Why Learning the Pen Tool in Photoshop is Worth the Effort

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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.

A tent cut out using the Pen Tool in Photoshop and place against a different background.

A tent cut out using the Pen Tool in Photoshop and place against a different background.

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 just located above the Type Tool.

The Pen Tool is just located above the Text Tool.

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.

direct-selection-tool

Direct Selection Tool

pen tool photoshop

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.

The Path selected in the Options Bar in Photoshop - pen tool

The Path selected in the Options Bar in Photoshop.

Clicking on the canvas to apply anchor points which creates straight lines. Pen tool

Click on the canvas to apply anchor points which create straight lines.

Clicking four anchor points to create a square or rectangle path. Pen tool

Click four anchor points to create a square or rectangle 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.

To save a path, click on the work path in the Paths Panel. Pen tool

To save a path, click on the word path in the Paths Panel.

naming-the-path

Name the path that you have just created.

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.

draw-a-circle-shape-to-start

To help us draw a circle using the Pen Tool, let’s create a circle shape first using the eclipse tool while holding down 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.

first-anchor-point-of-the-circle

Click and drag to create the first anchor part with control handles.

going-around-the-circle-with-anchor-points

Continue clicking and dragging around the circle until you have traced a full outline of the circle.

making-a-selection

Now to make a selection from the path, go over to the Paths panel and click on the downward arrow top right-hand corner and select Make Selection.

marching-ants

I have hidden the circle shape in the Layers panel to show only the marching ants where the selection has been made from the path.

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.

Keyboard shortcuts

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.

pen tool Photoshop

Beach ball shot on a table in my back garden.

pen tool Photoshop

The beach scene that will be the new background.

cut-out-ball-on-beach

The beach ball was isolated and cut-out using the Pen Tool then placed onto the beach background.

beach-ball-with-shadow

I added a shadow underneath the ball to match the midday sun of the background image.

beach-ball-final-image

A gradient overlay was added to match the light of the background and some burning underneath the ball was done as well.

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.

tent

The tent as shot in my back yard.

field

The forest background.

cut-out-tent-in-a-field

The cut-out tent, reduced in size slightly and placed against the new background.

close-up-of-tent-cut-out

A close up showing how accurate you can be with the Pen Tool.

I did further retouching to match the light of the background with the tent. You can see the final image below.

A tent cut out using the Pen Tool in Photoshop and place against a different background.

Summary

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.

Read more from our Post Production category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

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  • The Insaint

    Brush and layer mask is the way to go. Never used nor needed the pen tool for cutting something out.
    And sorry: Your comp of the ball is completely wrong. You can clearly see in the original, that the sun shines in front of the ball, creating a shadow behind the ball. You comped the shadow like the sun would be behind the ball. That would have only worked if you would have removed the highlight on the ball, showing where the sun really is.
    Very bad example.

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  • Sarah Hipwell

    No need to apologise, I was compositing the ball to match the light source in the background image. The original shot was taken around midday, see attached photo. The shadow is correct and the hotspot was caused by the off camera flash and not the sun. However, if the aim of this article was on compositing 2 or more images together. I would have described in more detail, the added steps, such as removing the hotspot and darkening(burning) more of the lower part of the ball. So that the top part of the ball would be the lightest due to the midday sun. Kind regards, Sarah https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/1e153d962f0fe386e59350ab46891bd7511b5dd57a04f0211cb2bc690e926605.jpg

  • Felix Mulderrig

    Why are people in the comments on this site always so needlessly negative and condescending?
    We get it, you also use these programs and also know tricks. Congratulations, your penis is now twice as long.

    Thank you for a really useful tutorial!

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