The Pen Tool In Photoshop

“I hate the Pen Tool!“. The pen tool is just a ton of work, hand cramps, and frustration. What kind of nut case would want to use the pen tool when I could just use the quick selection tool and be done with it?

Ironically, those are some of the exact thoughts that ran through my head when I first started using the pen tool. I found it awkward, hard to understand and dreaded any moment spent using the tool. Fast forward through long sighs and complete distaste to a complete 180 in my perspective.

The pen tool is one of the most versatile tools in Photoshop with an endless list of uses. It can create selections, paths, help refine layer masks and create completely flawless cut outs. The list goes on and on. Why the heck didn’t I love it this much earlier?!

Well, at first glance the pen tool just creates anchor points and is the round about way of cutting out part of your image. I, along with many others, struggled to see the uses beyond just that. In reality, the pen tool allows me to create perfect edges to my selections; free of fringing or jagged edges… which are the absolute worst.

The pen tool makes way for a more streamlined selection process without all those extra refinements needed. Let’s break down the pen tool in Photoshop and how to make the most of it.

How To Access The Pen Tool

Just like all other tools in Photoshop, the pen tool can be accessed via the tool bar. The pen tool icon looks similar to an old fashion ink pen. You can quickly access the pen tool by pressing P on your keyboard(same for Mac and PC).

PenToolToolBar

What Is The Pen Tool?

The pen tool is a versatile tool in Photoshop that can be used to create extremely precise shapes and paths using manually placed anchor points. Although commonly used to make selections, the pen tool was not natively made as a “selection tool”. That being said, the paths that are created can be later converted into selections. Considering how so many people use the pen tool solely to create selections, that’s a little surprising, right?

 

Types Of Pen Tools In Photoshop

In the Pen Tool window there are six different options. The top three options are to create new paths/selections, the bottom three options are tools to adjust pre existing paths. For now let’s just break down the creative path options.

There are four versions of the pen tool: The Pen Tool, Freeform Pen Tool, Magnetic Pen Tool and the Curvature Pen Tool. Here’s what they each do:

PenToolOptions

The Standard Pen Tool: Allows you to create extremely precise paths or selections using a combination of manually placed anchor points.

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Standard Pen Tool

The Freeform Pen Tool: This tool takes away the need for clicking and adding anchor points. With the freeform pen tool you simply just click and drag around to make a path. This is not the most precise option to use and almost always needs significant refinements.

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Freeform Pen Tool

The Magnetic Pen Tool: This tool can only be found in the tool bar when using the Freeform Pen Tool. To activate it just check off the box for magnetic. The Magnetic Pen Tool works by automatically snapping the path to the edges of your desired selection. Photoshop does its best to make a guess of what you are trying to make your path around. It’s far more accurate than the Freeform Pen Tool, but still may require some refinements.

MagneticCheckBoxPenTool

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Magnetic Pen Tool

The Curvature Pen Tool: This tool estimates the amount of curve you want between two anchor points. This helps to eliminate the need to click and drag at each anchor point. This tool is not always perfectly accurate, but works amazingly well on uniform shapes such as a circle.

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Curvature Pen Tool

 

I typically use the Standard Pen Tool to create all my selections. I personally find this to be the most versatile and is a great ‘one stop shop’ for all your pen tool needs. The extra tools for editing existing paths can be by-passed by using simple shortcuts outlined in the Pen Tool Basics section of this article.

 

When Should I Use The Pen Tool?

The pen tool in Photoshop is best used to create very precise selections. In the most basic sense, I will use it to cut out a subject from the background. I will often opt for the pen tool when there is a complicated background that my subject is against.

Being able to manually tell Photoshop exactly what I want to cut out is a bit of manual labour, but; is far more efficient than all the refining involved when using the Quick Selection Tool or Channels.

pen tool cut out example

Pen path made with the Standard Pen Tool against a complicated background.

The pen tool makes it easier for you to select exactly what you want. Photoshop doesn’t have to do any guessing since you have done all the leg work by creating a pen path. I find the pen tool is best used when cutting out more uniform edges such as the outline of a person. Trying to cut out random edges such as tree branches is not the pen tools strong point. This tool excels with basic straight and curved edges. Plain and simple!

pen tool cut out

Selection Made With Standard Pen Tool

 

Pen Tool: Photoshop Basics

Many make out the pen tool in Photoshop to be an intimidating tool with endless settings. But what settings are actually useful? What can be turned into simple shortcuts? What’s the most efficient way to cut out my subject or create a shape? Let’s jump into all that and more:

Tool Bar Settings – Path and Shape Options

PenToolToolBar2.jpg

When using our pen tool, we have two options to create: a Path or Shape. We can pick which option we want via the left most menu in our tool bar. Not sure which option to use? Let’s break each one down:

PathOrShapeOptionPenTool

Path: Creates a pen path that can be used to make a selection, cut out an image, create vector masks, etc. Set your pen to the path option when you are wanting to cut out an image or create a selection of any kind. This is the option you will most typically use.

Shape: This turns your pen path into a shape filled with a specific colour. This option is great for graphic designers looking to create unique shapes. The pen tool works exactly the same, except the pen path is defining the outer edge of our shape, not a selection.

Creating Anchor Points

The pen tool simply creates anchor points each time you click. It connects all those anchor points with a solid line, otherwise known as the pen path. There is no limitation on how many anchor points you can add so feel free to go crazy when creating your pen paths.

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Creating A Curved Pen Path

When you click and create two anchor points the connecting pen path is always a straight line. This is all fine and dandy until we need to make the path curve around something… uh oh, now what?

If you are wanting to create a curved line in your pen path, click and drag your mouse to curve the path. Do this each time you are creating a new anchor point around a curve!

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Adjusting Anchor Control Arms

When you curve your path, you’ll notice the anchor point has two little arms sticking out from it. These are called the Control Arms. The control arms allow you to alter and change the curve of your pen path simply by adjusting them.

You will adjust the control arms automatically when you click and drag your mouse while creating a new anchor point. If you want to adjust the curve after you create the anchor point,  hold OPT(MAC) or ALT(PC) and click on the control arms to adjust individually.

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Shortcuts To Remember:

Mac: Command or PC: Control + Click on Anchor Point – Move entire anchor point

Mac: Option or PC: Alt + Click on Control Arm or Anchor Point – Adjust Pen Path Curve

Adding And Deleting Anchor Points Along Pen Path

Let’s say you want to add an extra anchor point along the pen path you have already created. Rather than having to delete all the other anchor points you had already created, just hover over your pen path line and wait for a plus icon to appear beside the cursor. Once you see the plus icon, click on the pen path to add a new anchor point. This new anchor point can be adjusted exactly the same as any other!

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To delete an anchor point somewhere along your pen path, simply hover over the anchor point and wait for the minus icon to appear beside your cursor. Once you see the minus icon, click on the anchor point to delete it from your path.

If you want to delete your most current anchor point, just click on that anchor point and press delete on your keyboard!

delete anchor point with pen tool

Turning A Pen Path Into A Selection

Once you have outlined your subject you’re going to want to remove the background using a layer mask. Unfortunately a pen path cannot be applied to a layer mask, so how can we convert it into a selection?

Step 1:

Method 1: Once you have a complete pen path by linking it back around to the starting anchor point, go up to the tool bar at the top of your window and select make selection. 

Method1Selection

Method #1

Method 2: Once you have a complete pen path by linking it back around to the starting anchor point. Once you have completed the path, right click inside of the pen path and click make selection.

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Method #2

Step 2:

Next the Make Selection Dialogue Box will appear, asking you to set the feather radius. I always set my feather radius to 0.5 pixels if I want my edges to look realistically sharp. If you want the selection to have more of a blurred edge, increase the feather radius to a higher number (like 10 pixels and above) for a more noticeable blur.

Finally, check off the anti-aliased box and ensure your operation is set to new selection. See below for example.

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Once all that is complete, click OK to turn your path into a selection! To complete the process of removing your background, add your now active selection to a layer mask to remove the background non destructively.

pen tool selection in photoshop

These black and white lines represent a selection

applying active selection onto layer mask in photoshop

Clicking the layer mask icon to create a layer mask from the active selection

Creating New Shapes With The Pen Tool

ShapePenToolBar

If you are wanting to define a new shape with the pen tool, first be sure to change its setting from path to shape in the top left corner of your tool bar. After selecting shape you will have fill and stroke options.

ShapePenToolBar

Fill: Defines what colour your shape will be.

Stroke: Defines how much outline of a designated colour will surround your shape. The pixel mount defines how thick this stroke will be around your shape.

These settings can be adjusted at any time so there’s no need to sweat over picking the perfect colours right out of the gate. Below are a few examples of stroke and fill working together to create a shape with the Pen Tool.

transparentStroke

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Transparent Stroke. Blue Fill

WhiteStroke10PX

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White Stroke of 10px. Blue Fill.

WhiteStroke40px

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White Stroke of 40px. Blue Fill

Just as we learned previously, the pen tool works exactly the same when creating shapes. Click to add anchor points, click and drag to curve your shapes edge(explained above under Pen Tool Basics). The only difference now is that there will be a colour fill that appears filling in the spaces between anchor points.

Once you have gone through and defined the shape you were looking to create, it will have automatically loaded onto a new shape layer. Since it is on a shape layer, you don’t need to join back the ends of your shape path. All you have to do it move onto another step in your workflow and all shape settings will be saved. How great is that?

new shape layer

Wow, okay, that was a lot of information. Let’s try to catch our breaths here. Now you have a solid understanding of the pen tool in Photoshop, how to apply it into your work, and adjust any settings needed!

Don’t be too hard on yourself at first. This tool does take a lot of practice. Over time it gets a little bit easier and you’ll be able to race through those pen paths in no time. You can use any version of the pen tool with both a mouse and editing tablet.

I personally prefer to use an editing tablet, it feels a bit more like drawing rather than incessant clicking. Which one do you prefer to work with? Mouse or editing tablet? Let me know in the comments below!

Still having troubles with making selections and removing your backgrounds? Inquire about 1 on 1 Photoshop lessons via Skype with me! Click here to inquire about workshop info.

 

 

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