In this post, I will talk about how the pen tool works and how to use it in Adobe Photoshop to make selections. Overcoming the initial frustrations often felt when first trying to use the pen tool is the biggest hurdle.

The pen tool is useful for many different situations from making simple and complex selections to drawing shapes. 

Pen tool basics

The pen tool wants to create curves and paths but not always in the direction you want. This can leave you feeling annoyed and just want to avoid using it. However, with a little time and patience, you will understand how the tool works and will reach for the pen tool time and time again for many different situations.

When learning to use the pen tool I recommend you have a purpose. Give yourself the challenge to make a selection and remove it from the background. By having a goal it is much more likely you will learn to overcome any difficulties selecting shapes and edges.

Creating a path.

Open an image into photoshop. Select the pen tool from the toolbar and make sure the path is selected. Click once and click again to create a path from 1 point to another. 

A path in photoshop is simply 2 points connected together. When you start creating points and return back to the start you will notice a circle icon when hovering over the first point you placed. This is photoshop recognizing that this is closing the path.

photoshop path

Creating curves

When you click and create a starting point move the cursor and select a second point. If you hold down left mouse click on the second point and drag, you will notice handles appear.

If you are making a selection from left to right, the right handle would be where you intend to continue and the left handle would be the curve you just created. By altering these handles we can adjust the curve and also tell photoshop where we intend to continue our path.

photoshop pen tool shortcutsTo move and “snap” the handles so you can adjust curves and change direction, simply hold Alt or Option on Mac and click the handles and drag them in the direction required. This is how we move and make selections along the edges of your subject in Photoshop. 

To move points you have already placed simply hold Ctrl or command on mac and click and drag the points. You can then move points anywhere you like.

The great thing about making selections using the pen tool is they are none destructive. Even if you make a very rough selection go begin with, it is extremely easy to just use Ctrl and Alt to move and readjust. 

photoshop pen tool curve

Using the pen tool to make selections.

So why would we use the pen tool to make selections?

Maybe you want to remove something from its background or simply duplicate a part of a subject or even make a selection you want to colour, add gradient or mask? I have a post dedicated to the 3 ways to remove a background in photoshop. This includes making selections using the pen tool.

The possibilities like many of the other selection tools are endless. The main advantage of the pen tool is its ability to go from straight lines to perfect curves. After all, that’s what every shape is made from. This makes the pen tool extremely versatile. 

So we have created a path by clicking dragging and using the Alt and Ctrl keys. We have closed the path and have a blue selection around our subject ready to cut out.

Still with the pen tool selected simple right click and choose “Make Selection” the next box that pops up will ask you whether you want to feather the selection and to what amount?

make selection photoshop

The number here is how many pixels of “feather” (smoothing) you want to add to the selection. This depends on the size of your image, the higher the resolution the more pixels you have to play with. If your image is large then try 1 or 2 pixels. If the image is web size (1920 x 1080) for example try using 0.5 pixels or 1. 

After you click OK you will notice your selection path has converted to dancing ants. You can then simply select the layer mask option in the layers panel and cut out your image. 

If you create a solid colour or background image and move it below the layer you’ve been working on, you will be able to see your selection and the feather effect.

You can also refine the edge of your selection by double-clicking the mask. Here you can shift edge and feather increase/ decrease contrast. Play around and see what you prefer.

Practice, practice, and practice.

The pen tool is not the easiest tool to learn however it is the most rewarding. Its versatility really comes in handy for a lot of situations and once it “clicks” with you it can be a real game-changer.

The best way to learn is to practice and practice lots. Snap handles move points and drag the mouse. After some time you will start to realize what Photoshop is trying to do. When you understand this then you can take control and start telling Photoshop what you want to do. 

A great free tool I use for practice is the brazier game. It’s quite addictive and each part of the game gets more and more challenging. This is also a great website to use when you don’t have Photoshop available for practice.

Don’t forget when you know how to use the pen tool in photoshop you can also use it in illustrator, InDesign and many other design applications.

Good luck on your pen tool journey! Any questions and comments please leave them either on my youtube video or here below the blog post.

Thanks for reading

Rick