How to Find Your Way Around Photoshop’s User Interface and Toolbar

How to Find Your Way Around Photoshop’s User Interface and Toolbar

In this guide to Photoshop for Photographers, I will take you on a tour of very basic tools and features that are relevant for processing photos. As we proceed, you will get to learn all the essential functions necessary to feel comfortable using Photoshop for your image editing needs.

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Finding Your Way Around Photoshop

Quick Tour of The User Interface in Photoshop

Let us take a look at how the user interface in Photoshop is organized. (The letter corresponds to the image of the user interface below):

  • (A) At the top, you will find the usual menu structure. The menu has a lot of Photoshops lesser used, but still extremely useful features.
  • (B) Below it, you have the Application bar. It contains the workspace switcher, the menus, and tool specific controls. This means that once you select a tool from the tools panel, you need to look here at the top (left), to change tool specific settings.
  • (C) In the middle you can find the main working space, also called the document window. This is where the photo you are working on is displayed. If you have several photos opened, you can choose between them using tabs at the top of the document window.
  • (D) To the right, you will find several panels that will help you modify and monitor your work. You can stack several panels in a tab-like fashion to fit more panel into the right side panel area.
  • (E) At the top right, you have the Workspace switcher, which you will use in a little while.
  • (F) At the left side is the Tools panel. This is where you will find the tools for creating and editing images, artwork, page elements, and so on. Related tools are grouped.
In this guide to Photoshop for Photographers you will get a tour of the graphical user interface in Photoshop

Changing your Workspace to: Photography

The first thing to do, when you begin using Photoshop, is to make sure it suits your needs as a photographer. As already mentioned Photoshop has so many features, but many of them are used very much by photographers. Adobe has made a range of different workspaces, that shows different panels according to your needs, whether you are a designer, motion graphics art, or a photographer.

To change the workspace go to the upper right section of the screen and set the workspace switcher to Photography. It was probably set to Essentials, which is a one-size-fits-all workspace. You can use it, but in time photographers will miss having i.e. the histogram panel and history panel visible.

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Photoshop’s Toolbar

Before we dig into what the different tools in the toolbar can do, open a photo to work with by choosing File > Open. In the file dialog, find one of your photos on your hard drive and press the Open button. Now you are ready to begin playing around in Photoshop.

The toolbar on the left holds a lot of tools and much more than shown. If you left-click on a tool extra related tools or tool variations will pop-up making it possible for you to choose those instead of the main tool you just selected.

You don’t need to learn every single tool to use Photoshop efficiently as a Photographer. Below you will get an introduction to the most relevant tools. This will give you an idea of what each tool can help you with.

Move Tool [Shortcut: V]

Move tool in Photoshop

With the move tool, you can move layers on the Photoshop canvas. You use it to move layers relative to each other. Click anywhere on the canvas and drag. This will make the Photoshop layer move with your mouse. This is a basic tool to know, even though it is not the tool you will use the most as a photographer.

Marquee Tool [Shortcut: M]

Marquee tool in Photoshop

With this tool, you can select part of your image in a specific shape. When you have an active selection whatever you do only affects the selected part of the photo.

By default, the marquee tool gives you a rectangular selection. To ensure that you get a square selection hold down shift while selecting. You can also choose to make an ellipse shared selection. For a circle selection if you hold down shift while selecting with the ellipse marquee tool.

Lasso (Shortcut: L)

Polygon lasso tool in Photoshop

The lasso tool lets you work with selections in free-form. You can drag around the canvas whenever the starting point and end point meets, anything that the lasso selection encircles is selected. Within this

Another version of the lasso tool is the polygonal lasso tool. This tool lets you create a selection by clicking on the canvas and create points with straight lines between. The magnetic lasso tool works the same way as the regular lasso tool. However, with the magnetic lasso tool Photoshop will try to detect and snap to edges of objects for you.

Magic Wand (Keyboard: W)

magic wand tool

Use the magic wand to make a selection in Photoshop that is similar to the spot, where you clicked. With the right tolerance setting (in the options panel) you will be able to select i.e. the sky or the background with a single click. However, for detailed selections, you should use the selection tool or luminosity masks instead.

Crop Tool (Keyboard: C)

Crop tool in Photoshop

Use the crop tool to cut you cut away part of the image along the edges. You can also use the crop tool to change the proportions of the image. You can constrain the tool to use a specific ratio, like 2:3, 3:4, 1:1, or any other format you like. If you don’t select a ratio in the options panel, you can crop away freely.

Healing Brush (Keyboard: J)

healing brush in Photoshop

With the healing brush, you can sample part of your photo and use it to paint over another part. Photoshop examines the surrounding area and blend it with the rest of the photo. You can use it to hide small unwanted artifacts. This could be sensor spots from your camera, or a beer can, that you forgot to remove at the location.

Clone Stamp (Keyboard: S)

Clone stamp tool in Photoshop

Just like the healing brush. You can use the clone stamp tool to sample part of the photo and paint over another part. However, the clone stamp tool, Photoshop doesn’t try to blend what you paint with the surrounding area.

Brush Tool (Keyboard: B)

The brush tool works just like a paintbrush, while the pencil tool emulates a pencil. As a photographer, you will probably not use the pencil tool, but only the brush. You can change the brush size, opacity along with the shape and hardness, which controls how hard an edge transition you get. You can also paint with clouds or other shapes. I find that the brush is most useful for refining selection masks.

Gradient Tools (Keyboard: G)

Gradient tool

With the gradient tool can create a gradient that blends the foreground and background tool. You can also load and create preset gradients as well, some of which use than two colors).

Eraser Tool (Keyboard: E)

Eraser tool in Photoshop

The eraser tool works the same way to the paintbrush tool, except it erases instead of paints. Don’t use this on your base photography layer, as you will erase parts of you photo. You don’t want a transparent photo, do you. Instead, try to use masks you to make part of a layer visible or hidden. You will learn how to work with layer masks later on.

Dodge, Burn and Sponge Tools (Keyboard: O)


The burn, dodge, and sponge tools let you manipulate light and color intensity in your photo. You use them just like you would use a brush. The burn tool will make areas in your photo darker. The dodge tool will make them lighter.  With the sponge tool, you can saturate or desaturate the color, that you paint on top of with the sponge cursor. All of these three tools are useful for photo editing. You can even choose in the options bar only to affect highlights, shadows or mid tones.

Hand Tool (Keyboard: H)

hand tool

With the hand tool, you can click and drag your way around the Photoshop canvas. This is useful if you’re zoomed in and the photo cannot fit your screen. Great for working with details, where you need to look at different parts of the photo without changing the zoom level.

Zoom Tool (Keyboard: Z)

Zoom tool in Photoshop

 Zoom in and out of your photo in Photoshop with the zoom tool, just by clicking on the area you want to view up close. The zoom tool zooms in by default. If you want to zoom out, you need to hold down the option key while clicking.

Color Selection Tools

Color selection tool in Photoshop

The Color selection tool, let you change the colors you’re using, i.e., with the brush or fill tool. The color on top is the foreground color. The color in behind is the background color. If you use a brush, it will paint with the foreground color. If you click on the foreground or background color, a color picker dialogue will show, so you can change to precisely the color you want.


These two small icons just above the foreground/background color selection tool are shortcut functions. The small icon to the left, showing a black and white square, will change the colors back to the default colors (You can also press D to set the colors to defaults). The double-headed curved arrow on the right will let you swap the foreground and background color. You can also press X to do this.

Photoshop Panels You Are Going To Use As a Photographer

Now it is time to get to know the most useful panels in Photoshop that you will use if you want to do your photo editing in Photoshop.

The Adjustments Panel

adjustments panel

The adjustments panel is one of the most important panels for photographers. Within this panel, you have access to all the essential photo editing tools for adjusting brightness, contrast, levels, color balance, and adding different color filters.

Each time you use one of the adjustment tools you create a new adjustment layer on top of your photo in the layers panel. This means that you can activate or deactivate each adjustment to your photo later.

The History Panel

hitory panel

The history panel is very useful for going backward in your editing process. With this panel, you can go back to an earlier state in editing your photo. If you regret the recent crop, just click on the history state just above performing the crop. In the image sample,  this would be when you used the Blur tool. If you have made many steps, this is an easy and convenient way to move many steps backward with a single click.

Note that the amount of history states available is not unlimited. You can set the preferred number of steps that Photoshop should remember in the performance preference settings in Photoshop.

Histogram panel in Photoshop

The Histogram Panel

This panel shows the distribution of data in your image. The left side of the histogram shows how much information is available in the black areas. The more you look towards the right, you will be looking at the amount of data in the shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and in the white areas towards the far right. The histogram can be a useful help for adjusting for a better exposure. In general, a spread out histogram from left to right, that peaks just to the right of the middle, gives you the best distribution between the shadows and highlights. However, this also depends on your subject, since night time photos will tend to be more orientated to the left side of the histogram. You shouldn’t adjust your image to get a “perfect” histogram, but use it to find out which range (shadows, mid-tones, or highlights), that has the majority of pixels and whether you have blown out highlights or totally black areas, that you should attend to in your image.

The Actions Panel

Photoshop Actions Panel

Using actions can simplify working in Photoshop a great deal. With actions, you can record the steps you often do in your workflow. Once recorded you can play back all the recorded steps on another image, so you don’t have to do them over and over again. While creating Photoshop actions can be a little tricky, you can also take a shortcut and get some Photoshop actions created by others. Take a look at my Photoshop Actions for Photographers Package. These Photoshop Actions will help you simplify and speed up your work in Photoshop.

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