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At first glance, the Pen tool doesn't look like a selection tool: It's not positioned with the other selection tools on the toolbar, it doesn't create a dancing marquee outline when you use it, and it doesn't respond to the Select menu commands. So is it even a selection tool? Absolutely.

The Pen tool works well for selecting shape-based and form-based image elements. For example, you will use the Pen tool in the following situations:

  • To select smooth, mechanical edges, such as buildings, cars, bottles, windows, etc.

  • To select smooth, organic forms, including rocks, nudes, fishes, flowers, planets, etc.

  • To select elements in images where the color and tones are so similar that the standard selection tools don't have enough difference to create an accurate selection.

  • To silhouette an object by dropping out the image background.

  • Most importantly, when you need extreme precision. It is exactly here where the Pen tool shines high above the other selection tools.

Do not use the Pen tool to select image elements with the following characteristics:

  • Images with delicate or complex detail, such as puffy dandelions or winter tree branches

  • Portraits of people with fine hair or furry animals

  • Images with tonal subtle gradations, such as a sunset, water reflections, or a foggy landscape

  • Areas in an image with soft edges such as a natural shadow or photographic motion blur

Once you have created a path, you can turn it into a selection to use for a mask or composite or to create a path for any painting tool to follow. In other words, the Pen tool is an end to a means—use it to make exact outlines of form-based and shape-based objects and control where image effects take place.

Pen Tool Essentials

The Pen tool is not a drawing tool that lays down ink; rather, it is a mechanical drawing tool used to precisely outline an object or define a smooth curve with anchor points and mathematical vector curves. The vector aspects of the Pen tool enable it to work independently from the pixel information of the underlying image, which is exactly why the outlines created with the Pen tool are much smoother than outlines created with a pixel-based selection tool, as illustrated in figure 4.1.

Figure 4.1. The top dolphin was selected with the standard Lasso tool, while the much smoother selection on the lower dolphin was made with the Pen tool.

© Digital Stock Professional

On the top is the dolphin that I selected as carefully as possible with the standard Lasso without any feather. As you can see, the animal looks cut out and the edges aren't smooth.

On the bottom is the same dolphin, but this time I used the Pen tool to outline it. The edges are smooth and flowing without any telltale lumps or bumps that working with a pixel-based selection tool may create.

Pen Tool Settings

Before you use the Pen tool to outline an image subject, it is important to click the Path icon on the Options bar (figure 4.2). The Pen tool also has a dedicated palette called the Paths palette. I suggest you open it and keep it on your desktop for the remainder of the chapter.

Figure 4.2. Before beginning, double-check that the Pen tool options are set to paths.

Clicking and holding the Pen tool in the toolbar reveals the standard and freeform Pen tool and the Add, Delete, and Convert Point tools.

Straight Paths

Working with the Pen tool is akin to the childhood game of connecting the dots to reveal the picture—the only issue is that the dots aren't on the paper. The “dots” are the anchor points that you add with a single click of the Pen tool. By clicking around an object from point to point without holding down the mouse button, you create a path defined by a series of corner points and straight lines. To practice along, please download the templates from www.photoshopmasking.com. I've also posted additional templates for you to use when you practice your Pen tool skills.


Start in the upper-left corner and, working from corner to corner, click once on each corner to add an anchor point. When you return to the initial anchor point, a small circle will appear next to the Pen tool. This is the symbol to close the path. Click once more on the first anchor point to close the path. Open the Paths palette to verify Photoshop has added a Work Path, as shown in figure 4.3. Double-click Work Path to rename the path.

Figure 4.3. Clicking each corner dot creates anchor points and straight lines. I moved the square path to the right so that it would be visible in the illustration.

Photoshop can support up to 32,000 paths (a mind-boggling concept). Naming paths takes only a moment, but it is extremely helpful in navigating the Paths palette with ease. Naming the Work Path also ensures it will not be overwritten when you start a new path.

Simply click from point to point to outline straight-edged objects, such as the individual signs in figure 4.4.

Figure 4.4. The hard-edged signs are ideal candidates for a Pen tool path.


Start by outlining the shipping sign by clicking each corner point of the sign.

After closing the path, open the Paths palette and name the Work Path shipping sign.

To create a separate path outline for the office sign, it is very important that the shipping sign path is not active; that is, not highlighted in the Paths palette. Deactivate the shipping sign path by clicking in the neutral gray area under the named shipping path in the Paths palette.

Outline the next sign and name the path.

Repeat the process for the remaining two signs.

Creating a path for each separate sign or image element gives you greater flexibility when selecting the individual image elements. Your final result should be the signs image with four separate paths, as shown in figure 4.5.

Figure 4.5. Each sign has a dedicated path, which will make selecting each sign much easier.


To create extremely precise paths, zoom in to a 200% to 300% view and stay one pixel inside of the object you're selecting, as shown in figure 4.6.

Figure 4.6. Zoom in to select the object with precision and remain one pixel inside of the object edge.

Curved Paths

Using the Pen tool to outline straight-edged objects is a good place to start learning, but when it comes to outlining curved objects, the Pen tool really shines. To create a curved path, click and hold down the mouse button while dragging in the direction of the next anchor point along the edge that you are outlining. The initial anchor point changes from an anchor point to a smooth anchor point, with direction lines and direction points that control the curve. While drawing the initial path, ignore the direction points and concentrate on where the next anchor point is to be placed. After you have closed and named the path, return to the path and you can move the direction points and anchor points to refine the path.


We'll practice with curved paths.

On the circle practice template:

Start on the top dot (at the 12-o'clock position) and click, hold, and drag to the right.

At the tip of the arrow, release the mouse.

Move the mouse to the second dot at the 3-o'clock position and click once.

Release the mouse and click and hold on the third dot (at the 6-o'clock position).

Drag the mouse to the left, and you'll see how beautifully the curve is describing the circle.

Release the mouse and click the third dot(at the 9-o'clock position) and then release the mouse.

Return to the initial anchor point and click once on the first anchor point to close the path.

Open the Paths palette to see that Photoshop has added a work path, as shown in figure 4.7. Rename the path.

Figure 4.7. The practice template and the ensuing circle in the Paths palette.

As you can see, it only takes four anchor points to describe a complete circle. Take this tidbit of information with you as you work with the Pen tool and use as few anchor points as possible to outline an object. The goal is not to rivet around the object but to gracefully and efficiently outline an object, which can be done with just a few anchor points.

Combining Curves and Corners

Most of the objects you'll need to outline won't be perfect squares or circles. The following exercise shows you how to make a path with both curved lines and sharp corners.


On the practice template:

Start at the top-left corner and click, release the mouse button, and click the junction of the curve to the right (figure 4.8).

Figure 4.8. Practice outlining the curves and the corners of this template.

Release the mouse and click the apex of the curve, hold down the mouse button, and drag to the right to define the curve on the left side of the arch.

Release the mouse button and click the junction where the arch meets the angle.

Click once on the corner point and continue working your way around this shape, as shown in figure 4.8.

Return to the initial anchor point and click once on it to close the path.


To practice your Pen tool skills:

Create a new 8-inch • 10-inch 150 ppi Photoshop document.

Click the Type tool and type in one single letter. If you're a beginner, type in a capital L in a simple sans serif font. If you feel more confident in your Pen tool skills, try using an S.

Make the letter huge—in figure 4.9 on an 8 × 10 page, the S is 500 points.

Figure 4.9. Practice tracing large letterforms to hone your Pen tool skills.

Trace the letterform. Start with straightforward letters, such as l and z. Move on to curved letters, such as j and s, and then practice on letters that have inside and outside areas, such as a, b, and o.

The doll's head in figure 4.10 is a perfect image for the Pen tool—it is a man-made, hard-edged object, and it doesn't have strong tonal or color differences you can use to separate the head from the background.

Figure 4.10. The doll's head is an ideal subject to outline with the Pen tool.



Take a moment to plan ahead and visualize where you will be placing the anchor points. In figure 4.11, I added dots to show where I would place anchor points—on points where there is a dramatic change in direction, like the earlobes, and where the curve is distinctly defined. For best results, work between 200% and 300% zoom view. As you can see in figure 4.12, you'll only see part of the doll's head. Once you've clicked, held, and dragged your way toward the edge of the image frame, hold down the spacebar to access the Hand tool and scroll down to the lower part of the image.

Figure 4.11. Look at the object and imagine where you would place the dots—that is, the anchor points to plan out the path.

Figure 4.12. Use the spacebar to access the Hand tool and scroll the image into view.

Start with the Ch4_dollhead_dots.jpg file and then practice creating the path on the Ch4_dollhead.jpg without the dots.

Starting at the top of the dolls' head, click, hold, and drag to the right. While dragging the handle to the right and along the doll's head, look ahead and plan where your next anchor point will be.

Release the mouse button and move the mouse to where the second anchor point should be. Click, hold, and drag down toward the doll's ear.

Continue down and around the doll's head, being careful to stay just inside of the edge by one pixel between the doll and the background.

When you reach the corner by the top of the doll's ear, press (Option) [Alt] while clicking and dragging along the edge of the ear (figure 4.13).

Figure 4.13. Pressing (Cmd + Option) [Ctrl + Alt] while clicking and dragging adds a corner anchor point with a direction handle.

This technique adds a corner anchor point with direction handles that you can fine-tune after you've closed the path.

Work your way up and back to the origin point of the path. Click the initial anchor point to close the path.

Open the Paths palette and name the path Doll Head, as shown in figure 4.14.

Figure 4.14. After closing and naming the path.


Use my Pen tool mantra to keep track of where you are while creating your first paths: “Click, hold, drag. Click, hold, drag. Click, hold, drag.” This will help you to become a smooth and confident Pen tool user.

In a nutshell, sharp 90-degree corners require one click; curves require a click, hold, and drag to form a smooth contour; and changing direction requires that you either double–click or (Option-click) [Alt-click] an anchor point to draw out a direction handle as you make the path.

When working with the Pen tool and paths, use the command keys in table 4.1 to make your Pen-tool time more efficient and your paths more precise. The Add Anchor Point, Delete Anchor Point, and Convert Anchor Point tools are nested under the Pen tool.

Table 4.1. Pen Tool Command Keys
Activate Pen toolP
Switch between Pen tool and Freeform Pen toolShift + P
Switch between Pen tool and Direct Selection tool(Cmd-click) [Ctrl-click]
Switch between Pen tool and Hand toolPress and hold the spacebar
Move individual handles(Cmd-click + drag) [Ctrl-click + drag]
Convert anchor points(Option-click) [Alt-click] anchor point
Select multiple anchor points(Cmd + Shift-click) [Ctrl + Shift-click] on desired anchor points
Select entire path(Cmd + Option-click) [Ctrl + Alt-click]
Duplicate a path(Cmd + Option + drag) [Ctrl + Alt + drag]
Delete anchor point(Control-click) [right-click] to open context-sensitive menu
Add anchor point(Control-click) [right-click] to open context-sensitive menu
Close an open pathClick first open end and then the second
To continue a pathClick open end and continue the outline

Fine-Tuning a Path

After you close a path, inspect it to see whether the outline needs to be finessed.

Zoom in and take a close second look at your doll head path, as shown in figure 4.15. Look for sections of the path that are outside or too far inside of the doll head areas.

Figure 4.15. The initial path is all right, but it needs refinement before it looks professional.

To fine-tune the path, use the Direct Selection tool, fondly called the white arrow tool, to move anchor points and adjust direction handles. You'll find it nested under the Path Selection tool (the black arrow tool), directly above the Pen tool. When initially creating and refining a path, the active anchor point is solid and an inactive point is hollow.

Here are some tips for refining your paths:

Refining a path with the Direct Selection tool:

  • Move anchor points by dragging them so that the path outline conforms to the object more precisely.

  • Move direction handles up and down in a seesaw manner to make the angle of the curve steeper or to bend them into form-fitting position. You won't need to move the handles very much to achieve dramatic results.

  • If a curve is too steep, shorten the direction lines by pushing the direction handles in toward their anchor point.

  • To increase the arch of a curve, lengthen the direction lines by pulling them away from the anchor point.

  • Move direction handles independently to affect only the curve on one side of the anchor point by (Cmd + Option-clicking) [Ctrl + Alt-clicking] one handle and pulling.

  • If the handles are longer than half the length of the curve that they describe, add a new anchor point by (Ctrl-clicking) [right-clicking] the curve where you need a new anchor point. Then select Add Anchor Point from the pop-up menu.

  • If there are too many anchor points, simplify the path by deleting unnecessary anchor points. Use the Direct Selection tool and (Ctrl-click) [right-click] over an existing anchor point and select Delete Anchor Point, as shown in figure 4.16.

    Figure 4.16. Use the context-sensitive menu when refining a path.

  • Change the attributes of anchor points as needed. To convert an anchor point to a smooth anchor point, use the Direct Selection tool and (Cmd + Option + drag) [Ctrl + Alt + drag] to pull out the handles. To convert a smooth anchor point to an anchor point, use the Direct Selection tool and (Cmd + Option-click) [Ctrl + Alt-click] the anchor point to convert it.

Refining a path with Transform:

  • To transform the size or shape of the entire path, use the Path Selection tool (black arrow) to select the path by clicking anywhere on the path. Select Edit > Free Transform Path to scale the path.

  • To transform a group of points on a path, use the Direct Selection (white arrow) tool to click and drag over a number of adjacent points. Select Edit > Free Transform Path to scale just part of the path, as shown in figure 4.17.

    Figure 4.17. Transforming a selected group of adjacent pixels.

Hints for Pen Tool Success

Over the years I've developed and used these hints to help make me a better Pen tool user:

  • Use as few anchor points as possible.

  • Place anchor points as far apart as possible.

  • Place anchor points at significant changes in curvature inflection.

  • While drawing the initial path, pull the handle in the direction you want to continue the path.

  • The handles that define the curve should not be longer than half the length of the curve they are describing.

  • Close the path before going back to fine-tune anchor points or handles.

  • Name all paths.

  • Before creating an additional path, double-check the Paths palette to make sure no other path is active.

  • Work at 200% to 300% view and stay one pixel within the object to be selected.

  • Learn the essential Pen tool command keys.

  • While making a path, use the Pen Tool mantra, “click, hold, drag,” to meditate yourself into a calm Pen tool mindset.

  • With one eye, look ahead along the path to see where the next anchor point should go. This is akin to driving on the highway—you don't concentrate on the asphalt 10 feet in front of your car but rather look ahead to observe the traffic flow.

  • Do not fight the Pen tool—it will win. If the Pen tool is winning and your curves and handles look like a plate of spaghetti, press the Delete key twice to delete the offending path, take a deep breath, smile, and start over again.

  • Remain calm—the Pen tool is very forgiving. It doesn't race back to the starting point like the Lasso tool and it doesn't create unpredictable selections like the Magic Wand. Carefully click your way around the object, knowing that you can always return to a specific point to fine-tune the anchor point after closing the initial path.

The Freeform and Magnetic Pen Tool

The freeform Pen tool is nested under the standard Pen tool, and using it is akin to drawing with a pencil on paper. You have no control as to where the anchor points are laid down, but you can fine-tune the paths and points with the Direct Selection tool. I personally do not use the freeform Pen tool very often because the time needed to refine the paths it creates would be better used to make a precise path with the standard Pen tool. On the other hand, the Magnetic Pen tool is a handy tool to use when outlining images with distinct tonal differentiation and smooth edges.

When the freeform Pen tool is active, select Magnetic in the Options bar to draw a path that snaps to the edges of defined areas in your image, similar to the way the Magnetic Lasso tool works. To control the Magnetic Pen tool, click the geometry options triangle, as shown in figure 4.18 and explained here.

Figure 4.18. The Magnetic Pen tool controls.

Use the fly-out menu to adjust the parameters of the Magnetic Pen tool:

  • For Width, enter a pixel value between 1 and 256. The Magnetic Pen detects edges only within the specified distance from the pointer. Use Caps Lock to turn the Magnetic Pen Tool icon into a circle whose size reflects the width.

  • For Contrast, enter a percentage value between 1 and 100 to specify the contrast required between the pixels to be considered an edge. Use a higher value for low contrast images.

  • For Frequency, enter a value between 0 and 100 to specify the rate at which the Pen sets anchor points. Higher values anchor the path in place more quickly.

  • When working with a stylus tablet, selecting Pen Pressure determines that as you increase the pen pressure you decrease the active width of the Magnetic Pen tool.


With its smooth edges and well-defined contrast, the shrimp truck is a perfect image to outline with the Magnetic Pen tool:

Click the upper-left corner of the shrimp sign to set the first anchor point.

Without pressing the mouse button, drag to the right along the top edge of the shrimp sign. As you move the mouse, the Magnetic Pen tool snaps to the strongest edge in the image.

When you get to the right corner, click once to add an anchor point and continue down the side of the truck.

If the border doesn't snap to the desired edge, click once to add an anchor point manually and to keep the border from moving. Continue to trace the edge and add anchor points as needed. If needed, press Delete to remove the last anchor point.

The area under the driver side door isn't as well defined as the rest of the truck (figure 4.19). To temporarily change the Magnetic Pen tool to the freeform Pen tool, press (Option) [Alt] to draw along the dark lower edge.

Figure 4.19. Press (Option) [Alt] to draw along less well-defined areas.

Complete the path by clicking the starting anchor point and naming the path, as shown in figure 4.20.

Figure 4.20. Close and name the path.


When the Magnetic Pen tool is not working as desired or when you just need to start over again, press the escape key to delete the path in progress.

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