Getting Started with Adobe Photoshop
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Familiarizing Yourself with the Photoshop Interface

Welcome to the wonderful world of Photoshop. This tutorial covers the basics of how to use Photoshop to work with your digital images. The intent of this tutorial is to introduce you to the concepts at work in Photoshop; however, the best way to develop your skills is to experiment with the programs. This first page will point out some of the features of the Photoshop interface and define a few terms I'll use throughout the tutorial.

Open application

The first step, of course, is to open the application. In the IT lab, you can find Photoshop in the folder marked Adobe in the programs menu (from the start menu). It may also be located in a start menu folder called Graphics.

Once you have opened the application (after a few moments of loading time), the Photoshop interface will appear. There are many complex elements of the interface, and for reasons of both saving space in this tutorial and keeping things basic, I’ll only show you the toolbars and options panes you need to perform the most basic tasks in Photoshop. If you ever notice that some of these elements are missing, simply go to the window menu and select them.

Elements of the Interface

workspace with interface elements labeled
The Workspace

Perhaps the most important element of the Photoshop interface is the toolbar. It contains a bunch of icons that represent the different tools Photoshop offers to alter and create images. These include tools for selecting specific areas of images, changing the colors of the image, stretching, transforming, and erasing parts of an image, and many more. To get an idea of what some of these tools can do, mouse over the icons and you’ll get an explanatory tool tip. I’ll explain some specific tools in the following sections of this tutorial.

photoshop toolbar The Photoshop Toolbar

Panes are also important features of the Photoshop interface. All sorts of information is displayed in these panes, and therefore they can get a little confusing. They display location information, tool options, and history, among other things. If you ever lose track of a specific pane (they tend to stack up), go to the windows menu and select that pane to view it. I’ll talk more about the specific panes later on in the tutorial.

photoshop panes
Various Photoshop Panes

Menus are probably the most familiar interface elements to a new Photoshop user. They contain all sorts of options, but since there are not as visible as panes or the toolbar, they are often only partially explored. I’ll take time right now to go over the menus and give a brief description to orient you to each.


  • File contains all of the stuff you’d expect it to, with a few extras including Import, which deals with scanning, and Save for Web, which allows you to export a web-ready image from your Photoshop file.
  • Edit is another familiar menu. In Photoshop, edit houses all of the expected options as well as Fill & Stroke, and other image-altering functions.
  • Items on the Image menu effect a whole image, for the most part. Here you’ll find color adjustments, size adjustments, and any other changes you need to make globally when working with a Photoshop file.
  • The layer menu is similar to the image menu, but it contains options that effect only current or selected layers. I’ll explain layers a little later, but for now, just understand that an image in Photoshop consists of stacked transparent layers; options in the Layer menu affect these pieces of the image rather than the complete image.
  • The select menu deals with selections you make. Selecting the specific parts of an image you’d like to alter is a difficult part of working in Photoshop. This menu gives you some options regarding selections, including the ability to save selections, reverse them, or add to them. Learning the options on the selection menu can really save you some time.
  • The filter menu is probably what most people think about when they think about Photoshop. The filter menu allows you to apply filters to any part of your image. These filters include ways to change the texture of the image, with some potentially radical results.
  • The view menu is where you change the view settings. You can use this to show and display guidelines on the image, and to zoom in and out, among other things.
  • The window menu allows you to toggle back and forth between hide and show for each interface element. This is the first place you should go if you lose track of a particular window while you’re working.
  • Last and least, of course, is the help menu. The help documentation isn’t so helpful, but for some reason, this menu contains two nice features: resize image, and export transparent image, which I’ll get to later.

The options bar, which is located directly underneath the menus, is a useful tool when working with the different Photoshop tools. As you can see right now, when the selection tool is in use, the options bar reflects the changes that can be made to how that specific tool operates. Here, you have selection options, and style options, which includes the ability to make the selection tool a specific size in pixels. When you switch tools, to the paintbrush tool for instance, these options change. When a tool in Photoshop isn't behaving as you expect it to, the options bar should be the first place you look to fix it.

photoshop options bar
The options bar

Some definitions to get you started:

.psd: A .psd file is the file format in which Photoshop saves documents by default. It is a multi-layer document that retains its full editing options when saved. In many cases you will export webgraphics from a .psd document.

layers: Photoshop documents are composed of layers, which can basically be described as single transparent sheets which hold particular pieces of an image. These layers can contain images, text, and vector graphics, and can be rearranged and grouped according to user needs. Layers are controlled with the use of the Layers pane. Often times, when you find yourself frustrated with Photoshop, it is because you are trying to perform operations on a layer that is not currently selected. Simply click on the name of a layer in order to designate it as the current layer. Whenever you add text to an image in Photoshop, the text appears on a new layer. You can "merge down" layers to consolidate them, and "flatten image" to force the entire contents of the image onto one layer.

Selections: Selections refer to regions in an image that will be affected by the various tools. A selection in Photoshop is similar to a selection that you highlight in a wordprocessing application. Once you have selected an area, you can apply a tool to it, such as paintbrush, or perform an operation such as copy or crop. Selections can be any shape and size; the shape depends on which selection tool you are working with.

Your selection will apply only to the current layer. If that layer is empty in the region selected, you will get an error message. When this happens, go to the layers pane and select the correct layer.

Resolution: Resolution refers to the number of pixels in a full size image. An image with hi resolution contains more information than an image with lo resolution, and therefore, one can always convert a hi-res image to a lo-res image. However, because information is lost in the conversion, the reverse is not true. If you were to increase the resolution of a lo-res image, the result would be fuzzy.

Screen resolution is close to 72 pixels per inch, so if you are working with graphics to be viewed only on screen, 72 should be fine. Depending on the printer you are using, you would want to increase this above 72 for graphics that will be printed. 300 is usually an acceptable resolution for images to be printed; 150 would be the lowest acceptable resolution for printing.

Image Size: Resolution should not be confused with image size, which is also expressed in pixels. Image size deals with the actual number of pixels tall and wide an image is. For an idea of how the two differ, go to Image Size in the Image menu, and plug in different numbers for image size and resolution.

Color mode: Color mode refers to the types of colors you will be using in your image. CMYK and RGB are the most important of these modes to be familiar with.

  • CMYK is the setting for images that will be printed to paper. The letters refer to the four channels of color used to create every color available: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
  • RGB refers to the three channel colormode suitable for images to be viewed on the web: red , green, and blue.

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© 2003 Patrick Williams| iSchool | UT Austin | webmaster