Photoshop for Learning: Taking the First Step

While developing ideas for this series on Adobe Photoshop, I was reminded of one of the best gifts I ever received. My wife recently gave me a massive rolling tool box for Father’s Day. You know, the kind that you see in automotive garages and dealerships. The idea behind such a toolbox is of course to keep your tools organized in one location. This keeps your garage, basement or mancave tidy and you know exactly where your tools are when you need them.

Software is really no different than my shiny new tool box. Everything is there but not in plain sight. You must learn which drawer to open to find the tool that you are looking for. This is especially true for Adobe Photoshop. The Adobe engineers created an amazing interface that gives you access to a massive number of tools and commands, but you must know where to look. In this article, I wanted to take you on a tour of the Adobe Photoshop interface and help you find your way around so that you’ll spend less time looking for things and more time creating amazing content.

Shock and Awe

The first time you launched Adobe Photoshop your first thought perhaps was “now what do I do?” This is the wonder and the horror that is Photoshop. There are so many possibilities, which is the right path to choose? Let me put you at ease by saying that there is no singular “right” path and that is why you will find literally tens of thousands of Photoshop tutorials on the web. But before you dive head first into learning how to remove a background or how to recolor a photo, you should learn the interface.  I know, its not the most entertaining of topics but let me assure you, it will save you precious time just like my tool box does for me. Plus, it will help resolve some your fears of Photoshop making it much easier to learn.

Let’s start at the very top of the interface with the Menu and Tool Options panel. The menu functions like any other software, you click a menu title to reveal a list of menu items. Some of those menu items will lead you to submenus. Clicking a menu item can do any number of things. It could open a dialog box where you must enter additional information, or it could initiate a change to your file. Some of the menu items will have keyboard shortcuts listed to the right of them. Don’t worry about committing these shortcuts to memory. You will do that naturally as you become more familiar with Photoshop.

Immediately below the menu is the Tool Options bar. This is where you can see and adjust the settings for the active tool. This area of the interface is contextual, meaning that it changes depending on which tool is active. You will spend a fair amount of time in the Tool Options panel, so it is a good idea to get familiar with it right away. The very first icon on the far left of this panel will be the active tool, followed by various options for that tool. If you continue to the right, at the far end you will find another set of icons that have no relationship to the active tool. This was just a convenient place for the Adobe engineers to place commonly used items like the Search button and the Workspace Switcher (more on this later).

The Tools Panel

Continuing down the left side of the Photoshop interface you will find the Tools panel. Adobe products tend to rely on tools rather than an obligatory “pointer” unless of course, your mouse is in one of the panels. This is another feature that new users of Photoshop have a difficult time getting used to. When you select a tool from the tools panel you will continue to use that tool until you select yet another tool. So, you will spend a lot of time in the tools panel switching between tools.

Not all the tools are readily available in the tools panel. Some of them have a small disclosure triangle next to them. Clicking and holding your mouse button on one of these tools will reveal a small list of additional tools, like opening a tool drawer. The tools in each of these lists is not random. The Adobe engineers have gathered tools together that are similar in nature. So, if you are looking for a selection tool and you open one these tool menus, you will find other selection tools.

By default, the Tools panel is displayed as a single column of icons. If you look at the top of the panel you will find a pair of small arrows pointing to the right. Clicking these arrows will rearrange the Tools panel into a two-column configuration. In the later versions of Photoshop there is an extra tool icon that looks like an ellipsis. Clicking and holding this icon will open a dialog box that will allow you to further customize the tools panel. I recommend that you leave this feature alone until you become more familiar with Photoshop.

At the bottom of the Tools panel you will find icons for other common features like color selection and preview options. Over the course of these blog posts, I will explore these features in greater detail. For now, let’s continue our exploration of the Adobe interface.

The Document Window

Next on our tour is the Document window. This is the large area in the center of the interface where your document(s) will be displayed. The only features of note here are the document tabs at the top and the status bar at the bottom. The document tabs are there to help you switch between multiple open documents. They also provide some useful information about your document such as file name, zoom percentage, color mode, and save status. You can also use the “X” on a document tab to close the document without closing the application. You can even drag documents to other areas of your screen or to a second monitor using the document tab.

At the bottom of the Document window is the status bar. This will give you feedback about the zoom percentage of the document, the amount of disk space the document uses, document color profile, and loads more. Thankfully, this information is not thrown at you all at once. Instead, you can select which piece of information you want to see from a small menu there in the status bar.

And finally, the right side of the status bar as well as the right side of the document window contain scrolling bars. You can use these areas to quickly navigate around your document.This can be very handy when you zoom in close and need to explore.

Photoshop Panels

Instead of ribbons, Photoshop uses panels to organize and display commands. Most, if not all these commands can be found in the menu bar, but panels are a much more user-centric way to display them. Just like the Tools panel, these commands are not random but organized by topic. Unlike ribbons, panels can be resized and re-positioned on the screen. Panels also have menus that hold the less common commands and commands for controlling the look of the panel.

Panels can be displayed as icons which is very handy when working on smaller screens like a laptop. Simply click the small double arrows at the top of the panel to switch between full panels and icons. Note that this will affect all other panels that are grouped with the one you are changing. When a panel is in icon mode, you have to click the icon to open the panel then click the icon again to collapse the panel.

Panels can be grouped together forming panel tabs like the document tabs discussed earlier. Dragging the panel tabs will re-position the panels on your screen for a truly unique user experience. By dragging one panel on top of another you can group them. Just look for the blue highlight as you drag to see where your panel will be positioned. You can even drag panels onto a second monitor to give you more room for your document window.

The panels that you see when you open Photoshop are not the only panels available. To access a full list of panels, go to the Window menu and click. This will reveal an alphabetical list of available panels. Selecting an item in this menu will open that panel on your screen. You can then re-position that panel by dragging its tab.

Hopefully that is enough to get you curious and less apprehensive about learning to use Photoshop. Stay tuned as I will be bringing you more Photoshop tutorials geared for the learning industry. Until next time.

William Everhart
As the E-Learning Authoring Tools Trainer for E-Learning Uncovered, William is focused on helping others to overcome their software challenges. He holds multiple Adobe ACE certifications as well as CompTia's CTT+ certification. William travels the creative and professional learning conference circuits inspiring others to create amazing and educational content.

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