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Pen tool - a Photoshop Guide

Pen tool - a Photoshop Guide - Barry Beckham explains how to use Photoshop's Pen tool to make advanced selections around objects in a photo.

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Adobe Photoshop

Words & Pictures Barry Beckham/David Rowley

The pen tool allows you to create a work path that appears within a thumbnail in the paths palette. You can create a path around a shape in your photograph and then change the work path to a selection or marching ants.

The path tool is particularly useful for those times when you wish to cut out a subject from a photograph with a fussy background. The magic wand tool is not always so useful in these situations. A big plus for the pen tool is it also allows the user ultimate control over the selection and is remarkably quick to use.

The image below is a good example of where the pen tool can be used.

Enlarge your image using the magnifying tool to quite a large size. How large really depends on the complexity of your subject and a little personal preference.

Select the pen tool shown above and and touch down on the edge of your enlarged subject.

Photoshop will place a small square where you left click that shows the start of your new work path. You can then mark a path around your subject in small steps. Every lime you click your mouse another anchor point will be placed as we have shown above. On the example only two steps have been made.

You can continue around your subject using these small steps as we have demonstrated below. On curved subjects the steps can be smaller and on the straighter edges the steps can be much longer

How close you place your path to the edge of the subject will come with just a little practice, but it is best to place the path a little inside the subject than outside. If you do place it outside a little you may carry over some pixels when you come to cut out the subject and they can be distracting.

Continue all around your subject until you join up with your starting point. This process is far easier and quicker using a graphic tablet and we used a Wacom Graphire pen and mouse set rather than the mouse.

Once your path is completed return your image to it's normal size and call up paths palette. You will find this in the windows menu, but in Photoshop 6 you may have it located on the tab bar at the top right of your screen.

With the palette open drag the work path thumbnail down over the icon shown and Photoshop will change your path into a selection or marching ants. If your path shape is something you may need again you also have the opportunity to save it. Click the little black arrow on the paths tab for these options.

Once the path has been converted to a selection a dotted line or marching ants will show around the edge of the subject. You can now copy that selection to a new layer or another image that you wish to add it to. In the example above the letter box is completely selected, so if you want to remove the background instead you will need you selection to be inversed.

Just hit the Shift+Ctrl+I keys and Photoshop will switch your selection from the subject to the background. If you are removing the background you will also need to change your background into a layer. Open the layers palette and double click the thumbnail. Change the default background to another of your choice and hit Ctrl+X to remove the background.

Tip. It is always advisable to consider adding a little feather to the edge of your selection before you do any cut and pastes. The amount will vary depending on the resolution of the image, but on our Nikon Coolpix 990 image a setting of 1 pixel was sufficient. Call up the feather command via Ctrl+Alt+D and enter you one pixel choice as shown below.

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But the very best thing about the pen tool is the way it can draw perfect curved lines that hug the shape exactly - no need for small jagged steps around a curve. Difficult to explain on a web page, I'll give you that but well worth finding out about, and actually easy once you've practised it for a while.


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lovely technique...

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