Super charge your Photoshop workfolw

februar 6, 2012 — by Håvard Frøland0


There are endless of different ways to attack a problem, or task inside of Photoshop, some more efficient than others. Be sure that the things you do regularly are done with the least effort. In this post I will share some simple, but powerful tips to help speed up your workflow, along with some extras.

(SUPERCHARGED: A piece I made for the occasion. Feel free to use the image in any way you like. It’s against a transparent background, so compositing should be a breeze :))

The idea here is to provide some underlying ideas, together with some “start up tips” to get you on your way to become a Photoshop power user. Reading over; I see that it may have been better to just make a big and tidy list with some images. Maybe I’ll revisit this sometime in the future, and do just that.

Mac Users: Ctrl = Cmd, and Alt = Option. Mac users swearing by a one button mouse can get left out here and there. Sorry.

Note:  I’m going to define some shortcuts involving mouse clicking, having any tool but the move tool selected.

I strongly prefer the rectangular marquee tool as a default (M); cause I use it a lot, and it allows for quickly selecting/deselecting, and to click around the document without making changes. If you need to move or duplicate something, you have instant access to the the move tool from the CTRL key. What’s nice about actually selecting the move tool (V), is access to the align commands from the options bar – but that’s about it.

Modifier keys

Learn to use them. Many tools and commands will act in a different manner when adding Alt and/or Shift to the mix. I’m not going to list every different case, they key is to experiment!. Some examples:

  • With the selection tools, shift+drag to add to a selection, alt+drag to subtract, and shift+alt+drag to select an intersection.
  • Hold down Ctrl to access the move tool. (technically not a modifier key, but so important that I’ll mention it anyway, plus it’s a prerequisite for several other shortcuts below)
  • Ctrl+Alt+drag to duplicate the layer – or if you have a selection going – your selection of pixels.
  • Alt+click a layer eye ball to solo the layer. Alt+click again to restore.
  • Alt+drag a layer or group to duplicate it.
  • Alt+click between two layers to clip the topmost to the one below.
  • When using the dodge tool, you can hold down Alt to instantly access the burn tool.
  • With the brush tool active, click one place, and Shift+click another, to draw a straight line between points. You can also hold down Shift to draw perfect vertical or horizontal lines. Press Alt for instant access to the Eyedropper tool.
  • When transforming you can use them in multiple ways, more on that below.
  • Ctrl+J copies a selection to a new layer, or duplicates the layer if nothing is selected. Ctrl+Shift+J cuts the selection to a new layer. Adding Alt to these will give you a “new layer” dialog box.
  • Ctrl+C makes a copy of your selection from the active layer. Ctrl+Shift+C makes a copy from a merged state  (love this! :)), and Ctrl+Shift+V pastes in place (CS5), while Ctrl+Shift+Alt+V pastes; converting the active selection to a layer mask for the new layer.
  • Ctrl+Space gives instant access to the zoom tool. Add Alt to zoom out.
  • When selecting: Add Shif t to add to a selection, Alt to subtract from a selection, and Shift+Alt to select an intersection of an active selection.
  • Ctrl+click a layer thumbnail to make a selection based on the pixels of that layer, or Ctrl+click a mask to turn that into a selection. Add Shift and/or Alt to this, as above, to combine selections in different ways.
  • Alt+Backspace fills the layer or active selection with the foreground color, while Ctrl+Backspace fills with the background color. Add Shift to fill only the opaque pixels within the layer or selection.
  • Experiment!

The almighty transformation command: Free Transform (Ctrl+T)

Under Edit > Transform you have a bunch of options:  Scale, Distort, perspective, Flip horizontal, etc. etc. But the fact is: you never need to dig down to this menu (my advice: don’t ever use it again); you only need to remember Ctrl+T. The first group of commands (Perspective, Skew, etc.), should never be used at all; they are all limited options available from the Free Transform command using modifier keys:

  • Scale: Free Transform is Scale, except when you choose the scale command you cannot do the stuff highlighted below. You can Ctrl+drag, Ctrl+Shift+drag, Ctrl+Shift+Alt+drag all the nine handles for different results, and, I forgot Alt+drag, Shift+drag and Shift+Alt+drag. Play around with it! It’s fairly easy to get a hang of once you figure it out.
  • Rotate: Drag outside the bounding box to rotate. Hold down shift to snap the rotation to 15 degree increments.
  • Skew: Ctrl+Shift+drag the middle handles
  • Distort: Ctrl+drag any handle
  • Perspective: Ctrl+Shift+Alt+drag any handle
  • Warp: available as an option from the options bar

Warp is also available from the context menu (right click to show), as is the flip and rotate options.

Blending Modes

Learn the shortcuts for your most used blending modes. Note: If you have a tool selected, supporting blending modes, you will change the blending mode for that tool, not the active layer.

My favs:

  • Multiply: Shift+Alt+M
  • Screen: Shift+Alt+S
  • Overlay: Shift+Alt+O
  • Soft light: Shift+Alt+F
  • Darken: Shift+Alt+K
  • Lighten: Shift+Alt+G
  • Dodge: Shift+Alt+D
  • Luminosity: Shift+Alt+Y
  • Color: Shift+Alt+C
  • Hue: Shift+Alt+U
  • Use Shift+Alt+- or Shift+Alt++ to cycle through blend modes. Great for Mac users who cannot cycle through using the arrow keys when the dropdown has focus.

The holy grail of selecting layers

If you are working with layers – as you should, to work non destructively and preserve maximum flexibility inside your documents -, you could often end up with documents with 50+ layers, or even hundreds. Switching between layers using the layers panel alone can get very ineffective and quickly become a pain. Here are some powerful, and somehow, very little known techniques for selecting layers.

Context menu: Having all others but the move tool selected, you can select a layer from a context menu by Ctrl+right clicking on a portion of the layer (inside the canavas) you want to select. This context menu lists layers with opaque pixels in the portion of the canvas you’re clicking.  Add Shift to select more layers, or to deselect selected. This would be even more effective if layer colors were supported in the context menu – perhaps in the future when adobe realizes this.

Quick select: Same as above, except you select the topmost layer from where you are clicking directly. Say you want to select a text layer: Just Ctrl+Alt+right click it and you have it. You can also add Shift to select multiple layers, or deselect selected ones.
This might feel a little tricky at first, but get used to it; it really makes a big difference.

Note: There are some bugs qith “quick selecting” associated with layer masks, especially (for some odd reason) with vector masks. Photoshop also quick selects adjustment layers, which really makes no sense at all. Also: I’m unsure how this will work for Mac users. I remember this being somewhat different on a Mac since the shortcuts are set up to accommodate the “one-button-mouse-users”. I don’t currently have access to a Mac running Photoshop at the moment, so I will try and revisit this in the future.

More shortcuts

It’s essential to know the shortcuts for the tools you use the most, like B for the brush tool or M for rectangular marquee tool. I would also recommend you to remove the need for the shift key to cycle through different tools from the same group of tools, like the rectangular and elliptical marquee tool. Go to Edit > Preferences > General (or press Ctrl+K), and remove the tick from “Use Shift key for tool switch”.

A few more shortcuts you might want to learn:

  • Shift+Ctrl+N: new layer
  • F8: Brings up the info palette
  • F5: Brings up the brush palette
  • D: Sets the foreground color to black, and background color to white.
  • X: Switches the foreground and background colors (invaluable when working with masks)
  • Crtl+Space+drag/Ctrl+Alt+Space+drag to zoom in/out
  • Ctrl+G: Create layer group from selected layers
  • Ctrl+Alt+G: Create clipping mask from layer below
  • Any number to set opacity for layer or active tool. 0 for 100%.
  • Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E: Jumps a merged composition of the document to a new layer
  • Ctrl+Shift+I: Select inverse
  • Shift+Backspace: Brings up the fill dialog box.
  • F: Cycles through Screen Modes
  • Tab: Hides the panels

I will not cover shortcuts for changing brush size and softness, due to all the variations between Photoshop versions, platforms (Mac OS and Windows), and keyboard languages. But they are there, and they should be used. I like the “new” resizing methods in CS4/CS5, using the mouse drag. They differ some between CS4 and CS5: I tend to prefer CS4’s approach.

Make your own shortcuts

It’s helpful to have extra shortcuts for different things you use regularly, where Photoshop doesn’t provide it by default. And don’t be afraid from overriding the defaults: Ctrl+Shift+U would make perfect sense for creating a new hue/saturation adjustment layer, but will override the default keys for “desaturate”. But do you really need a shortcut for “desaturate”?

Some examples:

  • New Levels adjustment layer
  • New Curves adjustment layer
  • New Hue/saturation adjustment layer
  • Create layer mask from selection (using this a ton)
  • Blending Options
  • Copy/paste layer style (life saver)
  • Layer Properties (for fast renaming or layer coloring)
  • Gaussian Blur
  • Add Noise
  • Render Clouds
  • Your call 🙂

Moral of the story

It might seem tough to start with, with tons of new shortcuts and combinations, but you don’t need to learn them all at once. Do it, one step at a time, and experiment with it. I would recommend any Photoshop user to learn the shortcuts as they go; it’s just a matter of getting used to it. And when you do, you are making yourself able to work much faster. There is no need to waste time; clicking around to get your tools, when you could spend your time to just get things done. I also strongly believe, it will allow you to be much more focused at the task at hand when you have your tools ready at your fingertips, instead of using your energy in navigating the application.

Some cheese to finish it off (By Deke McClelland)

Believe it or not, this guy has recorded more than 2000 hours of video training and written over 80 books. He has by far been my greatest source of information in learning Photoshop, starting out years ago with the Photoshop 5.5 Bible. Check out his videos at, or visit his blog.