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.

Don’t skip column 6

Let’s finish our overview of Photoshop’s interface. It’s important to understand the key panels and elements that you need to work with to get results. This article serves as an overview. We’ll dig deeper into each in later lessons.

Info panel

Fig 02_19 Info

The Info panel is a useful place to find a plethora of image information, even when using the default options. You can get information about color values as well as precise details about the active tool. However, by customizing the panel you can make it truly useful:

  1. Select the Info panel by choosing Window > Info or by pressing F8.
  2. From the Info panel submenu (the triangle in the upper-right corner) choose Panel Options.
  3. The resulting dialog box has several options; I recommend the following choices for a new user:
    1. Leave Mode set to Actual Color.
    2. Set Second Color Readout to CMYK if youre doing print work, or set it to RGB color if you are preparing images to use on the Internet or in video exclusively.
    3. Set Mouse Coordinates to Pixels.
    4. Enable the following choices under Status Information: Document Sizes, Document Profile, and Document Dimensions.
    5. The last option, Show Tool Hints, provides a detailed explanation for each tool you select from the toolbox.
  4. Click OK.


Fig 02_20 History The History panel will quickly become your best friend. Its here that Photoshop keeps a list of what you have done to the image since you opened it. By default Photoshop keeps track of the last 20 steps performed on an image, but you can modify this number. A higher number means more levels to undo.

  1. Press Command+K (Ctrl+K) to call up the Photoshop Preferences dialog box.
  2. In the Performance section, change History States to a higher number, such as 100. Note that more levels of undo requires more RAM, so you may need to balance this number if your system is underequipped.
  3. Click OK.


Fig 02_21 ActionsActions are among the least-used features of Photoshop but are the most powerful. Actions allow for visual scripting, which means you can record commands or adjustments that you need on one image and play them back on other images. For example, you could record an action that adjusts the size of an image, runs an adjustment to lighten the image, and then converts it to a TIFF for commercial printing. You could then play that series of commands back on another image or even batch process an entire folder of images (which can eliminate boring, repetitive work). Actions can be very useful for both design and production tasks.

Tools meet Actions

Starting in Photoshop CS6, you can record the use of tools in an action. This means that you can record things like brush strokes to record the drawing of your signature to sign a photo. To enable the recording on normally non-actionable tools, simply check the subpanel menu in the upper right corner of the Actions panel and choose the Allow Tool Recording option.

How much RAM do you need?

With Photoshop CS6, Adobe has made the move to a 64-bit application (which requires a 64-bit operating system as well). A major advantage is the ability to address more memory. Although Photoshop needs a minimum of 1 GB to run, a better approach is to have 23 GB of memory per processor core in your computer. Memory has gotten much cheaper in recent years.


Fig 02_24 Character

Although Photoshop began its life as an image editor (essentially a digital darkroom), it has greatly evolved over the years to also include a powerful text tool. Many people start and finish their entire designs within Photoshop. These designs include advertisements, posters, packaging, and DVD menus. A close look at the Character panel reveals complex control over the size, style, and positioning of individual characters within a word.

Docking panels

To save space, any floating panel can be collapsed to an icon. Simply drag a panel to any edge and a blue line will appear (which indicates where the panel will dock). The most common place to dock panels is on the right edge of the screen, but they can be docked on the left or bottom edges as well.


Fig 02_25 ParagraphThe Paragraph panel contains controls that impact paragraph text. When using the Type tool, you can click and type, which creates point type. Or, for more control, you can click and drag to create a text block and then access paragraph type. This causes the text to have boundaries and wrap when it hits a margin. Within a text block, you have a significant level of control on how your type is aligned and justified.