Understanding the Interface

Understanding the Interface

So let's start with a quick tour of the Photoshop interface. Since many of these windows will be new to you, we'll tackle them in alphabetical order. The goal here is to get the "lay of the land" and just learn what each tool is used for. Throughout the rest of the book we'll dig much deeper into how (and when) to use these tools. However, in our learning process, we'll need to use tools before we've had a chance to go into them in depth, so a basic knowledge right away is very important.


Actions are among the least-used features of Photoshopand the most powerful. Actions allow for visual scripting, which means you can record commands or adjustments that you need on one image, and play them back on other images. For example, you could record an action that adjusts the size of an image, runs an adjustment to lighten the image, then converts it to a TIFF file for commercial printing. Then you could play that series of commands back on another image or even batch process an entire folder of images (which can eliminate boring, repetitive work). Actions can be very useful for both design and production tasks.

So why don't more people use them? There are a few hitches when creating actions (they are very literal and record exactly what you do). Learning to use keyboard shortcuts in Actions allows the action to be more flexible and work on several images and situations. However, learning to harness Actions can save you hours of time on complex jobs. I speak from personal experience having used them in my video and multimedia company from the technology's inception; I have saved thousands of hours through the years. I'm such a fan of Actions that I cowrote the Video Actions that ship with Photoshop CS2.

While we'll explore Actions fully in Chapter 15, "Actions and Automation," let's whet your appetite by running a built-in action:

Create a new Photoshop document by choosing File > New. From the New document window, click the drop-down menu next to preset and choose 640 x 480. Click OK to create the new window.

Choose the Actions palette and make it active. If you can't find it, then choose Window > Actions.

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Actions Palette

Click the Actions palette submenu (the small triangle in the upper-right corner). In the flyout menu, scroll to the bottom of the list and choose Textures.

In the Actions window, expand the Textures folder by clicking the triangle to the left of the Textures set (the folder icon). The set's contents open up, revealing some built-in texture actions.

Select Green Slime, and then press the Play selection button at the bottom of the Actions palette (it looks like the play button on a DVD player). Photoshop will run through a series of commands and create a new texture. Run the action again for further variety.

Animation (Introduced in Photoshop CS2)

Photoshop has a companion program called ImageReady that began its life as a stand-alone Web graphics tool. Then with Photoshop 5.5 it got bundled in. The Animation window has always been a part of ImageReady. With the release of Photoshop CS2, ImageReady development has virtually stopped and its features appear to be rolled into Photoshop.

You can use the Animation window to create a frame-based animation (such as a banner ad for a Web site). We'll explore these techniques in greater depth later in the book.


You don't have to be a painter to appreciate the power of brushes in Photoshop. Brushes are a part of image touchup, masking, and design projects. Press F5 or choose Window > Brushes to view the Brushes palette.

Depending on the version of Photoshop you are using, the window may vary. What is important is to click the Brush Preset area and view the built-in brushes. Try your hand at using the brushes:

Create a new 640 x 480 document.

Press D to load the default colors of black and white.

Press B to select the Brush tool from the Toolbox.

Click the canvas and begin to paint with your mouse. I drew the Liberty Bell using a variety of brushes and shades of gray (access other colors or shades using the Swatches palette). Feel free to paint a different object or just doodle for practice.

Return to the Brushes palette and choose a different brush from the Brush Presets.

Continue to experiment. For more on brushes be sure to see Chapter 6, "Painting and Drawing Tools."


In the previous chapter we discussed different image modes that a computer graphic could occupy. In the Channels palette you can view the individual components of color. The brighter the area in the individual channel, the more presence there is for that color. Let's look at a simple example of an RGB graphic.

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Channels Palette

Choose File > Open and navigate to the Chapter 2 folder on the book's accompanying DVD-ROM.

Open the image called RGB Overlap.psd. You should see red, green, and blue circles overlapping one another. The overlap has also created new colors: red + green = yellow; blue + green = cyan; red + blue = magenta; and red + green + blue = white.

Activate the Channels palette; by default it is docked with the Layers palette (just click on its name and the window will switch to show you Channels). If you don't see it, choose Window > Channels.

Look at the individual channels; you'll see a definitive area for each color. Notice how the full circles are visible (and white) where there is 100% value of each channel.

Fully understanding Channels unlocks a wealth of image-processing power. Harnessing color's individual components is difficult at first, but well worth the effort. We'll delve much deeper into Channels in Chapter 10, "Color Correction."


While Photoshop began its life as an image editor (essentially a digital darkroom), it has greatly evolved over the years. Many people start and finish entire designs right inside of Photoshop. These include advertisements, posters, packaging, and DVD menus. A powerful text tool is essential and Photoshop has truly matured over the years. A close look at the Character palette will reveal complex control over the size, style, and positioning of individual characters within a word. The type tool is explained in significant depth in Chapter 12, "Using the Type Tool."


Don't confuse the Color palette with the color mode of the document. The Color palette allows you to modify and select colors using six different color models. You can choose colors using RGB sliders, or the more intuitive Hue Saturation and Brightness (HSB) model. To adjust color, move the sliders for the corresponding value. Sliding the Red slider to the right increases the amount of red in the new color. Choosing colors is independent of image mode in that you can use a CMYK model for an RGB image. However, picking a color to use in a grayscale document will not introduce color into that image.

Spend some time exploring the Color palette and find a mode that works best for you. Clicking on a color swatch opens the powerful Color Picker, which unlocks a larger visual interface for exploring color, and enhances the use of the Eyedropper tool to sample color from a source image. We'll use color in several of our chapters and the Color palette and Color Picker are fairly easy to understand.

The Histogram palette has been set to Show All Channels view. You can choose this interface by clicking the triangle in the upper-right corner and choosing All Channels view. The top histogram is a composite histogram for the red, green, and blue channels combined; the next three show them individually.

Histogram (Introduced in Photoshop CS)

While color-correcting or adjusting exposure, the histogram can be a great help. This graph illustrates how the pixels in the image are distributed across intensity levels. To read a histogram, start at the left edge, which shows the shadow regions. The middle shows the midtones (where most adjustments to an image are made), and to the right are the highlights. We'll cover image touchup and enhancement in Chapter 10. You may want to leave the Histogram palette open as you work, as it is an easy way to learn to read the graphical details of a digital image.


The History palette will quickly become your best friend. It's here that Photoshop keeps a list of what you have done to the image since you opened it. By default, Photoshop keeps track of the last 20 steps performed on an image but you can modify this number. A higher number means more levels to Undo:

Press Cmd+K (Ctrl+K) to call up the Photoshop Preferences dialog box.

From the General pane, change History States to a higher number, such as 100.

Click OK.


The Info palette is a useful place to find a plethora of information, even using the default options. However, by customizing the palette, you can make it truly useful:

Select the Info palette by choosing Window > Info or pressing F8.

From the Info palette submenu (the triangle in the upper-right corner) choose Palette Options.

The resulting dialog box has several options; I recommend the following choices for a new user:

  • Leave Mode set to Actual Color.

  • Set Second Color Readout to CMYK if you're doing print work or RGB color if you are preparing images to use on the Internet or in video exclusively.

  • Set Mouse Coordinates to Pixels.

  • Enable the following choices under Status Information: Document Sizes, Document Profile, and Document Dimensions.

  • The last option, Tool Tips, provides a detailed explanation for each tool you select from the Toolbox.

Click OK.

Leave the Info palette open as you work to get a clearer understanding of your tools and document.

Layer Comps (Introduced in Photoshop CS)

A Layer Comp is essentially a snapshot of a state of the Layers palette. New users may not be able to fully appreciate the power and flexibility that Layer Comps brings to a designer. Their usefulness comes from their ability to store multiple designs or options (also known as comps) within one document. You can record three kinds of layer options:

  • Layer visibility: Whether a layer is visible or hidden.

  • Layer position: Within the document.

  • Layer appearance: Whether a layer style (such as a drop shadow or outer glow) is applied to the layer and the layer's blending mode.

We'll spend more time on Layer Comps in Chapter 8, "Compositing with Layers."


In Photoshop, a layer can contain artwork and transparency information. This allows you to combine (or composite) multiple images into a new piece (such as a postcard or advertisement). Originally, Photoshop did not have layers. You could open a picture to process it, but that was about it. However, over time the demands placed on Photoshop by its users led to its evolution. As Photoshop moved beyond a mere touchup tool, the flexibility of layers emerged to meet the demand. By isolating discrete elements to their own "layers," designers can make several changes and freely experiment with their design.

You can explore this layered file by opening Surf Card.psd in the Chapter 2 folder on the DVD-ROM.

Without sounding like a zealot, layers mean everything to a designer in Photoshop. You will spend much of this book (and your early career using Photoshop) getting comfortable with layers. With that said, always leave your Layers palette open while you work (press F7 to open); this is where most of the action takes place. The Layers palette is like the steering wheel of a car. We'll dig much deeper into layers in Chapter 7, "Layer Masking," and Chapter 8, "Compositing with Layers."


While working with photos, you'll often need to zoom in to touch up an image. While it may sound cliché, it's easy to lose your perspective when working in Photoshop. When you zoom in to a pixel level for image touchup, you often won't be able to see the entire image onscreen. This is where the Navigator comes in handy:

Open the photo Butterfly.jpg from the Chapter 2 folder on the DVD-ROM.

Select the Zoom tool from the Toolbox or press Z (the tool looks like a magnifying glass). Click multiple times near the butterfly's head to zoom in.

Call up the Navigator palette by choosing Window > Navigator.

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Navigator Palette

You can now navigate within your photo:

  • Drag the red View Box around the thumbnail to pan within the image.

  • Resize the Navigator palette for a larger image preview.

  • Move the Zoom Slider to zoom in or out on the image.

  • Click the Zoom Out or Zoom In buttons to jump a uniform magnification.


The Options bar is essential, as it contains the majority of controls for the active tool. It consolidates the most used (and useful) options for the active tool and moves them up front for easy access. The Options bar is visible by default. It runs the length of your monitor and is docked directly below your menus. Be certain to keep the Options bar open, as you'll always need it. If you accidentally close it, you can bring it back by choosing Window > Options.


The Paragraph palette contains controls that impact Paragraph text. When using the Type tool, you can click and type, which creates Point Type. Or, for more control, you can click and drag to create a text block and have access to Paragraph Type. This will cause the text to have boundaries and wrap when it hits a margin. Within this text block, you can have a significant level of control on how your type is aligned and justified. For much more on text see Chapter 12.


While Photoshop is known as a raster-editing tool (because of its several pixel-based functions), it does contain several vector tools as well. Vectors use lines that are defined by math equations; as such, they can be scaled indefinitely, and always remain crisp. Several of those vector tools can create paths, which are useful for complex selections. You can create a path with the Pen tool. By clicking around the image, anchor points are created, then Photoshop connects the dots with vector lines. Paths can also be created using the vector shape tools The Paths palette is where you can select which path you want to update. For more on complex selections, see Chapter 5, "Selection Tools and Techniques."



Your hands-on tools are all contained in the Photoshop Toolbox. Photoshop groups similar tools together. You can access these hidden tools by clicking and holding on a particular tool. Whenever you see a triangle in Photoshop, click it to open additional options.

The first keyboard shortcuts you'll want to master are those for the Toolbox. Frequently, the first letter of the tool is the keyboard shortcut. If you can't remember the shortcut, click the tool while holding down the Option (Alt) key to cycle through the available tools.

An alternative method is to press the keyboard shortcut multiple times while holding the Shift key (for example Shift+M will cycle between the Rectangular and Elliptical Marquee tools.) If you'd like to simplify things, then call up the Preferences dialog by pressing Cmd+K (Ctrl+K). Disable the Use Shift Key for Tool Switch option. You can now tap a shortcut key (such as G for Gradient Tool) and cycle through the tools contained in that tool's drawer. This speeds up your ability to switch tools. While you are in your General Preferences area, enable the Show Tool Tips feature to assist in learning common keyboard shortcuts.

The Tool Tips will teach you the proper name, as well as keyboard shortcut, for each tool.

There are many tools and each has multiple purposes (as well as strengths and weaknesses). Throughout this book, we'll address how to effectively use these tools. With patience, you'll get the most from Photoshop's powerful feature set.


The Styles palette is where you can visually access Layer Styles. These are the combination of Layer effects (which can be applied singularly to create effects such as beveled edges, drop shadows, or glows). Effects are most useful in combination, however, and advanced photorealistic effects can be achieved. Photoshop ships with several built-in styles, and many more are available for download from Adobe's Web site (www.adobexchange.com) as well as many other Photoshop sites. Layer Styles are frequently used for text and image effects, but can also be harnessed for Web rollover effects for buttons. For more on Layer Styles, be sure to read Chapter 13, "Layer Styles."


The Swatches palette is like a painter's palette in that it holds several colors ready to use. There are several colors loaded by default, which are useful when painting or using filters that utilize those colors. If you click the palette's submenu, you'll discover many more swatch books to load for specialty purposes like Web browser colors, spot color printing, or thematic color swatches (such as a blue saturated range).

Tool Presets

Tools in Photoshop are much like a socket wrench set. With little effort, you can quickly swap out a piece and have a different tool. For example, you can create a specialized brush then adjust its size, hardness, opacity, and color. Then, for a different task, you might choose to modify the brush again. Tool Presets enable a user to save tool setups to make it easier to jump back and forth between tools. We'll use Tool Presets in later chapters, and you can learn more about them in the Adobe Help Center.

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