The 10 Most Important Tools in Photoshop

New To Photoshop? Here’s How to Use the 10 Most Important Tools

So, you are a Photoshop beginner and want to learn the basics? You’ve come to the right place!

Before you jump into working with Photoshop, take a moment to learn about the 10 essential tools every Photoshop tutor and graphic designer swears by. The most important tools you should know in order to get started are:

Layers, Layer Adjustments, Blending Modes, Transform Tool, Selection Tools, Crop Tool, Drawing Tools, Correcting Tools, Text Tools, and Tools for Navigation.

Each Photoshop tool has a specific location, function, and keyboard shortcut. By the time you’re done reading this article, you should have a general understanding of how to implement them all in your own work, so make yourself comfortable and let’s begin! 

1. Layers

The first and most important tools used in Photoshop are Layers. They are located under Window > Layers.

With Layers you will control the flow and organization of your work. Organizing layers above or below each other means the one that is at the very top will be the most visible one, and anything under it will be covered or overlapped.

How to Make And Delete Layers

To make a new layer, look at the bottom right of the layers panel and you will see a square icon with a plus in it:

Create new layer

You may also drag an existing layer over this icon, and it will be duplicated. To delete a layer, click on the layer and hit Delete or with the layer selected, click the trash icon at the very bottom right of the layers panel. 

Delete layer, shortcut key Delete 

Other Essential Layer Functions

A few other things layers can do include making groups, renaming layers, and changing the opacity or fill.

To group more than one layers together, click on the very top one you’d like to include in the grouping, hold the Shift key and continue clicking the other layers you’d like to group. If the layers are not right next to each other, click and drag them under/above one another. When you’re done selecting all layers, click the group icon on the bottom of the layers panel or hit Command or Control G.

Create a new group, shortcut key Command/Control G

Then double click where it says Group 1 to rename the layer.

You can also make that group of layers transparent. Look above all the layers where it says Opacity and Fill. Click either one and turn the percentage down.

Layer opacity

Layer fill

If, however, you want to hide this group of layers while you work on something else, click the eye icon next to the group.

Layer visibility

You may also lock it to keep it in place with the lock icon at the top of the layers. Note that any of these functions are also applicable to single layers.

Lock all (selected layers)

2. Layer Adjustments

These types of tools are used to make additional color or highlights/shadows adjustments to a layer.

When you have an image layer selected and click the black and white circle icon at the bottom of the layers, you will access the adjustment layers list.

Adjustment layers

In it you will find a few sections.

Types of Layer Adjustments

Solid Color, Gradient and Pattern: use these to make a new layer filled with a color, gradient, or pattern.

Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, and Exposure: when applied to an image, these will either brighten or darken it.

Vibrance, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, Black and White, Photo Filter, Channel Mixer, and Color Lookup: adjustments usually used to enhance the color in a photo.

Invert, Posterize, Threshold, Gradient Map, and Selective Color: invert or alter the color of the image, each in its own special way.

Using Layer Adjustments

When you click one of the above adjustments, it will show up on its own layer. From there you can decide if you’d like to focus it only on one of the layers you have, or all of them.

If you want to apply the adjustment layer to a specific layer, double click on the little icon shown below, and then another window will pop up with the settings this adjustment layer offers.

Adjustment layer is applied to all layers

At the bottom of those settings look for a square icon with an arrow and click it. Now this adjustment layer will only affect the layer underneath it. 

Adjustment layer is clipped to a specific layer

Clip to layer button in adjustment layer’s settings panel

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3. Blending Modes

Using Blending Modes, you tell Photoshop to apply different behaviors to the color and tones contained within that layer. Knowing how to work with this tool will make you an expert at working with photos. The blending modes are found by clicking the Normal dropdown above all the layers in the layers panel.

Blending modes dropdown

When you do that you will see a selection of 27 different blending modes arranged in categories.

In the image below, you can see how each mode affects an image.

How Each Blending Mode Is Used

At the very top of the list of Blending Modes we have Normal and Dissolve, and they only work when the layer opacity is lowered. While Normal will make the layer transparent, Dissolve will add a grain-like texture. 

Next up is the Darken group, which consists of Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn, and Darker Color. The layer/s these modes are applied to will be darker, more transparent, and any white color will be hidden. This means that if you have an image with dark objects and white background you will be able to remove the white background. Use Multiply mode for best results.

The next group down are used to Lighten an image, using Blending Modes Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge (Add), and Lighter Color. and it will do the exact opposite of the darken group. If you import an image of white objects on black background, use Screen to remove the black background. 

Here’s an example of Multiply vs Screen Blending Modes:

Some blending modes will add Contrast to the image, like Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Pin Light, and Hard Mix. The most used options from this group are Overlay and Soft Light because they produce soft blended results. Strongly recommend!

The next section is about inverting the color and blending the image based on the difference in pixels. These Blending Modes are called Difference and Exclusion. With these, you can expect to see your image inverted or looking like a negative of itself. 

Cancelation Blending Modes are Subtract and Divide. The Subtract Blending Mode removes pixel values from the base layer, which darkens pixels. Divide produces the opposite effect as Subtract.

The last section in Blending Modes is about color because the options in it will affect image color. These modes – Hue, Saturation, Color, and Luminosity, are very useful when painting a new color over another one in the image if you want to blend them.

4. Transform Tool

This category holds the Move tool. It’s found in the tools palette in Photoshop, all the way to the left of the screen.

Move Tool, shortcut key V

The Move tool is simply used to click and drag an element around the workspace. This tool is essential to graphic design because without it there would be no way to reposition and lay out design elements.

If you hit Control or Command T you will switch to Transform mode. This means you can now scale or rotate your element, and you should see a border all around with tiny white squares.

To scale, click and drag those squares either towards or away from the element. To rotate, hover outside of the corner squares and you will see a broken two-sided arrow. Clicking and dragging it will rotate your element. Press Enter when done to apply your transformations.

5. Selection Tools

The type of selecting you’d expect to make with these tools is not just clicking and selecting an object. These tools are made to draw “marching ant” selections of either a whole object or part of it.

The first is the Rectangular Marquee tool. This tool is used to make punctuated selections of an area, in the form of rectangles or squares (Hold Shift key while drawing to make all sides even).

Rectangular Marquee Tool, shortcut key M

Place your mouse at the top left corner of where you want to start the selection and click and drag down including your element in your selection. When done, let go of the mouse button.

This tool has other shapes. To access the Elliptical, Single Row, and Single Column Marquee tools click and hold on the Rectangular Marquee tool. A list will pop up and allow you to select any of them. They all work in a similar way to a rectangular selection.

Elliptical Marquee Tool, shortcut key M

Single Row Marquee Tool

Single Column Marquee Tool

Selecting Objects

The object selection tools, Quick Selection, and Magic Wand allow you to select different areas of your layer or element, similarly to the Marquee.

By default, when selecting the object selection tool, you will be set to draw the selection with a rectangular marquee tool, but you can certainly change that at the top of the screen under Mode and draw with a Lasso tool instead. This will allow you to draw by freehand around your object. Once you’re done drawing around it, the selection will tighten right to the edge of the object. To make sure of that, you can check the box at the top of the screen that says Enhance Edge before you draw your selection. 

Quick Selection and Magic Wand are also used to make manual selections. The quick selection works like a brush that scales its size. Use the left and right bracket keys ([ and ]) to adjust the scale. You can make even more specific selections from your object by clicking or clicking and dragging. To remove from the selection hold Option/Alt and click.

The Magic Wand, however, makes selections of full areas of color or gradient, as in a background or a full color area. Adjust the Tolerance to change how many pixels are included in your selection.

Object Selection Tool, shortcut key W

Quick Selection Tool, shortcut key W

Magic Wand Tool, shortcut key W

The Lasso Tool

Lastly, we have the Lassos. This category comes with three choices – lasso, polygonal lasso, and magnetic lasso. With the lasso you can make freehand selections, and once you draw a complete enclosed shape, it’s border will turn into “marching ants” – a moving dashed line.

Lasso Tool, shortcut key L

Here’s what marching ants look like:

The polygonal lasso requires you click and then hover, and click each time you move forward (gradually forming the selection shape you wish). When you reach the starting point again, you will notice a tiny circle on the cursor. This will signify you are about to enclose the shape completely, and when you click it, the selection will become punctuated.

Polygonal Lasso Tool, shortcut key L

Last on this list is the magnetic lasso. With this tool you can begin with one click and then just hover all around your object with precision, until you connect the shape back at the beginning of where you started. No extra clicks are needed, as with the polygonal lasso. The magnetic lasso works best when it can detect high contrast between the background and object in the image. If you try to use it on an image with low contrast between the background and the object it is very possible that it does a poor job at outlining the object, so paying attention to the image color and light will be a big help here. 

Magnetic Lasso Tool, shortcut key L

6. Utilizing the Cropping Tool

This category is for formatting your project size and elements.

Let’s say that you need to make your project a smaller size. How would you do it? Well, the Crop Tool can be a really big help here.

  Crop Tool, shortcut key C

Once you click on it your project will have a white frame with stretchy sides all around. Go ahead and click and drag one side inward or outward and you will see how the document stretches.

If after you crop you want to be able to recover the cropped area later, make sure the Delete Cropped Pixels check box at the top of the screen is checked off. That way when you re-crop you will be able to see what you cropped out again and decide if you want to bring it back at a later point. After you crop, hit the check mark at the top of the screen, or just click Enter. 

This tool also holds the Straighten function. To use this feature, you need to have a crooked horizon line in your image. Click on the Crop Tool and then click Straighten at the top of the Photoshop workspace. Now all you have to do is draw a horizon line from one end to the other according to the crooked horizon line in your image. When done, Photoshop will automatically straighten your image. Hit Enter to apply this change.

7. Tools For Drawing

These tools are used for drawing digitally, and there are two major tools that will allow you to do that: the brush and the pencil.

Using the Brush Tool

Start by making a new layer. Then, click the Brush tool.

  Brush Tool, shortcut key B

Choose a color and brush size, hardness and type of brush from Window > Brushes. Now you can start clicking and dragging the brush tool across the screen.

A great feature to use with the brush is the symmetry painting tool, which will be at the top of the screen in the form of a butterfly icon.

Symmetry options for painting

When you click this tool, you will see a list of symmetry planes. Click on one of them and press Enter to set it up on the screen. Start drawing with the brush on one side of the symmetry plane, and you will see it draws and mirrors on all planes your symmetry includes. To turn the symmetry off, click the butterfly icon again and choose Symmetry Off.

Using the Pencil Tool

You may also choose to use the pencil to draw. It works in much the same way as the Brush. The only difference is that this tool paints with hard, well-defined edges.

Pencil Tool, shortcut key B

8. Correcting Tools

These tools are used to select and remove an unwanted object/area from an image, cover up unwanted pixels with other, better pixels from the same image, or simply delete an element. The top correcting tools Photoshop offers are the Spot Healing Brush Tool, Patch Tool, Red Eye Tool, and Clone Stamp Tool.

Spot Healing Brush Tool

The Spot Healing Brush is used to make corrections on small imperfections in an image. It also works like a brush so you can easily change the size. You will want to make the brush size a little bit bigger than the object you are trying to cover. Make a click on top of your imperfection, and you should see it disappear. 

  Spot Healing Brush Tool, shortcut key J

Patch Tool

The Patch Tool is primarily used to repair large areas of an image, or get rid of blemishes.

Patch Tool, shortcut key J

At the top of the screen, set the Patch to Content-Aware. Make a freehand selection of an area you wish to correct, and you will notice marching ants around your selection. Click and drag the selection to an area you wish to use to cover it up, and you should see how the imperfection is corrected as you release the mouse button

Red Eye Tool 

The Red Eye Tool becomes useful when you have a photo of someone with red eyes from a flash. The tool works much like the Rectangular Marquee Tool. You draw a square or rectangle around the red eye in the photo and then Photoshop applies corrections

Red Eye Tool, shortcut key J

Clone Stamp Tool 

The Clone Stamp Tool is also used to make corrections on an image, with the exception that these corrections can be big or small.

With this tool you need to sample a good area in your image. Those pixels will be used to cover an offending area of your image.

Hold down Option/Alt and click on that good area. You will notice then that the area you sampled is loaded on your brush. Now, you can paint over the area you wish to correct.

Clone Stamp Tool, shortcut key S

Eraser Tool

To remove something completely instead of correcting it, however, make a selection of the element and hit Delete. Or, use the Eraser Tool. Working with the eraser is the same as the brush tool, except its purpose is to completely remove pixels.

Eraser Tool, shortcut key E

9. Text Tools

These tools are essential for including text in Photoshop, and it can be used for typing titles or paragraphs.

It’s very important to make the distinction between clicking then typing and clicking and dragging and then typing.

Click and Type

When you click and type, it’s called point type, because you’re making a point click with your mouse and then typing. This method is useful for typing out titles or anything that holds a minimal amount of text. When you use this method, you’ll notice there is no box around your text to allow you to change the size of the text box.

Click and Drag, Then Type

When you click and drag and then type you are creating what’s called an area type. By clicking and dragging you are establishing the size of your text box first and then typing out what you need within the text box borders. This way of typing is good for large amounts of text.

Also, with this method you’ll notice tiny squares and a punctuated line around your text. This means you can change the size of the textbox without distorting the text itself in any way. The Type Tool comes in a horizontal and vertical version, in case you need to type across or only top to bottom. To change the type settings, go to Window > Character and you will see all the available settings for your text.

Horizontal Type Tool, shortcut key T

Vertical Type Tool, shortcut key T

10. Tools For Navigation

Navigating in Photoshop is primarily done with the Hand tool for panning, and the Zoom tool for magnifying on specific areas in the project.

Hand Tool, shortcut key H

Zoom Tool, shortcut key Z

(Note that when you click the hand tool to pan around when you’re zoomed out, it doesn’t work because there is nothing to pan around yet.)

When you zoom into the screen, you will see scroll bars on the right and bottom side of the document. That means you can use the Hand tool to move yourself to different areas in the project. To zoom in you can either click and drag with the zoom tool on the screen or you can hit Command or Control + or -. To return back to full view of the document, hit Command or Control 0. 

Ready To Start ‘Shopping?

Whether you need to make a selection of an object, remove a background, correct an imperfection in an image, or draw symmetrical art, there is always a way to do it with Photoshop.

It’s important to also note that there are a lot of ways to make the same type of edit. Any Photoshop lessons or tutorials will confirm this, especially because for graphic designers and Photoshop users it’s very important to have a plan B.

Just as important as anything else in this application, the Photoshop tools shortcut keys we’ve covered here are also essential to workflow and navigation. From here, after learning all this, the sky is the limit for you and your imagination, and it’s all up to you what you do with it. 

Happy exploring and creating! 

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