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Creating Path and Selection Using Photoshop Pen Tool

Once again, you are faced with photos that need some retouching here and there to make them perfect. So you go to open your Photoshop, and now it’s about making that agonizing decision as to which tool you should choose to do the best job for you. You may be thinking, “I’ll just use the Lasso Tool, or maybe the Elliptical Tool would do the job.” But what about the Pen Tool? Surely you are not afraid to the Pen Tool, are you? Many people struggle with the Photoshop Pen Tool and just don’t get the hang of it. So today we are going to go through some steps to show you creating path and selection using Photoshop Pen tool or how to use Pen Tool, in this Adobe Photoshop tutorial. You will learn just how easy and fun it is to use the Pen Tool. Once you get the hang of it, you will be surprised how easy it is. You will understand why so many people claim that the Pen Tool, is the best tool that Photoshop has to offer for photo editing and so much more.

One thing about the Pen Tool is that Photoshop is not the only program that utilizes it. Actually, nearly every graphics program, photo editing program, or even page layout software uses some type of Pen Tool in various forms. So it’s a good bet that if you can master the Pen Tool in Photoshop, you can then also use it in many of the other photo editing programs too, or at least have a good idea how to do it.

Where Is the Pen Tool Located?

To find the Pen Tool, you need to go to the Tools palette on the left side of the screen. It is in the area with the Type Tool, the Shape Tool, Path Selection (a white arrow), and the Direct Selection (a black arrow). One may wonder why the Pen Tool is not located with the other tools at the top of the screen (Lasso Tool, Elliptical Marquee Tool etc.). Actually, it is because those tools are based on pixels, rather than Paths. Although the Pen Tool is classified as a selection tool, even though it is not grouped with selection tools. Instead, the Pen Tool is located with the tools that use Paths, like the Type Tool, Shape Tool, etc.

Pen tool

The Pen Tool works with Paths like they do, and has much more in common with those tools than the selection tools like the Lasso Tool, which are mainly based on pixels.

Why Is It Named The “Pen” Tool?

It’s name is misleading, as most people know, or will discover is that the Pen Tool is definitely not something you would want to write words with, by any means. If you tried to use it like a conventional pen, writing words on paper, you would probably find a garbled mess that would not make a lot of sense, but perhaps your handwriting is not neat and tidy either. So at any rate, the Pen Tool is not used in the conventional sense of the word.

The Pen Tool has had several different names over the years since its creation by a man named Paul Bezier (His picture is located bellow). So it has sometimes been called a Bezier Tool or Bezier Pen. He was a French Engineer who worked for the Renault Car Company, designing cars. The Pen Tool was created to help design cars.

Paul Bezier

What Is A Path?

It has also been called a Path Tool, as it literally is used to “draw paths”. When you make a selection with a Pen Tool, all you do to change the Path you have drawn into a selection. But first you had to start with a path. A path may seem a bit out of place in Photoshop, since Photoshop is mainly based on pixels. One needs millions of tiny pixels to create a digital image. The program then does different things with the pixels to change and shape of the image.

A path is basically just a line that travels from one point to another point, which really has nothing to do with the pixels that make up the image. It doesn’t matter if the line is curved, straight or crooked, but it always is between two points. A path is actually separate from the image, and after you work on it, it won’t show up as part of the image in the JPEG file. A path is basically just a line that travels from one point to another point, which really has nothing to do with the pixels that make up the image.

Showing 2 points of path

It doesn’t matter if the line is curved, straight or crooked, but it always is between two points. In order to create a path, one needs to have at least two points, because you have to know where the path begins and ends. If you use several points so you can bring the path back to where you began, one can actually build various shapes out of the paths. This, by the way is how the Shape Tools in Photoshop work. Paths are also utilized by the rectangle tool, in that the paths are connected by points to create a rectangular image. Paths are used by the Ellipse Tool, to create elliptical shapes and more.

Rectangle shape and elliptical shape

Additionally, the Type Tool in Photoshop makes use of paths as well, although slightly differently than some of the other shapes. It is interesting to note that most of the type in Photoshop basically is created from paths. You can actually change the type into various shapes, giving you all the same editing choices you get when you work with shapes themselves. See the bellow image how I have created a path from a text.

Making path from text

Paths are also sometimes called outlines, which is a fair description of a path or what it could be. Say for example, you choose draw a round path and if you don’t fill it in, you still have the outline of the circle. This is also true if you draw a triangle or another shape. If you don’t color it or fill it in, it is just simply an outline of the object’s shape. The path does not become anything else other than a basic outline until you decide to do something with it.

So let’s get started Path with Pen Tool

First, you would go to your Photoshop and open a new document. Then you need to select a size, say 640×480 or whatever you wish (it’s not real important what size you use here). Then you select the Pen Tool from you Tools palette. You can take a shortcut and press the (P) key on the keyboard to bring up the Pen Tool as well. Either way will work for our purposes here. The next step is to insure that you are in the correct mode. The Pen Tool has two different modes to work in, and you want the one that is not the default. So the next thing you want to do after selecting the Pen Tool, is go to the Options bar at the top of the screen. You will notice three small icons.

3 icon of pen tool

But the Pen Tool can only use two of these, as the other one to the right is actually the Fill Pixels icon. This is currently gray in color when the Pen Tool is being used. It is only used when working with the Shape Tools. The first icon on the left is generally used to Shape Layers, this one usually comes up by default, but is not the one you want to use at this time. If you were to use this one, you would find yourself only able to draw shapes. However, for our purposes, you want the one next to it, the Paths icon.

Pen tool option

Go ahead and click on it. You will see the Pen Tool with a small square on the point of the tool.

Pen tool and path point

This point is referred to as the anchor or the anchor point. This is actually the starting point of your first path. The first point anchors the start of the path, then as you add more points, they will continue to anchor the path in place wherever you wish. Go ahead and click another place just to the right of the first point.

added another anchor point

You will see the path you just created. Do it a couple more times and see what happens. You don’t have to click and drag, just click.

Added more anchor points

Close Your Path

When you close your path, you return to your original starting point. Take your mouse cursor and hover over the first point, you will notice the tiny circle that appears.

Closing the path

This means that you are about to complete the circle by finishing it where it started. Just click right on the beginning point and the path is closed. Now you know how to create a basic path.

Getting A Handle On Direction Handles

So once again, you will start by selecting the Pen Tool. You will either need to open a new Photoshop document or delete the old one. Next, you will select the Pen Tool, and click on the Paths option, which is located in the Options bar. Next you will click any place on the inside of the document, like before. But this time when you click, drag the mouse a small distance away from the anchor point, just before you release the mouse button.

Click and drag by pen tool

When you have finished, you will notice an anchor point with two lines coming out of it instead of only one. Your first thought may be that there are three anchor points, two on opposite ends, and one in the center. However, if you look closely, you will be able to see that the point in the center is square, while the ones on the opposite ends are diamond shaped and a bit smaller as well. Now since anchor points are only square shaped, the end points are not anchor points after all. They are, in fact “Direction Handles”. Direction handles are just what they say they are. They are used especially when making curved path sections. Generally there are two of them, just like you observed above, but they usually extend out from anchor points. They get their name from the fact that they are used to move things around. Direction Handles are pretty much used to control two main areas. They control the length of the curve, and the angle of the curve. There are generally two of them as one controls the length and angle of the curve going into the anchor point, while the other controls the length and angle of the curve moving away from the anchor point. Now, don’t worry, it’s not too difficult to draw curves using the direction handles. All you need to remember is that your mastery of creating curves all depends on your capability in controlling the handles. So to create the handle, you click with your Pen Tool and drag away from the anchor. The further you drag away, the longer the direction handle will be. The longer you make the handle, the longer the curve will turn out. The same goes for shorter. If you create short handles, you will end up with a short curve as well. One good thing you will find with the Pen Tool is the fact that it’s OK if you make mistakes. You don’t have to worry about doing something wrong, as you can easily go back and fix it or move it to where you want, as often as you want.

How to rotate and resize the direction handle?

The reason they are called direction handles is due to the fact that they can be grabbed and moved around, as you like. In this section you will see how to rotate both direction handles all at the same time. So start with the anchor point and the two handles you already created, hold down the Ctrl (for Window) or Command (for Mac) key. You will notice that the Pen Tool turns into the Direct Selection Tool (white arrow) (It is now a shortcut to access the Direct Selection Tool, used to choose different sections of the Path).

Direct selection tool

Now you need to click on the tiny diamond shape at either end of the direction handles. Be sure to click on the end diamond itself or it won’t work. After you click on the diamond shape, drag it around the anchor point to cause it to rotate. You will also notice that as you rotate one handle, the other handle rotates at the same time, in the opposite direction. You will also notice that your mouse cursor has turned into the Move Icon, since you are moving an item from one spot to another.

Rotating direction handle

You can also let go of the Ctrl/Command key, after you have begun to drag the handle. It’s not necessary to hold it down the whole time. To resize a direction handle at the same time you are rotating it, you just drag one end of your handle in toward the anchor point to make it shorter. Or you drag it away from the anchor point to make it longer. As I discussed earlier, a longer handle will make the curve longer, and a shorter handle will make the curve shorter. If you already released the mouse after rotating the handles, and you want to make adjustments, just press the Ctrl/Command again briefly to switch to the Direct Selection Tool, then click, drag, and adjust the handle as needed.

Rotating direction handle and resizing

Now if you want to rotate the handles separately of each other, you first need to release mouse if had just resized or rotated the handles, and allow cursor to return to Pen Tool icon.

The next step is to press and hold down the Alt (Win) or Option (Mac) and just click on one of the ends of the direction handles in front of you. Now you will notice that the cursor converts to a Convert Point Tool. It should look like a simple arrow, almost like an inverted “v”.

Convert Point Tool

Next you will drag your handle around the anchor point itself to perform the rotation just like previously, except now the handle will rotate all by itself, not with the other one as before. Again, you don’t need to hold down the Alt/Options key the entire time, you can release it once you begin dragging the handle.

Rotating one direction handle

If you wish to resize another direction handle, you can use the same Alt/Option key in the same method as when you used the Ctrl/Command key. If you already released your mouse button, then you will need to press the Alt/Option again, and then continue clicking on one end of the handle and dragging to resize.

How to Draw a Curve?

Let’s start by opening a new document in Photoshop, or you can delete the previous document you already worked on. Then you will be drawing your first curve, and reviewing what you just learned. So first, you need to make sure you have selected, Pen Tool, Paths option from the Options bar. Next you need to add an anchor point someplace on the document. Now you will have one anchor point on the screen when you are finished. Next, move your cursor to the upper right of the single anchor point you already have. Click a second time to add another anchor point, but now drag the mouse a tiny bit to the right of your anchor point to drag out the direction handles. Be sure to hold down the Shift key, while you are dragging out the direction handle in a horizontal direction. You should notice that your path is starting to look like a curve between your two anchor points. You will also notice that the further out you move the mouse, the move of a curve is being created, as the direction handles become longer too.

Making curve

Then you can move the cursor (don’t drag) down and right from your 2nd anchor point click again, creating a 3rd anchor point. When you add the 3rd anchor point, the second path shows up, and since the 2nd anchor has directional handles too, the new path is curved as well. You now have a nice, smooth curved arc that begins at a starting point on the left, moving through the anchor point at the top, and then ending nicely at the third point.

Applied 3rd anchor point to make a curve

You may have also noticed that when you attached the third anchor point to the page, that the direction handles which was sticking out to the left of the second anchor is gone. However, it is not really gone, it’s just hidden from sight by Photoshop. If you choose to press and hold the Ctrl/Command key, while you click on the second anchor point to choose it. Suddenly, the direction handle, which was missing, will reappear as never gone at all. If you switch to the Direct Selection Tool, and click the top anchor point, the missing anchor point will reappear.

Click on second point by direction selection tool-to see missing anchor point

Next, if you hold down the Ctrl/Command key, you can still use the Direct Selection Tool to resize each direction handle. All you do is to click on the end of either end of one to choose it, and then drag it towards and away from the anchor point. If you hold down the Shift key and move horizontally see what happens. You will see that as the length of the handle is extended, you will get a larger curve. However, if the length of the handle is shortened the curve is much less as well. In addition each handle is in control of one side of the curve. For example the left handle controls the curve entering the anchor point on the left, while the right handle is in control of the curve leaving the anchor point on the right side. If you make a handle shorter, you will see that the curve is much less defined than it was to begin with, and it may even resemble a straight line. Then, if you also lengthen the handle on the other side, the curve is more obvious and causes the arc to be rather lopsided.

Resizing direction handle using direct selection tool

You can also change the entire angle of the curves by simply rotating the direction handles. All you need to do is choose a handle while you press and hold down the Ctrl/Command key, this will rotate both handles at the same time.

Changing the angle by rating direction handle

How to move an anchor point?

The next you may want to do is to move an anchor point. If you remember, I had noted that the Pent Tool is quite flexible in that it will allow you to go back and change things as many times as you wish, it is quite forgiving in that way, So in addition to being able to resize and rotate the direction handles after they have been created, you can also easily move the anchor points from one spot to the next anytime you wish. So although the anchor point keeps a path in place, the anchor itself can be moved just about anywhere, at any time. Plus, any paths or path sections, which are connected to the anchor point, will be moved as well. In order to move an anchor point, all you need to do, is to press and hold the Ctrl/Command key to get temporary access to the Direct Selection Tool. Then click on the anchor point, and drag it to the new spot with the mouse. Any path sections that are attached will move to the new spot as well. You may notice how the path will even change its original shape to make adjustment for the new anchor point location.

Click and move the anchor point

Generally, when you use a path to outline an object, by selecting the Pen Tool, you probably won’t have the need to move your anchor point, but many people will often go back and retrace the path around the item to fine tune the path and make minor adjustments to a few of the anchor points they have there. If you choose to do this, all you need to do is to select the anchor point, and then use the arrow keys on the keyboard to nudge it where you want it to go.

How to combine curves with straight paths?

So now you think, maybe I don’t want to have both of the path sections to be curved. Maybe you decide that you want the first path section to be curved and the second one to be straight. So what you need to do next is get rid of the first path, or open a new one. SO first you will need to attach one anchor point. So then next you would click to attach the second anchor point. Now you go to the right of the first point you did, but this time you would pull out the direction handles, so that they would create a lovely curved path that joins the two points. Now you have what you had at the very beginning.

Clicked two anchore point one after-another and drag to creat a curve

So now that you have the first curve, you want to make the next path to be straight, rather than a curved path. If you just click some where on the page to attach the next anchor point, you would only get a curve, because the direction handle that is stretched out from the right side of the last anchor point that was added. So what you really need to do here is to remove one of the direction handles, because if there is no direction handle managing the length and angle of the curve, you will then be left with a straight line.

In order to remove the handle, with only the handle at the left of your anchor point, all you have to do is press and hold down the Alt/Option key. This will switch you to the Convert Point Tool temporarily.

Hold down Altr or Option and the Convert point tool disappear

Then you just click on your anchor point, and when you do, the right hand direction handle simply disappears, and the direction handle on the left remains.

Clicked by convert point tool and one handle has gone

Now, since the direction handle is no longer there, you can click to attach a new anchor point, and you will have a straight path section between your two points.

Added third point to make straight path

So now you have a straight path section on the right, and a curved one on the left. So maybe I would like to have the opposite instead, how do I do that?

You could either start with a curve and then add a straight path section, or you could do the opposite. Well, the first thing you have to do is to begin by clicking somewhere to attach an initial anchor point. Then, if you decide you would like to begin with a straight path, just simply click another place to attach the second point.

attached two anchore points to make a straight path

This will give you a completely straight path between two points. So then you keep the mouse button pressed down after you click to attach the second anchor, so that the next path section will be curved. Now you know that you will need a direction handle to make a curve. In order to add a handle that extends out on the right side of the anchor point, you will need to press and hold down the Alt/Option, while at the same time, dragging it to the right of the anchor point. When you do this, you will see a direction handle drag out with it too.

Create a direction handle by-pressing Altr or Option and drag

You will also notice that the new direction handle that you have created, only sticks out on the right side of the anchor point, rather than both sides, which leaves the straight path section on the left side in place. Now that you have the direction handle in place on the right side, the only thing left to do is create the curve by clicking to attach the third point.

Adding a third anchore point to create a curve

So now you have a straight path section to your left, and curved path section to your right. Although, generally most paths that you encounter, will usually be composed of more than three anchor points. Now suppose you wished to continue working along this path, and so you would follow the same direction, moving to the right, and then you decide to make your next path section curved too. So like you did previously, you hold the mouse button down after you clicked, and added the third point.

Next you will press down and hold the Alt/Option key, while you drag out yet another direction handle. Up to this point, you have been dragging the handles to the right, but now you will simply drag the direction handle the same direction that you wish the curve to go. So, for example if you would like the curve to go down and to your right, you would drag a small handle in that direction. It is important to note, that you should try to keep the direction handles small when you first begin to drag them out. This is mainly because you are not certain what angle they may need to be at, or how long they need to be, until you actually see the curve. Since the curve doesn’t show up until you have put in both of your anchor points. Now, once you have both of the anchor points set, and the curve shows up, then you can go back and do any adjusting to the handles you wish. In fact, you might want to wait until you have created the whole path before doing any adjustment to the handles.

Drag out the direction handle from the third point

Now that you have created the direction handle, it is time to add a fourth anchor point. You can also drag the direction handles out from it too. You have now attached a third curved section to the path.

Adding a fourth anchore point and dragging a direction handle

You will see that this particular curve has two direction handles to control it, one coming form the left of the fourth point, and the other coming from the right of the third anchor point. The basic shape of the curve can be controlled by the direction and length of the handles. If you move the top handle down to the left, and the bottom handle up to the right, and both longer as well. This is essentially due to the fact that the topmost handle controls the length and angle of your curve as it continues into the fourth point. At the same time, the handle on the bottom controls the length and angle of the curve as it continues out of the third point. You will find that by simply altering the direction or length of either one of the handles will change the general shape of the curve.

How to create a path around an image?

This next section is using an image to demonstrate everything you have learned up to this point. If you thought that you could use the Lasso Tool on this project, which is what most people would use, if they were not comfortable using the Pen Tool they would likely be very disappointed with the results. This subject does not lend itself well to the Lasso Tool, and you would probably find it very difficult to create smooth edges on the curved selection areas. Or as the case may be, you may find yourself extremely frustrated in attempting to draw a smooth, even curve with a pen tablet or even your mouse. Then when you are finished, it still tends to look choppy, with rough, jagged edges, and just looks unfinished. So your best bet with subject matter like this is to use the Pen Tool.

Let’s try something different to practice everything you have learned so far using the Pen Tool. So now we are going to use a group image of chocolate to demonstrate how easy it is to use the Pen tool to cut out one chocolate image from this group picture.

Chocolate image

The first thing to do here is to look the object over closely to determine where you would like to put your anchor points. The details are not important at this point, what you really need to know is the actual shape of the object. Where does the object curve? And where does the object remain straight? Where do the curves change direction? How often do the curves change the angle? What you are doing here is visualizing where you want to put the various anchor points. As you place each anchor point, you want to be looking ahead to where you wish to put the next one, and the next one, and so on. You always want to be looking ahead just a little, so you can decide the best place to put each of the anchor points to create a smooth curve in your selected item.

Elegant Tool

Another thing to remember is that the Pen Tool is intended to be elegant. It is not to be handled like a shovel or nail gun. The idea is not to just randomly place anchor points around the shape any old place. When you use the Pen Tool to draw your curves around the shape, you want them to be as smooth as you possibly can, otherwise another tool would have worked for the task at hand. To insure that your curves have a smooth continuity, you need to place your anchor points sparingly. So this is reason why you need to carefully visualize your shape/object to get an idea where all the important key points are located. You want to use as few anchor points as possible, to create the smoothest shape. So now you would select the chocolate. Perhaps you wish to begin by placing an anchor point towards the center of the photo (however, you can begin anywhere you wish if prefer).

Pressing the first anchore point

So next, you click once with the Pen and there is your starting point. You may also find it helpful to zoom in on the object as you draw the path. If you hold down the spacebar, it will temporarily switch you to Hand Tool, which allows you to move the object around the screen by clicking and dragging. So the next anchor point would be moving up the. Notice how there is a straight line along the edge.

Adding second anchore point

Now you just continue to move up along the outside area of the chocolate packet, where it remains straight for a short while. So then you would add a 3rd anchor point where the edge begins to curve.

Dragging the handle of the third anchore point

Now you have a straight path between that last point and the new one. Since you have a short direction handle coming out from the last anchor point, this means the path will be in a curve, rather than straight. However, because the handle is quite short, you don’t notice the curve as much, it looks straight. Moving along, you will come to a curved area. So you drag a direction handle from the last point you added, hold down the Alt/Option Key, and drag the handle where you want the curve to go. To add your curve, just click and drag at the point where the curve stops. Be careful to shape your curve to match the outside area.

Pressing Alt or Option adding another anchore-point to create another curve

The next area of the packet is round, so you would add the next point just at the first of next curve. This will give another curve path. So again you click the next point and drag out direction handle to get ready for the next curved path section.

Adding another anchore point and dradding to create the next path

You will notice that the left part of the edge is little curve also. So now click on the next curve area and drag to make a small curve. Next you will press and hold the Ctrl/Command key (Direct Selection Tool) and drag the bottom handle out to extend it, and this will move the angle of the curve as well and align with the curve of the edge.

Continueing path to move on

To add a curve at the side of the edge, click and drag the opposite side in order to add yet another anchor point with shorter direction handles. However, you may find that the direction handle to the left part of the curve is a bit.

Adding another anchore with shorter direction handle

The rest of the path around the edge is fairly similar forward, so now you just need to continue to draw the path around the rest of the chocolate packet to complete your path.

Completed path around one chocolate packet

When you have completely outlined one chocolate image, you will see when you look on the Paths palette that you have a path in a packet shape. Now, you remember that Photoshop usually will name the path automatically, “Work Path”. This just simply means that it’s only temporary and can be replaced if you choose to begin another path altogether.

Path palate

So if you are happy with what you did so far, and want to save your work, you just simply double-click on the words “Work Path,” and then you can rename it whatever you wish.

How to convert a path to a selection?

So the next thing you want to do is to convert your path into a selection. So you click on and hold the Ctrl+Enter/Command+Return keys. This step will now convert the path that you just finished, into a selection and when you look at the photo, you can see that the path you just did is now a selection around the packet.

Made-selection of the created path

Your next task will be to do any other plans or projects that you wish, you can learn 5 uses of clipping path from my another article. Now that you have object ready to insert into any other background or scenery.

This tutorial is designed to show you how to create a path around an image and select it for other projects, or to change the background around the photo using the Pen Tool. Although many people prefer to use some of the other tools like the Lasso Tool or the Elliptical Marquee Tool, you may have come to realize that these tools are not always the best for particular jobs. You may have found yourself struggling to draw smooth lines using one of the other tools in the palette. Many people find that when working with pixels, it can be extremely frustrating and tedious. Hopefully, after using the Pen Tool, you won’t feel quite so intimidated by it, and will find yourself reaching for the Pen Tool when contemplating the images and objects that lend themselves to working with this versatile tool. The Pen Tool is ideal when working with assorted objects that contain multiple straight lines and curves, yet allows you to create a path around the object and edit flawlessly. Best of luck on your next editing project!

About the auther 

Rokaiya is a creative graphic designer, Internet marketer, and a blogger. She joined the team of clippingpathspecialist.com is a brand of Outsource Experts Ltd on 2010 as a head of it’s marketing department, and she's been working with the tool ever since! She likes to share tips and tricks on photo editing and graphic design!

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