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Photoshop Tutorial: Pen Tool as Mask Selector

By: ReinMan

My Happy Toaster

One of the main things that every PhotoChopper needs to know is how to free-up, or separate, different parts of an image. With programs like Photoshop there are a number of ways to do this. But this particular tutorial will deal with one of my favorite way to get this sometimes challenging job done. And the main tool for this tutorial will be:


Although there are a number of sub-tool-types for this item, we will be focusing on the basic Pen Tool which is accessed under the icon shown above on your PS tool bar. Choose it by clicking on the icon, or for bonus points use the keyboard shortcut by pressing "P" to select it.

Open a simple (160 x 120) pixel NEW IMAGE. Take the pen tool and click on it in two places: You'll note that you get a straight line connecting where you click (see A). If you keep clicking different places, you'll continue to get more straight lines connecting the dots.

You've just created a PATH. So far so boring. Let's get into the FUN part of the pen tool - Bezier Curves!

But first, clear your current 'work path' by going to your PATHS palette (find under Windows: PATHS if you can't find it already open somewhere). There should be a 'layer' labeled WORK PATH. Click on it and then click the TRASH CAN at the bottom of the path palette (or drag that path to the TRASH CAN). This clears the previous path you were working on.

Now create another NEW IMAGE. This time click once and then, when you do the following clicks HOLD DOWN THE MOUSE BUTTON (do not release). WOW, things start happening!

First thing you'll notice is that the connecting line curves, and depending on how you move the mouse around BEFORE RELEASING IT it curves differently. The second thing you'll notice is that little "knobs" or "antenna" sprout out of the line. The places you've clicked will have empty circles, and are called ANCHOR POINTS. The "knobs" will show up as smaller and black. These are called CONTROL POINTS, or DIRECTION POINTS and will normally show up on both sides of the ANCHOR points.

While the PEN TOOL is active you can change how the curve behaves in real time. If you (on PCs) hold down the CNTRL key you'll get a hollow white arrow. With this tool you can move the ANCHOR points around and reposition them, and also move the DIRECTION POINTS to adjust how the line curves. If you instead hold down the ALT key you'll get a little "V" arrow - with this tool you can change the angle of the CONTROL points for more drastic (and more accurate) curve behaviors.

It is way beyond this small tutorial to cover all that you can do with these CONTROL POINTS and ANCHOR POINTS, but trust the ReinMan - you can do A LOT!
For more indepth info and tutorials on Paths and the Pen toolclick here.

For now, I'm going to go on and show you how this tool can be used for specific SELECTION usage. In this case, to FREE MY TOASTER!!

You can use the picture of my toaster at the top of this tutorial to practice.

- by using the PEN tool and carefully 'tracing' around the toaster I have created a PATH. The picture below will show you a closer detail of the PATH tracing.

- as you can see, the path is not pixilated but remains flexible. With practice you learn how to "ride the edge of the pixels" to best advantage.

If you make an error you can use the PATH adjustment tools to bend it to your will until you have your object perfectly surrounded!

- once you are happy with your path, you can click on the PATH OPTIONS arrow in the PATHS palette, and then choose SAVE PATH. This PATH will be saved with your PSD and you can still edit it to your heart's content at any time in the future. Or copy it and have a few "edits" of the path saved. A PATH is much more flexible for solid edged objects than a normal Selection.

- Okay. We are getting to the goods now. With the PEN TOOL selected RIGHT CLICK (PCs) on the path you've just created. You'll get a pop-up selection box similar to the one show at left.


- Ta Da! The toaster is now selected exactly following your PATH. Depending on which version of PS you have, the PATH is deselected and the Selection remains. If the path is still there, go to the PATH palette and select the gray space UNDER the PATH layer to deselect it.

- then, you can COPY the selected area into a new document, or CNTRL+J (PCs) to have PS copy the selected area into a new layer above the original.


Some of the benefits of using PATHS to create selections are:

  • you can save and re-edit the PATH at any time, and it is saved as part of the PSD file.
  • it creates a very clean 'cut' when forming a selection. Great for geometric shapes or objects with defined edges.
  • a PATH can also be TRACED with another tool, a Brush or Pencil. Great for creating a complex outline of an object.
  • once you master the PEN tools ANCHOR POINTS and DIRECTION POINTS (those knobby things!) you can create complex yet clean selections very quickly.

I wouldn't use this technique for "fuzzy" objects, or objects that have a un-clean edge (eg; hair or spraying water) BUT a Path is a great way to give a definite edge to a "fuzzy" object if needed!

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