Digital Darkroom; The Pen Tool & Selections in Photoshop

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning, split toning, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and Lens Correction and Camera Calibration in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Moving into Photoshop we have looked at the program’s layout,basic adjustments to light, basic adjustments to colour, basic black and white adjustments, Basic Sharpening, Basic Noise Reduction, Creating Presets and Actions, Basic Masks, Making Selections, Refining Selections and this week using the pen tool to make paths and selections.
If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

pen-toolThe selection tools we have looked at so far are pretty good. When used in combination with each other you can get quite a nice selection of an area. One of the down sides is the needing to refine selections to make sure they are perfect as well as using one or two methods to select one area. With higher resolution images the selection tools start to lose their shine against another tool; The Pen Tool.

The pen tool is a very interesting and creative tool and can be used in many ways. The Pen Tool creates a path that can be converted to defined shape, filled with a colour, stroked (traced by a brush) and most importantly for this post turned into a selection.

Getting started with the pen tool

basic-pathI will admit that the Pen Tool at first has a steep learning curve. There are two choices of Pen Tool; the regular pen or the free form pen. I tend to go with the regular Pen Tool as the free form tool creates a path wherever you move you mouse (similar to the lasso selection tool).
Using the regular pen tool you click to start a path move the mouse and click again to create a line and an anchor point, similar to the polygon selection tool. You don’t have to close a path (bring the end back to the beginning), it is a good idea to do this if you want to make a selection though.

By just using the pen tool you create straight lines, the pen also has some other tools; the convert point tool is one of them. The convert point tool turns the straight lines into curves. Simply click on an anchor on the path and two handles appear one control the curvature of path on one side of the anchor and the other handle controls the curvature on the other side. This enables you to take straight line and create flawless curves.

Making a Path

path-with-curvesThere are two approaches to creating the path mine and the one adobe recommends (which is quicker).
I create my path by tracing an area with the straight lines of the pen tool. When I come to a change in direction, of the shape I am tracing, I make an anchor point. Once I have closed my path I then use the convert point tool to add curves to my lines to match the shape.
Adobe’s approach is to start with the Pen Tool and follow the contour of the shape you want to trace/select and when there is a change in direction create an anchor. As you come to curve make an anchor for the change in direction and on the other side of the curve click and hold while pressing ctrl to create a curve and then move click for the next ctrl point. You will still need to go around and tweak some anchors once the path is closed.

I generally like to see the path take shape as I draw and move the mouse; this is not the default setting for the Pen Tool. However by selecting the rubber band option ( this is in the top pen menu under the cog icon), you can then see where the path will be as you move your mouse.

Less is more when it comes to the pen tool. You really only need points when there is a change in direction, a slight curve on the edge you are tracing does not need a new anchor point, just a tweak (using the convert anchor point tool) to copy the curve.

Refining and adjusting

One of the great benefits of the pen tool is that you can quickly make refinements that are accurate. It is also a good idea to zoom in at 100% to check that the path is following the edge you want to trace. With the Pen Tool selected you can hover over an anchor and press alt to use the convert point tool allowing you to create a curve. You can also move an anchor point by hovering over it and pressing ctrl; this allows you move the anchor (and only that anchor), making the path more precise.

Anchor points can also be removed and added using; the add and delete anchor point tool. Simply add a point by clicking on the path with the add tool, and delete by selecting an anchor point with the delete tool.
If you ever lose a path and can’t see it’s anchor points ctrl + click and draw a square around where the path is.

Making the selection


Once a path is created you can convert it to a selection by pressing ctrl+enter or right clicking the with the pen tool and selecting make a selection. A dialogue box will appear to define the selection with a radius and if this is a new selection or are you combing or subtracting it from another selection. If the selection is not quite right, you can go back in the history and tweak the pen tool. Although you can only do this straight after creating the selection; if you go back a long time after converting the path to a selection, you will undo all the work in between.

The Pen is Mightier than the selection tools

Once you have got the hang of the Pen tool making selections of complicated elements is still time consuming but much quicker. The pen tool is much more accurate than the selection tools, as you can zoom in and out and adjust the path once it has been completed. The Pen Tool is not the best option all the time for example; selecting a sky the other selection options are great and the pen tool will not be very good. For extracting complicated shapes and objects it is just the tool you need.


With this picture I used the pen tool to select only the butterfly. I added the selection to the black and white adjustment layer as a layer mask. Using the pen tool to draw around the butterfly was relatively easy and much easier than using election tools.
I also used the selection to create a custom vignette for the image. I set the selection on a layer mask of a solid color layer, refined the mask using feathering and adjusted the opacity of the layer.

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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