool. It consolidates the most used (and useful) options for the active tool and moves them to the forefront for easy access. The Options bar is visible by default. It runs the length of your monitor across the top of the frame.

In the right corner, you’ll also find the workspace switcher, which lets you switch between different arrangements of windows designed for specific tasks like Photography, Typography, Motion, and Painting. For the remainder of this chapter, you’ll be using the Essentials workspace.

TIP: The Options bar is essential

Be sure to keep the Options bar open because you’ll always need it. If you accidentally close it, you can bring it back by choosing Window > Options.

A custom workspace

You’ll find that the more you work with Photoshop the more you’ll want to use different tools for different situations. For example, you’ll want Layer Styles and the Color Picker handy for text work, but you’ll turn toward the Histogram and Adjustment panels when doing image restoration.

You can save any combination and arrangement of panels that you want to reuse. Then you can access it in one click with Workspaces. Effectively, using Workspaces enables you to switch between different production tasks (such as image touchup and type work) with ease. Plus, it is a way to customize the application and make it feel more welcoming to your way of working. Try it out:

  1. Open the windows you need and arrange them into the desired positions.
  2. To save the current workspace layout, click the Workspace switcher and choose New Workspace.
  3. Enter a unique name for the workspace and click OK.

To activate a workspace, choose it from the Workspace switcher in the Application bar. To update a workspace, resave it with the same name. To delete a workspace, click the Workspace switcher and choose Delete Workspace.