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Photoshop tools explained

Updated on November 15, 2015
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Drew is a Photoshop wizard and someone who has millions of ideas, but no paper or pencil to jot them down.

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The Toolbar

This is a compilation of, and explanations, of some tools found on the toolbar in Photoshop. I'm currently running the CS4 version of Photoshop on Windows, but not much has changed year to year. To begin, let's take a look at your toolbar. It should be located on the left hand side of the screen (once Photoshop is open). If it isn't, go to the top menu bar (with File, Edit, etc...) and click on "Window". A drop down box should appear. Search for "Tools" and click on it. The toolbar should appear. The toolbar consists of a mass collection of "tools" that you can use to edit your photo in Photoshop. Each tool has a specific function that it serves to help you accomplish a task. Tools can be used together in a variety of combinations to create different effects.

Please excuse the extensive length of the toolbar photo to the right. But the close-up image gives a better look at the toolbar and each tool picture. The rest of the hub below continues to explain each individual tool.

Notice the handles on the the corners and sides of the photo?
Notice the handles on the the corners and sides of the photo?

The Move Tool

Viewing the Toolbar photo above, the first tool on the top of the toolbar is called the "Move Tool". It's the black arrow with the cross beside it. For the quick select of the tool, you can simply press V on your keyboard.

What this tool essentially does is allow you to move a photo/selection anywhere within the work window pane. Your arrow keys can do that same thing, but using this tool is a lot faster. When a picture/layer is selected and you have this tool active, a box is formed around it with 8 squares. These boxes are called "handles". These handles represent the ways that you can expand/shrink the image. Grabbing and dragging a handle located on a corner changed the width and height simultaniously. When you move your mouse a little further away from a corner handle, it changes to a curved double arrow. This means that you can rotate the selection area. HINT: Holding the "Shift" key on the keyboard will shrink/expand the image in proportion.
The handles located in the middle on the sides change either the height or the width. Never both. Beware of your proportions!

When selecting an area with the marquee tool, you will see moving lines highlighting the area you are selecting.
When selecting an area with the marquee tool, you will see moving lines highlighting the area you are selecting.

Marquee Tool

Next on the Toolbar is the Marquee Tool. To quickly select the Marquee tool, press "M" on your keyboard. This has within it, a few of the basic shapes used for selecting areas on the workspace. It will default on the Rectangle shape marquee. You can change this by holding down the left mouse button until a new mini-window comes up. You can then select various shapes. There are four shapes to choose from: The rectangle, the elliptical (circle), single row marquee (selects pixels going across), and single column marquee (selects pixels going down). The single row/column marquee will be use to select 1 row/column of pixels. Fact: A PIXEL is the smallest unit in a picture than can be controlled.

When selecting an area with the Lasso tool, it is selected with a solid line.
When selecting an area with the Lasso tool, it is selected with a solid line.

The Lasso Tool

This next tool is a fun one and has served me well over the years. The Lasso tool is a free flowing selection tool where your mouse and hand are the tool. It's free flowing. Which means you can select something that has a unique curve that you want to get. This tool is an amped up, more useful Rectangle Marquee tool.

Keep in mind however, that your mouse movements reflect what will be selected. So if your hand slips on the mouse, your selection will be messed up and you'll have to start over again.

There are 2 more hidden tools within the Lasso Tool incase you have trouble with the free flowing one. By holding the left button on the Lasso Tool picture in the Toolbar another mini-bar will pop up. The other tools are: The Polygonal Lasso Tool and the Magnetic Lasso Tool.

The Polygonal Lasso tool is my favorite. Instead of the tool being freeflowing, you get to choose where the next point of the selection is going to be. However, if you're trying to get a curve in this tool, you have to do it little by little. It's basically selecting something using only straight lines connected to each other.

The Magnetic Lasso tool is something special. The tool is freeflowing, but it snaps to certain pixels within a color range. You will either love this tool or hate this tool. It's useful for selecting the edges of an object with a clear separation of colors.

To quickly switch to the Lasso tool, simply press "L" on your keyboard.

CLICK ON ME TO ENLARGE. The "Tolerance" is the number you change to select a wider range of pixels. (Top right)
CLICK ON ME TO ENLARGE. The "Tolerance" is the number you change to select a wider range of pixels. (Top right)

Quick selection/Magic Wand

In my time with photoshop I have never once had to use the quick selection tool. In my opinion it's not even needed. But for the sake of this hub, I'll cover it. The quick selection tool will select any and all colors within the radius of the tool and then some. I have never had to use this tool. Nor do I think I will ever have to.

The Magic Wand tool on the other hand I have used and is very useful! You can select this tool by holding down the left mouse button on the quick selection tool picture on the toolbar until the mini-bar shows up. Then simply click the one that looks like a wand that's glowing.

The Magic Wand tool will, on mouse click, select any and all pixels (depending on the setting of the wand) of the color of the pixel that you clicked on. This can be changed to create a widened color scheme to choose from. The higher the number on the wand's setting, then more pixels will be selected. See the photos for more explaination.

The quick selection tool can be quickly selected by pressing the "W" key on your keyboard.

Notice the grayed out areas? there are also handles for your secondary adjustments.
Notice the grayed out areas? there are also handles for your secondary adjustments.
The slice tool. With slices.
The slice tool. With slices.

The Crop and Slice Tools

The Crop tool is very basic. You select the tool, click and drag on the area of the photo you would like to keep (Photoshop will then gray out the area hat you don't want), you can then make any adjustments to the cropping, and then hit the Enter key. Voila! A cropped photo!

The Slice tool is complicated however. It requires you to know HTML coding. The Slice tool is basically for web page designing. For templates and layouts for a webpage with URLs and links going to and fro within a website. When using this tool you create "slices" which (on a finished project) when clicked on will take you to different places on a website. This can also be achieved on a different Adobe program called: Adobe Dreamweaver.

The Crop tool can be selected by simply pressing the "C" key on your keyboard.

The Eyedrop tool

In a simple way of describing this tool; its purpose is to select a color based on the pixel that is selected. The quick select this tool, press "I" on your keyboard. Within this tool, are different selection techniques. You can find the different modes in a drop down box labeled "Sample Size". "Point Sample" means it is the 1 pixel that you select will be the color that you get. The different sample sizes just increase the size of the sample area from 1 single pixel, to a range of 3, up to 5, and higher. Normally I just use the Point Sample setting.

The Color Sampler Tool

The Color Sampler tool is simple. You click on a pixel/pixel range and a little window pops up telling you what color it is (in RGB/CMYK modes). Hint: RGB - Red, Green, Blue. CMYK - Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black.

The Ruler Tool

The Ruler tool is also simple. You click and drag and a window will pop up showing you the angle and length, height and width, and X and Y coordinates on the workspace.

The NoteTool

The Note tool does what you think it does. Leaves notes for yourself. This could be useful if you're swapping .PSD files (Photoshop Documents) to leave notes for the next person. Personally, I have never used this.

The left photo is the original. The right photo is the manipulated one. No saggy eyes.
The left photo is the original. The right photo is the manipulated one. No saggy eyes.

Spot Healing Brush/ Patch Tool

This next section is probably the most interesting to cover. There's so much that can be done with these tools. I'll try to go into depth on these tools as it seems to frustrate a lot of people.

The Spot Healing Brush Tool

The Spot Healing brush is used when something doesn't belong in an area. For example, a pimple or blemish on someone's face. Varying the size of the brush (located on the top left of your screen where it says "brush") you can change the range of pixels that the brush will affect. If the brush size is too large, you can manipulate pixels that you did not want to. If you have the brush size too small you will make the problem area bigger. A nice happy medium is to have the brush big enough to cover the unwanted area and then some. This will include the pixels around the problem area. This will then eliminate the problem area by covering it up with the exact color range of the pixels surrounding it. Sometimes, this tool gets frustrating because people want to cover a lot of pixels at one time. Think of a wrinkle line where it stretches across a face or a crack in a sidewalk. Use this tool like a baby. You have to let it crawl before it can walk. But never make a baby run. Dragging the brush all the way across a line can have undesirable affects and cause more frustration. I like to take my time and go click by click along the line to avoid any mistakes. Remember: Edit > Undo is your friend. Or for keyboard enthusiasts Ctrl + Z.

The Healing Brush Tool

Yes, there's another one. By holding the left mouse button on the Spot Healing Brush tool icon in the toolbar, you can select this and 2 other tools from the mini-bar that pops up. This tool essentially does the same thing, but with an added feature. Instead of just clicking and having the surrounding pixels converge and dispel your problem area, this tool will allow you to select the pixels you wish to use a long with the pixels around your problem area. In some cases this will work better that the Spot Healing Brush. If done correctly, you can click and drag over a vast problem area and cover it up in one swoop. To select the pixels you wish to start from, hold "alt" on your keyboard and then click the pixels you want to use (not the pixels you want to get rid of!). Be aware though! The selected pixel area will move with your mouse. The "alt'ed" area will move with your mouse movements. You can choose which one of these 2 tools you prefer to use.

The left selection is that part I want to CHANGE. I selected it FIRST. The right selection is what I want to change the first selection to. I did this SECOND. Notice how the 2 areas look the same?
The left selection is that part I want to CHANGE. I selected it FIRST. The right selection is what I want to change the first selection to. I did this SECOND. Notice how the 2 areas look the same?

The Patch Tool

What the Patch tool does is takes a selection of pixels and matches them to a selected range of different pixels. It's another pixel morphing tool that is very useful in the right hands. To use this tool, you must first select an area of pixels that you want to change. This motion is a lot like the Lasso tool. It's free flowing. So whatever you're lassoing is what will be changed. The second part of this tool is selecting the area of pixels that you want your already selected area to look like. It's copying and pasting pixels and then blending them into the selected area all in one tool.

This tool has different setting that you can change. You can change whether you want the first selection of pixels to be the one that is changed, or for the first selection of pixels to be the one that will change whatever it is dragged to. Personally, I prefer the first setting. This setting is called: Source. The second setting is called: Destination.

Red Eye Tool

The Red Eye Tool needs some work to be done on it. I wouldn't recommend using this tool. You can have the tool setting set to 1% pupil size and it will darken the pupil to an unnatural degree.

What this tool is supposed to do is darken a pupil and eliminate a camera's "red eye" effect. It will work in SOME occasions, but more often than not, it fails. I've found that just using the burn tool on the pupil is a more effective way of eliminating the red eye from someone.

Brush Tool

The following link will bring you to a different hub specifically geared towards the Brush Tool!

Pencil Tool

The Pencil Tool is similar to the Brush Tool, but does not include as many features. You can change the diameter of the "brush", the mode (settings that affect how the tool shows up on the image when drawing), the opacity (how clear/faded it will appear), and auto erase (draws background colors over foreground colors). In CS4, I believe the auto erase feature is broken and does not work - or does not work well. When it is set, supposedly clicking on a pixel of the current foreground color causes it to draw over it with the background color. This is great if you're drawing on a colored background, but useless when the background is transparent. If you're looking to delete pixels or make them transparent, I'd suggest just using the Eraser Tool.

Pencil tool with different settings applied.
Pencil tool with different settings applied.

Color Replacement Tool

The Color Replacement Tool is a simplified Brush Tool specifically designed for changing colors in an image. The different modes that it has to affect the color of an image (found in the drop down menu of the tools options bar) are hue, saturation, color,and luminosity. I haven't found a good use for this tool since everything that it can do can be done with the Brush Tool. Holding Alt and left clicking will select your source color. Then simply left clicking and dragging your mouse, you will replace the [insert your selected mode] of the image within your brush size. You can also choose your own color with the background/foreground color options with the tool option "Sampling: Background Swatch" selected


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© 2011 Drew Overholt


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    • Ariel Burbidge profile image

      Ariel burbidge 

      18 months ago

      i am the artlist

    • profile image

      Santigie Bangura 

      2 years ago

      Thank you very much for this helpful manual tutorials. I think I now have the theory aspect of it.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Pretty much useless to me. I was looking for the foreground background color tool so I can figure out why it only shades of grey but alas that "tool" is missing

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Thank you for these tutorials. I think they are a great reocruse and I intend to use them daily to better my photoshop prowess. I do have a question though. I would appreciate it if you could cover the pen tool in depth. I've been trying to master it but it's just so damn illusive. Also I was wondering if you could do a tutorial on inking in photoshop. I can't seem to find the right brush to ink properly in photoshop. Something along the lines of the image to the left but thank you for this wonderful reocruse. Keep up the good work!

    • profile image


      7 years ago



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