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The Tools Palette provides an easy way to access PS’s tool set. You can see that they are divided into four main groups. Most of these tools you will only occasionally (if ever) use... which these are depends upon what you use PS for. Others you will use all the time. Some of the tools have hidden ‘varient’ tools in their fly-off menus.

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In the following sections I cover very briefly the four tool ‘families’.

Selection Tools

Various flavors of selection tools live here. The only tool we won't use at all is the Slice Tool (a sub set of the Crop Tool) which is only useful for web work.

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All the selection tools can be used to add to or remove from or intersect with current selections using the values in the Options Bar. However, all these options have keystroke values in the Option and Shift keys that I will leave you to figure out. Memorize them as they are useful.

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For moving selections or layers. For casual moving just press the Command key. If you shift-select several layers, the Move Tool can be used to align them through their options. This is more useful for web design and graphics, but is occasionally useful to smelly, dirty painters.

Marquee Selection

For round and rectangular selections.

Lasso Selection

This is mostly used for rough masking. However, the Polygonal Lasson Tool variant can be used to construct a selection from mouse click to mouse click. This, if used in small increments, can be used to make surprisingly refined selections which are good for organic forms.

Quick Selection

This is a relatively recent addition to PS and is surprisingly powerful and useful. Using it a semi automatic intelligent selection can be made. The Magic Wand variant is the old school version of this which is now pretty much redundant.


It crops. Can also be used to embiggen an image (just pull it out to extend beyond the document bounds).


This will pick up a numerical color value from the image. In Painting we often need to sample the color, but this is easily done by Option Clicking on the image.

A variant of this tool is the Color Sampler Tool. This is used in conjunction with the Info Pallet and will give the numerical value of the selected color. Useful whilst color correcting.

Tip: the default Sample Size value of these tools in the Options Bar is Point Sample (i.e. will only return the value of a single target pixel). This is not useful for color work and should be raised to at least 3 by 3 Average. This setting is also (annoyingly) carried through into the Point Sample settings of the Curves adjustment.

Bitmap editing tools

Photoshop is a bitmap editor. These are it's (mostly) vital bitmap editing tools. Avoid the Spot Healing Brush, History Brush and all its variants. Almost all these tools use the settings that are found in the Brush Pallet (see the Painting page for details).

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Loose the Brush Tool? I would rather loose my hand. See the Painting page for details.


Fun and useful. The setting to keep an eye on is the Clone Sample Mode which will determine from where the sample is sourced (below). Note: the Clone Tool is not a painting-type tool that can be applied in big, expressive swathes. It is (usually) best applied in discreet, careful dabs with a soft edge large-ish brush.

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Well: it erases. No great mystery there. It it appears to be painting instead of erasing, it is probably because you have the Layer Transparency locked.


This is most useful when masking out Layer Adjustments, Layers and suchlike. The Linear and Radial options are the most useful. It can also be very useful as an authoring tool. The Gradient below on the left (double click on the gradient preview in the options bar to get to the Gradient Editor) was practically the only thing that was used to make the candle on the right.

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I only ever use the Paint Bucket variant (actually more of a separate tool altogether) when I need to fill with a pattern (from its options in the Options Bar). This is normally used in conjunction with the Define Pattern from the Edit menu. Useful? Sometimes, but not so much a workhorse as the Gradient. One can fill with the FG color just by pressing Option Delete and the BG color by pressing Command Delete.

Blur, Sharpen, Smudge

These tools are all low-powered paint versions of things that can be found in the Filters menu (Gaussian Blur, Unsharp Mask and Liquify). Their advantage is that they can be applied via the brush. I find that the Blur Tool is the route to softening the edge of an overly sharp mask. Sharpen and Smudge are less useful.

Dodge, Burn, Sponge

These are are destructive versions of things that can be done using Layer Blends ( Color Dodge, Color Burn and Saturation). For serious dodging and burning I much prefer the flexibility, power and non-destructive capability of these blend modes, however I have found the tools to be occasionally useful for small edits, particularly when I need to edit simple brush strokes from a Brush Tool.

Vector editing tools

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Though PS is mainly a bitmap editor it also carries a small set of vector editing tools (btw: bitmap = photos, vector = flat shapes and text). As we are digital painters, we are unlikely to find these tools very useful, with one exception:


By using this tool tool simple paths (vectors) can be made. You should always first open the Paths Pallet when using it (thats where the paths live). A path has two main uses:

  • A pen path can be stroked with any tool (the last settings of that tool are used). The last time I found this useful I needed to paint a very regular railing that ran along the top of a building.
  • A pen tool is the best way to get a really regular, smooth curve. This, with a bit of stroking, can be useful for making things like bottles and glasses.

The pair of glasses on the girl below was made using a paths. It was made in one half which was then duplicated and flipped. The glass was a simple blend mode layer for the darkness and another for the reflection.

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Miscellaneous tools

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Miscellaneous: mostly 3D and the Hand and Zoom tools. These navigation tools, though useful, can be easily covered by learning a few keystrokes (Spacebar for the Hand tool, Command Plus and Minus for the Zoom (or Option Scroll with the mouse).

The bottom of the toolbox

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At the bottom of the Toolbox there are no tools at all. There are however, a couple of really useful commands almost all of which are replaceable by simple keystrokes.

Set Foreground Background Color

The fact that PS has two colors at the bottom of the toolbox is a throwback to the early days of PS when there was no such things as layers. It was used to provide a color that the user could erase back into. It still functions in this way: set your BG color to red and paint on a locked background layer: you will see that the erased portion become red. This capability does have an obscure but vital use:

When painting into a mask (and you ain't lived till you have painted into a mask), set the BG/FG colors to black and white by pressing the D key. They paint away keeping your finger on the X key. X will swop between the FG/BG colors, thereby making adding to (white) and subtracting from (black) a thing of joy and ease.

By clicking on either of these colors the the Color Picker will appear. This was made in hell by a team of Nazi scientists under the guidance of the dark one himself. I reproduce it as a small image so to avoid damaging your eyeballs.

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There are plenty of tutorials online on how to navigate this batshit crazy piece of madness. Me, I got better things to do with my time. Good luck.

Quick Mask Mode

See Quick Mask Mode for full wisdom on this.

Tool keystroke shortcuts

All of the tools have keystroke shortcuts and you would be wise to learn at least some of them. The tool description and shortcuts are labeled in the little yellow tool tips that appear when you hover your mouse over the relevant tool. The hidden, 'alternate' versions of tools can be summoned by pressing Shift before its keystroke (e.g. to go from the round Marquee tool to the rectangular version). Here are a few of the more useful Toolbox keystroke shortcuts:

Swap between Foreground and Background colors. X
Set Foreground and Background colors to default black and white. D
Cycle through the three screen modes. F
Enter / exit Quickmask. Q
Brush B
Eraser E
Marquee selection M
Lasso selection L
Clone S
Hand and Zoom See Navigation