When you’re new to Photoshop, it’s easy to feel like there’s a never-ending list of things to learn and that it’s going to be impossible to learn them all. That daunting truth is also the beauty of such a robust application: There are always additional secrets to discover. And after 25 years of using the application, I still regularly learn new tips and tricks. It’s awfully gratifying to find a shortcut that saves time, saves clicks and makes your post-processing time easier and more productive. Here are five of my all-time favorites.
1. Crop Constraints (and freedom from them)
When cropping an image, the crop tool’s options panel allows for plugging in exact proportions and image dimensions. Left empty, this allows you to click and drag the crop tool freely to any proportion you like. But the fact is it’s frequently preferable to crop to a predetermined portion such as 4×6, 5×7 or 8×10. I regularly crop portraits to 5×7, for instance, so that’s how I leave my crop tool set by default. Then, when I want to draw a freehand crop, instead of trying to guess a new proportion or deleting the preset, I simply switch to the marquee selection tool (by clicking M) and then click and drag to any proportion I like. (You can also hold the shift key to click and drag this tool, like the crop tool, into a perfect square.) With the appropriate area selected, switch back to the crop tool (by clicking the C key) and the marquee turns into a crop. Hit enter and the custom crop is rendered.
2. Arbitrary Rotation
When you want to rotate an image in order to make vertical lines vertical (for things like trees, walls and buildings) or horizontal lines, like the horizon, truly horizontal, you can rotate easily at 90-degree intervals but smaller rotations require more freehand control. You can instead choose the Arbitrary option under the Image Rotation heading on the Image menu and dial in the exact amount of rotation, either clockwise or counter, in the “angle” box. But the problem, of course, is what if you don’t know whether you want to rotate 2.5 or 3 degrees? Instead of trial and error, start by choosing the Ruler tool. Then, click and drag a line that you’d like to be either horizontal or vertical upon rotation. Then, return to the Arbitrary rotation option under the Image Rotation heading and you’ll see, like magic, that a number has been added to the angle box. Click enter and Photoshop will rotate the image so that line you drew is either horizontal or vertical, and it will default to whichever axis it’s already closer to. It’s a great way to straighten verticals and horizontal lines in an image, but it also works wonderfully to rotate an image based on a specific angle, which you can set easily with a click and drag of the ruler tool.
3. The Fade Control
Carry out practically any adjustment in Photoshop, from levels to color, contrast, brightness or clone stamps or paintbrushes, and you can tone it down with the Fade control. It’s simple. Just make a single edit, and then before making another adjustment click on the Edit menu and look for the fourth item on the list: Fade. If you ran the auto levels adjustment, it will read “Fade Auto Levels.” If you used a paintbrush, it will read “Fade Brush Tool.” In any case, clicking on this menu item will open up a simple dialogue window containing a single slider at 100 percent by default. Dragging this slider to the left will effectively fade the previous tool by whatever percent you choose. It’s simple, easy and super effective. Any time you’ve overdone an edit, just dial it back with Fade.
4. Brush Adjustments
With any brush tool selected—such as the paintbrush, spot healing or clone stamp—you can right-click (or ctrl-click) anywhere on screen to bring up a brush options dialogue box. From here, you can choose the brush size and hardness by adjusting the sliders for each. That’s well known, but for those who don’t want to waste a click, there’s an even faster way. Instead, simply click the brackets keys to increase or decrease the brush size. The “[“ key decreases the brush size, while “]” increases it. But what about brush hardness? To adjust this, simply hold the shift key while clicking the bracket keys to increase or decrease the softness of the brush’s edge.
5. Refine Edge
I’m not a fan of the new and supposedly improved Select and Mask tool in Photoshop’s Select menu. No matter how I try to dial in the settings, it simply doesn’t work as effectively as the previous version of the tool that disappeared in a 2015 Photoshop CC update. A quick Google search reveals that I’m not alone; plenty of photographers found themselves frustrated by the disappearance of this beloved tool that was used to make highly refined selections—for clipping out fine details such as hair or tree leaves, for instance—in a way that simply can’t be done by hand. It was called Refine Edge, and it turns out that Adobe developers didn’t actually eliminate it from the app, they just hid it. Hold down the Shift key when clicking on the Select and Mask heading in the Select menu will instead open up the traditional Refine Edge controls. For anyone struggling with making perfect selections, this is a secret worth knowing, indeed.