6 Commonly Used and Confused Tools in Photoshop Explained


There are lots of tools in Photoshop that are sometimes a bit confusing due to the similar nature of their functionality. With subtle differences, these tools have been a topic of confusion between a lot of Photoshop enthusiasts. In this article I am going to share a distinction between Fill and Opacity, the Healing brush and Stamp tool, and “Merge Visible” and “Flatten image”. I hope it will help you one understand these tool a little better.


Fill versus Opacity

Both Fill and Opacity control the transparency of a layer. They work exactly same except for the layer styles. When you reduce the percentage of opacity the layer starts to get transparent and at 0 % the layer is completely invisible, even if layer styles likes drop shadow, stroke, inner glow etc., are applied. Where as, if you reduce the fill, the layer starts to get transparent, but layer style stay the same. Keeping it simpler:

Opacity = Takes away both layer content + layer style

Fill= Takes away only layer content – but leaves the layer style as it is

Additionally there are eight blending modes that react differently with Fill and Opacity. These are called special eight groups. These 8 blending modes are Color Burn, Linear Burn, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Hard Mix, and Difference. When these blending modes are applied, the 50% Fill will have different effect than 50% Opacity.

The below images should help you understand the concept better.

Opactiy 100 fill 100

I added text and then applied two layer effects, outer glow and a drop shadow. Opacity and Fill both are both at 100%

Opacity 3 fill 100

Now I have reduced the opacity to 3 percent, you can see the layer is almost invisible. If I reduce the percent to 0%, the layer would be completely invisible.

Fill 0 opacity 100

Now, I have changed the Opacity back to 100% and reduced the Fill to 0%. You will see, the layer content became transparent, but the layer style remains the same.

Healing Brush versus the Stamp Tool

Healing brush captures the texture of the area you sampled and blends with the color tone of the area you are painting. Another option: Spot-healing brush is more like content aware. It analyzes the texture around the brush and fills in the center, blending with the color tone.

Stamp tool is more like a copy and paste. It copies the area you sampled and pastes over the area you are healing.

So when is each tool will be most appropriate to use?

I mostly use the Healing Brush whenever I have to remove the blemishes of the skin, remove the mark or any texture (pimples, wrinkles) but like to have the same natural skin color tone. This helps my image remain evenly colored.

I use Stamp tool, when I want to remove something from image. For example, if I want to remove the hanging clock on the wall, light bulb or anything whose both texture and color both need to be removed.

Below is an immage of skin with blemishes. I used Healing Brush to remove the pimple by sampling a clean area and painting over the blemish.

Pimple2 copy

Here in the image below I have used the Stamp Tool to remove the helicopter. This is the after and before version of an image.

Compositional balance

Merge Visible versus Flatten Image

This is a very simple technique we regularly use whenever we work in layers, but a lot of photographers are still confused about the distinction between these two options. If you are working with multiples layers and apply Merge Visible, only layers will be merged which are visible or with eye icon turned onon. Where as Flatten Image merges all layers together, discarding the invisible layers.

The images below should help you understand better:

3 layer with one hidden

I created three layers with only two currently visible (blue and red)

Merge visible

Apply Merge Visible by going to: Layer> Merge Visible

Merge visible applied

You can see that only the visible layers have been merged, leaving the hidden layer alone. Now we will apply Flatten Image.

Flatten image

If there are any hidden layers when you apply Flatten Image, you will get this dialog box:

Discard hidden image

Now if I click OK in the dialog box, the hidden layer will be deleted and all visible layers will be merged like this:

Flattened image applied

Have you used these tools before? If you’ve had some confusion over the subtle differences I hope that has helped clear that up. Please share if have any questions or comments on these tools.

For more Photoshop tips and tutorials see here.

Read more from our Post Production category

Anup Ghimire is a 23-year-old Nepal based self-learned photographer, retoucher and blogger. He does mostly landscape and fashion photography and writes about them. He has completed a Bachelor in Information Technology with major in multimedia. He also make videos and edits them and has been doing tutorials on YouTube mostly about Photoshop and Lightroom. He's a founder and blogger of Pixel Tut and World's Most Beautiful Places which is deeply related to his passion for photography and travel.

  • Fred

    Copyright is one word not two

  • J. Adam Sowers

    This is a good refresher. However, I think the first point misses the biggest difference between opacity and fill: fill is ‘additive’ during a single brush stroke and opacity is not.

    To prove it to yourself, make a new document with a white background and select the brush tool with 100% black foreground color. Now, set the opacity to 10% and fill to 100%. Make a brush stroke and scrub back and forth over the same area without letting up on the mouse. You’ll never get more than 10% black over an area with a single stroke when using opacity.

    Now, set opacity to 100% and fill to 10% and repeat on a different part of the document. The more you paint over an area, the darker it gets, even without lifting the mouse button. This is because fill adds 10% black for each stroke you make. You can keep painting over the same area and eventually make it 100% black, all in the same stroke.

  • I think you are confused between fill and flow. Your explanation perfectly fits fine for flow , which is an option you get when you select brush tool. But here we are talking about difference between fill and opacity. You get these option for layers. I hope it will make things more clear. Let me know if you have any thing to ask.


  • ahhaahah yes it is :p

  • Katherine Landreth

    Flatten image also discards transparency and fills in any transparent areas with white. That is a HUGE difference if you’re trying to create transparent PNGs or the like.

    Also, this is nit-picky, but in your by-line it says you’re a “self-learned” photographer. Everyone is self-learned. No one else can learn something for you. You might mean self-taught, which implies that you taught yourself by reading and practicing rather having an instructor teach you in a classroom.

  • Katherine Landreth

    Yes, it seems you’re confusing “fill” with “flow”. The article is referring to the layer option, not the brush setting. Those are good points to make about the difference between brush opacity, and brush flow though.

  • Grateful

    Anup is probably like most of us – we all make grammatical errors at some time. It is the content I am interested in and I found it very good. Thanks Anup

  • Thanks for that! Yes English is not his first language and I think he does pretty well – so let’s focus on his content. I try and correct errors when I find them.

  • is that in the article somewhere? I cannot find it to correct it?

  • Great

  • Holly Ogden

    I am SO thankful for this post! I have been using the stamp/clone tool for blemishes. Let’s just say you have changed my LIFE!

  • Gallopingphotog

    I love DPS and almost always learn something from the articles. This was no exception. I did not know the difference between Fill and Opacity, or when to use the Healing Brush and when the Stamp Tool is better.
    But I have to agree that the grammatical problems make this article difficult to understand. Some quick examples:
    …….I hope it will help you one understand these tool a little better.
    …….So when is each tool will be most appropriate to use?
    …….anything whose both texture and color both need to be removed.
    Clarity is especially important in articles of a technical nature, and/or those aimed at readers who are learning a topic or skill that may be unfamiliar.
    I understand English is not the writer’s native tongue, and it’s is one of the toughest languages to master. And I’m a firm believer that every writer, regardless of linguistic skills, requires an editor. The writer, after all, knows very well what he intends to say; it needs an outsider to say “Hey, this is muddled….this is the wrong word…..etc.”
    Besides muddying the communication process, bad grammar, misspellings, etc., can create an impression of sloppiness, lack of care for precision, a question in the reader’s mind of whether the author really knows his topic, or cares.
    I don’t mean this to be harsh or overly critical, but I admire DPS and hate to see anything diminish your purpose!

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