Understanding Your Photoshop Environment


As you go through this guide you will notice that I have included some tips to help you teach your students. These are things that I find very helpful when introducing Photoshop. I have also included many keyboard commands. If you will introduce key commands as you learn/teach Photoshop, your efficiency will increase. This guide will help you get started in Photoshop. When you open Photoshop for the first time you should familiarize yourself with the layout and the tools. By default, most versions of Photoshop will open with the Essentials Workspace. This is a very basic layout and has most of the panels that you will need for beginner lessons.


Understanding the layout of Photoshop will help you to work efficiently. The Toolbar is located on the left side of the screen. It contains the tools that you will need to edit your document. The canvas is your work area where you will create your images. The right side of the screen contains your panels and palettes that will help you modify images.


On the left side of the screen, you will see the Toolbar. We will review what the tools do. As you click on a tool notice that there is an Options Bar at the top of the screen that changes based on the tool that you select. Also, notice that some of the tools have a small triangle in the lower right corner of the tool. This means that other tools are hidden behind that tool. Right click on a tool to see the other tools available. There will be a capital letter next to the set of tools. This is the key command to quickly select that tool. If you are familiar with the tools you can skip this part.

Selection Tools— The first section of tools are used when you are selecting items on the screen. Selections. Learning how to select areas is very important when working with Photoshop since you need to select what you want to edit. Making a selection allows you to isolate areas in your image and edit only that part. The rest of the image is not affected. There are four basic selection tools in the toolbox.

Marquee Tools (M) are selection tools that allow you to make rectangular or elliptical selections. Once you make a selection you can edit the dimensions by going to Select>Transform Selection. Press Ok when you are satisfied with the selection that you have made.

Lasso Tools (L) allows you to make freehand selections. You can select straight with the Polygonal Lasso. If an object has a defined line of color variation, the Magnetic Lasso will make a selection on the line of differentiation.

The Quick Selection (W ) tool is a quick way to make a selection by dragging the mouse over the object to be selected. The Magic Wand Tool selects objects of similar color.

The Crop Tool (C) allows you to select a portion of the object to keep and delete the rest. Perspective Crop can be used to select an object that is not directly flat on the screen. Slice Tools are a helpful way of cutting an image into multiple parts.

The Eyedropper Tool (I) is used to sample colors on the screen. If you are using the Brush Tool you can hold down ALT and the Eyedropper will appear to quickly select colors. The Ruler Tool is used to straighten images. The Note Tool is a helpful way to leave notes about a project for you to refer back to later.

Editing Tools are below the selection tools. They are used to make changes to an image once it has been selected.

The Spot Healing Brush (J) and Healing Brush remove blemishes and imperfections while keeping the color and texture. The Patch Tool works like Healing Brush, but you draw a lasso around the part you are changing. The Red Eye Tool removes red-eye from photographs.

The Brush Tool (B) and Pencil Tool works just like the name implies. The Color Replacement Tool allows you to change the color of an object by selecting a color and painting. The Mixer Brush Tool allows you to turn photographs into works of art. It mimics painting techniques that can be applied on canvas.

The Eraser Tools (E) are used to remove parts of an image. Once the objects are erased they are gone. Sometimes it is better to use Masking techniques to preserve the original image.

The Gradient Tool (G)is used to blend colors. The two most common gradients are linear and radial. Those can be selected on the Options bar. The Paint Bucket Tool allows you to fill selections with a solid color.

The Blur, Sharpen, and Smudge  Tools do exactly what their name implies. Each is controlled by Strength (intensity) on the Options Bar. Start with a low Strength and gauge how much to use from there.

The Dodge Tool (O) can be used to bring out highlights and makes images lighter. The Burn Tool makes things darker. Both tools work by controlling exposure on the Options Bar. The Sponge Tool is used to saturate (make things brighter) or desaturate (takes out the color intensity until the object is grayscale). Set the exposure/flow to a low setting when you are starting out so that you do not overdo it.

Type Tools (T) work as each tool’s name implies. You will make changes to the font style, size, color, etc on the Options bar. If you make a selection box to type your text in (similar to word processing) this is called Paragraph Type. If you simply click your mouse on the canvas and begin typing, this is called Point Type. Both kinds of type have advantages.

The Shape Tools (U) are found behind the Rectangle Tool. Each tool does what its name implies. When creating a shape you can select whether you are creating a path, raster graphic, (pixels) or a shape layer. The Custom Shape Tool allows you to select from many preloaded shapes. Shapes can also be downloaded from the Internet.

Another tool worth noting is the Zoom Tool (magnifying glass). This allows you to change the size that you are viewing the document.

The large black and white squares represent the foreground and background of the image. By default, images start with black as the foreground color, meaning that anything that you apply to the canvas will be black. By default, the background color is white. This is the color that will appear on an unlocked layer if the eraser is used. The small bent arrows will switch the foreground and background colors. The tiny black and white squares represent the default colors. To quickly change to black and white click on that icon.

Helpful Key Commands: CTRL/CMD + (plus) Zooms In CTRL/CMD – (minus) Zooms out. CTRL/CMD 0 (zero) Fits the image on the screen. CTRL/CMD 1 (one) Shows the image at 100%, aka Actual Pixels. Pressing D will revert the colors to the default colors. Pressing X switches foreground and background colors

Learning About Panels

Panels are located on the right side of the screen. The default layout will include the Layers (F7) and Colors (F6) panels as well as some others. You can add or subtract panels to fit the needs of your project. Don’t worry about messing up your workspace. You can always reset it to Adobe settings later. To add additional panels, go to the Windows menu. I recommend adding the History panel to all of your workspaces.

Common Panels are Layers, History, Colors/Swatches. You might not need to use Adjustments and Masks when you begin working in Photoshop. You will use those in more advanced projects. To close these panels click on the menu option and select either Close Tab or Close Tab Group. This will allow you to make room for panels that you will use more often.

The History panel is useful because it is like a multiple “undo” option. By default, the History saves the 20 previous “states”. A state is any change that you make (including a single mouse click). State changes can add up very quickly. You can increase the number of states by going to Edit>Preferences>Performance. As you are starting out, you may find it really helpful to increase your states to at least 50.

You can “dock” the History panel by clicking on the tab at the top of the panel and dragging it over to another panel.


When you first open Photoshop, you will be asked to put in size dimensions, resolution, color mode, etc. It’s recommended that you know what your document will be BEFORE you start the document. Size and resolution are the things you should really pay close attention to. (Tip: If you are planning to only view images on a computer screen, 72 ppi for resolution will work perfectly. If you plan to print your image, you should set your resolution to a minimum of 300 ppi . The higher the resolution the larger the file size will be.) Having the wrong settings can produce a headache later. Unless you know you need a transparent background, it’s ok to use White as the background color. That can be changed in editing if you need a different color later. If you do not know the information, it’s best to leave the default settings.

Photoshop has many document presets for common-sized documents. This is a good place to look before you enter in your settings. Also, you can save a document setting if you use it often.

Resolution can be measured in pixels per inch, points, and picas. These are the common measurements, but you can also use millimeters, centimeters, and columns.


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