The Pen Tool

update November 13, 2017: you can save yourself all the trouble learning this technique in this tutorial and the other selection tutorials and at the same time save a lot of time and be more accurate by just creating selections with the new Quick Mask Pro panel.

In this weeks tutorial I want to discuss the Pen Tool. It is an often overlooked tool in Photoshop, but I think it is one of the fundamental tools to create selections. It is quite an easy tool to use, so I will keep this tutorial short.  To achieve absolute control over your selections, you  can combine the Pen Tool with the Quick Mask Mode and Channels. So, what is the Pen Tool? It’s basically nothing more than a tool to create either straight lines or curved lines.

Terry White on the Pen Tool

Terry White is a great instructor on pretty much the entire Creative Cloud collection. In the video below he explains in great detail what the Pen Tool is and how to use it. I highly recommend watching this video first and try to get comfortable with the Pen Tool. Or you could just try playing around with the Pen Tool. You can either click or click and drag with the Pen Tool. Clicking gives you a straight line, clicking and dragging gives a curved line. That’s basically it.

Using the Pen Tool combined with Quick Mask Mode for selections

Now that you’re hopefully comfortable using the Pen Tool, I’ll explain how I use this tool.

In this image of the Empire State Building I already made a selection of the sky. Then I inverted the selection to get a selection of the buildings. In the Quick Mask Mode I painted the left building in and I got a selection of the ESB. Now, what if I just want to select the lower left part of the ESB? The quickest and most accurate way to do this is by using the Pen Tool. If you want to know how I created the Black and White version of this image using the iSGM black and white post processing method then please check out the Black and White photography Masterclass Video tutorial with everything on creating world class Black and White photographs.

Empire State Building Selection

First I go in the Quick Mask Mode.

Empire State Building Quick Mask Mode

Then I start drawing a path with the Pen Tool.

Pen Tool Empire State Building

As you can see in the Quick Mask Mode, some parts are already masked (and thus are already selected). So I don’t need to be precise on the parts that meet the sky.

I convert the path into a selection by right clicking on the image and select Make Selection.

Making a Selection from a workpath

I only want to have the lower left part as a selection. So I have to invert this selection and paint in the rest of the image.
Another option would have been to select everything except the lower left part. I would have had to select the entire Empire State Building, except the lower left part and then paint the selection in. In this particular case I preferred to make a small selection and invert that instead of making a big selection. Both options would have given the same end result. It might make more sense to select that part that needs to be masked (that is: the entire ESB except the lower left part). Do however you feel most comfortable.

Go back to quick mask mode again

I inverted the selection, now I just have to paint in the rest of the building.

Filling the selection

The rest of the selection painted in.

I now have successfully selected the lower left part of the Empire State Building. I need to press CMD+D or CTRL+D to exit the selection. Then I need to press Q to go out of the Quick Mask Mode.


This is the selection I end up with after exiting Quick Mask Mode. I just need to make sure to save this selection.

I could have selected the lower left part by itself using the Pen Tool. I chose to use an existing selection, because a part that I needed for my selection was already selected (the part where the building meets the sky). Using an existing selection to create another, can save you some time. In this case I only saved a couple of minutes of work. In more complex situations you can save yourself a great deal of work if you use a smart way to combine selections.

Flexibility of the Pen Tool

Another thing that I like a lot about the Pen Tool is how forgiving this tool is. In the images below (my most recent work from the Erasmus Bridge that is still in progress, shot with the Canon TS-E 24mm lens and the Formatt-Hitech IRND filterset) I made a terrible selection. Fortunately, you can easily move the anchor points to fix that. Just click and drag the anchor points while holding the CMD or CTRL key.

A terrible selection

I fixed the major problems within seconds.

The selection improved

Combining the Quick Mask Mode, Channels & The Pen Tool

For my selections I use all kinds of different tools combined. I don’t just use one or another. Combining the Quick Mask Mode, Channels and The Pen Tool altogether is what I use. Next week I explain how, why and when I combine them, using the image below.

Erasmus bridge


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