Recently, I had a conversation about the selection tools in Photoshop and which one would be best for isolating an image from the background. The main bone of contention my colleague had with the Pen Tool was the simple fact that it is frustrating to come to terms with if you are a complete novice and it does require considerable time and effort to master.
With so many other quicker ways to make a selection in Photoshop, why bother with the Pen Tool? I do agree that it is not the most intuitive tool straight out of the box. However, of all the selection options in Photoshop’s armory, the Pen Tool is the most accurate for making selections. If you need to make selections which require straight lines and curves then the Pen Tool is the one to use.
What makes using the Pen Tool for the first time a little daunting is getting used to its behavior which is different than the other selection tools in Photoshop.
However, if you are faced with a complex selection such as cutting out hair or a tree with a multitude of branches, I wouldn’t hesitate but to use the the Refine Edge feature, Channels or Color Range. Right tool for the right job.
In this article, I will demonstrate why I use the Pen Tool and believe it is worth the time and effort required to learn how to use it well.
Where is the Pen Tool in Photoshop?
The Pen Tool is located just above the Text Tool on the main Photoshop toolbar. As you can see from the fly-out menu, there are five features (options) to the Pen Tool. Directly below the Text Tool, you will see a White Arrow, this is the Direct Selection Tool (and if you hold down your mouse the Black Arrow appears which is the Path Selection Tool). I’ll explain the importance of these tools later on.
How the Pen Tool works
Photoshop is a pixel image editor. The Pen Tool creates an outline or path (vector shape) by using anchor points. These paths can be opened or closed and can be viewed in the Paths panel (which similar to the Layers panel) where each path can have its own layer. You can then make a selection from a path.
This means that you are working non-destructively on your image which is always a good thing. These paths can be saved and re-edited over and over. So the time spent on a selection can be saved for future use or further refined at a later date.
Working with Paths
I thought a video would be a good idea to illustrate how the Pen Tool works in Photoshop. The Pen Tool is a little harder to grasp initially in comparison to the other tools in Photoshop. I hope you find it useful. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comment section below.
With Photoshop open, select the Pen Tool. Make sure you have the Paths option selected in the Options Bar (as shown below). Click anywhere on the canvas to create an anchor point and click again to create a second anchor point, this will draw a straight line. Click three more times and you will have created a square path.
If you go over to the Paths panel, you will see that the path is stored here. You can name it, for example, “square”. Click on the downward arrow at the top right-hand corner and select Make Selection. A pop-up dialog box appears. I usually select 0.3 pixel for feather radius. Click Ok and the familiar marching ants appear on your image, as your selection.
Using curves with the Pen Tool
That was straight forward but what if you want to make a selection with curves. This is where the Pen Tool gets a bit tricky. This process is similar to above, but to create a curve, you need to click and drag until control handles appear on both sides of the anchor point.
To make this easier to follow, let’s draw a circle shape with the eclipse tool while holding the Shift key.
Click and drag on any part of the perimeter of the circle and release your mouse/stylus. Continue around the circle and click and drag again in the direction that you are making the selection. Now you have a curved line between the two anchor points.
Hold the Cmd key and the cursor will change to a white arrow head. This is the Direct Selection Tool. Keep holding the Cmd key and move over to one of the control handles, click on it and move the handle.
The cursor now becomes a black arrow head and the curve line can be modified to mould exactly around the circle shape. Release holding down the Cmd key and the cursor returns to the Pen Tool.
When you have gone around the circle shape to close the path, a small degree sign symbol appears beside the arrow-head to denote that this is the end-point of the path.
Using the Pen Tool is a case of practice, some patience, and time to get used to it.
The following keyboard shortcuts, which are in close proximity to each other, will speed up things. I tend to delete one of the control handles when I make a selection. Hold down the Alt key and click on the anchor point. I find this makes the selection process faster.
- CMD key – alternate between the Pen Tool and the Direct Selection Tool (white arrow-head)
- ALT key – deletes one of the control handles
- Z – Zooms Out
- Z + ALT – Zooms In
- Space bar – to move the canvas around
Let’s take a look at two examples of the Pen Tool in action.
I’ll begin with an easy example, I’m going to cut out this beach ball and put it on a different background. I added a shadow, a gradient overlay, and some burning to give it a more realistic look. In the next example, I cut out the tent using exactly the same method as described above.
I shot the tent in my back yard and will replace the background with a forest scene. I added some curves adjustments and a gradient overlay to create the impression that the tent was shot against this background. If this were a client brief, I would have added grass using the Brush Tool around the base of the tent to reinforce a more natural look.
I did further retouching to match the light of the background with the tent. You can see the final image below.
The Pen Tool is excellent for making those selections where accuracy is important. There is a definite learning curve for mastering how it works. With a bit time and practice, you will find it easier to use and if your work requires isolating objects/subjects from their backgrounds then the Pen Tool is a must.
It’s not the fastest tool to work with, but that said, the positives outweigh the initial teething problems. Pros:
- Accurate trace outline of the object/subject.
- Paths are saved and can be re-edited.
- Vector Masks and Layer Masks can be applied.
- A path can be saved inside of your jpeg but you must “Save as…” and not “Save for Web”.
Do you use the Pen Tool? What is your favorite selection method? Please leave your comments below.