8 Photoshop Tricks I Wish I Knew When I Was a Student

8 Photoshop Tricks I Wish I Knew When I Was a Student

Photoshop is one of the (if not THE) most well known software used in the design industry when it comes to manipulating images and pixels. As a web designer I had some Photoshop lessons at school but that was 2 years ago. Today the software has evolved, more options are available, and I also learn a few tricks while practicing.

8 Photoshop Tricks I Wish I Knew When I Was a Student

You will find in this article eight tricks I wish I knew when I was a student (or wish existed in previous Photoshop versions). These are the kind of tricks that could make your workflow faster and your life easier.

Easier Illustrator-like Layer Auto-Select

As I do a lot of logo / UI design, I won’t hide it, I’m a huge fan of Illustrator. One of the things I like the most when working with illustrator is the fact that whenever you select something, you can see the actual selection on the working space. You can also click on whatever you want to edit, and it will be selected.

In Photoshop by default you have to go and select what you want to work on in the layer panel, and use a CTRL + click on the element to select it, or right-click somewhere in the working space and you’ll get a list of your layers (good luck if you did not rename them).

Easier Illustrator-like Layer Auto-Select

Fortunately, there’s a simple tip to make Photoshop behave like illustrator. When you select the Move Tool (V key) you will see in the option bar a check box “auto-select” and a drop down list next to it. Check the box, and put layer in the drop down list. Know, whenever you click on an element that was not locked, it is selected in your layers panel.

You can also check the “show transform controls” if you want to see some transform controls around your elements and be able to resize them directly, Illustrator style.

Bonus point: you can select multiple layers by drawing a rectangle around them like in illustrator (still using move tool and not marquee tool).

Get Better & Quicker Control on Your Current Tool Size

Usually to change the size of a tool, you can either use the drop-down list in the options bar, or right click in the middle of the document that will open a pop-up. But did you know that you could change the size of the tool you are working with, in a far more precise way by only using your mouse and the ALT key?

Better Control on Tool

The technique is pretty simple. FIRST hold ALT key and THEN right click on the mouse, you then will see a red circle appear. This is the current tool size. Move your mouse to the right: the size of the tool gets bigger, move it to the left: the tool gets smaller.

Bonus point: If you move it to the top and the tool hardness will decrease, move it to the bottom, and the tool hardness will increase. This trick works with all the tools that can get a specific size and hardness.

Take Advantage of Multiple Windows

If you go and take a look in the windows menu, you will see under ‘Arrange’ the option “new windows for ZZZ”. This option will duplicate your current document in a new window. The nice part about this is that changes will affect both windows, it is basically just a second view of the same document.

Then you’ll ask, why would I want to open the same document in two windows? I’ll give you two examples for using this tip.

Let’s say that you are working on a document that will be both used for web AND print, you might want to have a preview of your document in CMYK right? Here comes the handy part of the trick: you can still work in an RGB environment on your document, while previewing what it will look like in CMYK. Go to window > arrange > new window for XXX. Then set the view of this document to “proof colors” (CTRL+Y).

Now you can keep on working on your document in RGB, while seeing what it would look like for the print version.

Colors Test

Another use would be while working with layer masks. To display a layer mask in full screen option, you just have to press ALT + click on the layer mask. You should then get a layer of black and white colors, corresponding to your layer mask. It is pretty hard to work on that layer, since you don’t really see what you are doing.

Here again we could open our document on a new window, and then get side by side the layer mask preview and our image. We could then do more precise work on the layer mask and see results on the other window.

Working with Mask

Unleash the Power of Clipping Masks

Clipping masks are very useful in complex Photoshop creations. They enable you to work, using another layer as a frame. Basically, whatever is created in a clipping mask will only affect the layer below it. We can see an example with some text.

Clipping Mask

In the example below, I created a text layer. Then I added an empty layer, and clipped it to the text. I used a brush to draw pink leaves above the text and as you can see, the brush can’t go “outside” of the text layer. If I release my clipping mask, I then see that what I created was actually not cut, just hidden.

To create a clipping mask above a layer, you just have to hold down the ALT key while clicking on the create new layer icon. Then the new layer dial box appears, and you can just check “Use previous layer to create clipping mask”. You can also achieve this with the keys shift + CTRL + N.

Easily Create a Selection from a Layer or Mask

By clicking on the thumbnail of a layer and holding down the CTRL key, you will create a selection based on the layer clicked. Once again this can be very useful to select text for example, but also complex shapes.

Select Anything

The great thing about this trick is that it will work on layers, but also on masks. You can for example select the shape of a vector mask.

Puppet Warp Transform

To transform an image using puppet warp transform, simply click on edit > puppet warp. The image will be then scattered with a mosaic of lines. At the junction of each line, you can place a pin. You will need at least two pins on the image.

The active pin is symbolized by a yellow disc with a second black one, inactive pins are simply yellow discs. With puppet warp you can move a part of the image while the other parts don’t move. Just pin the parts of the image you don’t want to move, and play with the other ones.

Here is an example of what can be achieved, let’s make the Statue of Liberty dance:

Puppet Warp
Image credit: Mr G’s Travels

You can delete a pin by holding ALT and hovering over the pin with the mouse, you can also get a rotating circle around the active pin with this same ALT key.

Use the « Styles » to Save Useful Effect Presets

Another Illustrator feature I really like is the “graphic styles” panel which enables you to save any element style you create. This is particularly useful when you do a lot of GUI design, lots of buttons and you want to be able to re-use a graphical style you created. This feature is also possible in Photoshop.

Once you are finished playing with your drop shadow, inner shadows, etc. options, you can see that there is a tab at the top of the layer style named “styles”. You might never have noticed that, but you can click on it. Then you can simply click on the “New style” button, and save your style.

Saving Styles

Another way would be to select the layer that has the style you want to save, open the style panel on the right (you might have to activate it in “view”) and click the little “new” icon (same icon as new layer in fact), then save it.

In this panel, you can also see all the other styles that were saved (or default Photoshop ugly styles). To apply a style to an element, first select the layer. Then you have got two solutions:

  • Select the style you want to apply from the styles panel.
  • Use the option bar drop down style list. For this option to appear, the rectangle Tool (U) must be your active tool.

Another cool feature about styles is the ability to save, share and load them, so that you can create a complete library of styles. In order to export styles, open the styles panel and click on the top right down-pointing arrow, to open the presets manager.

From there you can save your styles. By default none is selected, and you will have to select all the styles you want to save. You can use the same panel to load some other saved styles libraries.

Preset Manager

Don’t Cancel Adjustments, Reset Them

Curves and level adjustments can be hard to master, especially at the beginning. Sometimes some level combination or other adjustments just don’t fit quite well in the design, and the designer has to start over. The common way to do that would be to press the cancel button, and re-open the adjustment box we were working with.

Reset No Cancel

But there’s a little trick that helps win some time here: when you want to cancel a curve, instead of directly clicking on the cancel button, hold the ALT key. The cancel button disappears, and is replaced by a reset button.

Clicking on the reset button will, well, reset the curve (or any adjustments you were working on) and you can start all over again.


As you can see, there are plenty of things we can easily achieve with Photoshop. I hope you enjoyed these 8 little tricks. If you have more tricks, don’t hesitate to share them with us in the comments below!

Stéphanie Walter is a Graphic and Web Designer. She's a Pixel and CSS lover who also enjoys working on UI and UX design for Mobile and Web Apps. She considers CSS as a design tool to create great interactive websites and share on different blogs what she learns daily.


    • Willem,
    • August 8, 2011
    / Reply

    Very nice article!
    It’s Puppet Warp, not wrap ;)

    1. / Reply

      Hi Willem,

      Thanks for highlighting it out. I have checked and amended it.

      Glad that you liked the article. :)

  1. / Reply

    Thank you Willem and thanks for the feedback on the typo, I can’t figure out how I missed this big pink one. I just sent the correction to onextrapixel.

  2. / Reply

    Seriously I am in love with Photoshop <3

  3. / Reply

    omg.. working since years with ps, and never througth the “Illustrator-like Layer Auto-Select” feature.. so many thanks :D

  4. / Reply

    Great Tips. But Puppet Warp is only available in CS5, and the “Get Better & Quicker Control on Your Current Tool Size”-Thing is not working at my pc (Win7, CS4).

    • jbcarey,
    • August 8, 2011
    / Reply

    I’ve used PS for over 5/8 years and point 1 made my jaw hit my desk and my hand smack my forehead.


      • Matthew Burton McFaul,
      • August 9, 2011
      / Reply


      • Jack Nycz,
      • August 11, 2011
      / Reply


  5. / Reply

    Photoshop is a good tool for creating pixel based graphics, but if you dig a little dipper into it, you find that is an awesome tool!
    Nice presentation Stéphanie.

    • G369,
    • August 9, 2011
    / Reply

    Funny comments.
    I can’t believe I never saw puppet warp! Surprise!

  6. / Reply

    Photoshop is an absolutely amazing tool. Even after years of using it, I am still finding new and often hidden features to use every day. I think that’s part of why so many people love it, it almost has a life of it’s own. There are so many shortcuts and secrets to learn.

  7. / Reply

    @Stephanie there is a small add-on for “Easier Illustrator-like Layer Auto-Select”
    The auto select doesn’t work if the layers are arranged in groups.
    In that case ‘the group’ gets auto selected having the layer on which you used ctrl+ click
    instead of the individual layer which you intended to highlight and select.

      • Matthew Burton McFaul,
      • August 9, 2011
      / Reply

      @Niteesh – The drop down next to the ‘Auto Select’ checkbox, gives you the option to choose ‘Layers’, instead of ‘Group’ to counteract this.

      • Matthew Burton McFaul,
      • August 9, 2011
      / Reply

      These are great. An addition and amendment to “Unleash the Power of Clipping Masks”:
      The upper layer is not actually the clipping mask, the clipping of the upper layer is dictated by the contents of the lower layer – which is therefore defined as the mask, I think.
      Also, there is a keyboard shortcut for creating a clipping Mask – Select the upper layer, Hold down COMMAND + ALT, click the dividing line between the upper and lower layers – the upper layer will ‘jump in’ a bit and become masked to the lower layer.

  8. / Reply

    @Matthew: If we had to select it manually then it can’t used be ‘fast shortcut method’ as it is being described in this article. So we can term it as a drawback or limitation of this shortcut method.

  9. / Reply

    Thanks for the tip on changing the brush size & hardness. This should speed up my work flow considerably.

      • VegaStar,
      • September 29, 2011
      / Reply

      Does anyone else think that what this man just said, sounds dirty ?
      Or is that just me ?

        • James Boyen,
        • September 29, 2011
        / Reply

        LOL. You think too much!

        • rin,
        • May 2, 2012
        / Reply


  10. / Reply

    Thanks for sharing this. This could be a time saver on PS

    • Ralf,
    • August 10, 2011
    / Reply

    Thank you for this. The auto-select-layers feature should be printed on the package in huge letters. Still can’t believe I did not know about this after all this years.

    For some reason, the brush-drag feature is ctrl + alt + left click in my CS5 version.

    • NoeG,
    • August 10, 2011
    / Reply

    Thanks for sharing I didn’t know half of these!

  11. / Reply

    Really great tips. Love Puppet Warp.

    Funny thing though… using clipping masks makes tip #1 irrelevant. If you select “Auto-Select” you will always get the clipped layer and never the underlining layer. I find using the Move Tool plus Alt still is the most versatile and useful way of selecting layers.

  12. / Reply

    Thanks for these tricks, luckily I’m still at a youngish age so glad to have found these!

    • mary,
    • August 12, 2011
    / Reply

    the bonus tip for auto-selecting by drawing a rectangle didn’t work for me. is there an extra key that needs pressed?

  13. / Reply

    Hi mary no extra key needed it is as on illustrator you just use the sélection tool and select with a rectangle every thing you need

  14. / Reply

    Great article, could be really very helpful for those who are quite new to Photoshop. I use most of them very very often.

    • mary,
    • August 16, 2011
    / Reply

    hm, when I try to select multiple layers with the move tool as described (auto-select layers is active) all it does is move the layer. is this tip for a certain version of photoshop?

    1. / Reply

      I remember beeing able to select multiple layers since photoshop CS3 (jumped from 3 to 5) so I don’t think so.
      Maybe you start your selection on an element what makes you actually move this particular element instead of selecting many layers. Have you tried begening the selection outside of the document, to select them all ?

  15. / Reply

    Great collection of useful tips! I have picked most of these up over the years but knowing them throughout my studies would have saved loads of time! I just hope students take notice :)

  16. / Reply

    Great article. Very useful stuff.

    • Sibin,
    • August 21, 2011
    / Reply

    Unleash the Power of Clipping Masks
    This is such a great tip!

  17. / Reply

    wow, you need to be thanked. x

  18. / Reply

    I wish I knew how more of this tricks!

    I can only remove pimples, brush face, skinnier/fatter body, and that kind of stuff

    • Vipul Khinder,
    • September 4, 2011
    / Reply

    The Illustrator-type selection tip was just incredible. Such a time-saver…. thanks :D
    And the brush size & hardness modifier using the ALT key is pretty awesome too!
    Glad that I know this stuff in my first year as a Photoshop user :)

  19. / Reply

    Awesome! This reminds of a few techniques I’ve used in the past and new ones to learn. Thanks! :)

  20. / Reply

    Thanks alot, most already discovered, some yet to try out ;)

    • Adam,
    • September 5, 2011
    / Reply

    Tips for the auto-select tool:
    1. Change the dropdown from “group” to “layer”
    2. To select multiple layers, either hold shift or drag a rectangle over the layers you would like to select (you must not be hovering over a selectable layer – for example if you start in the grey area outside the document it will work just fine. One way around this is to lock the background layers, then you can start dragging on top of them – if that makes sense?!)
    3. I find it best to use the shortcut of holding CTRL (CMD on a mac) and clicking to select layers. This means you can still drag layers about, even when there are layers on top of it without having to disable / enable auto-select – for example if you have a semi transparent layer on top of another layer and you want to move the layer underneath, you would have to disable your “auto select” to be able to drag with the mouse.

    Tips for the brush tool:
    You can use the shortcuts [ and ] to change the size of brushes and CTRL (or CMD on mac) + [ and ] to change the hardness.

    Shortcut for the “use previous layer…” on existing layers – hold ALT and click on the line between 2 layers – the top one will be masked by the layer underneath.

    Hope that helps!

  21. / Reply

    Wonderful Tips…
    Thank You for Sharing. . .
    ~Patricia Kaehler – Ohio USA – DomainBELL

    • Tony,
    • September 6, 2011
    / Reply

    Excellent Tips! I have been loving Photoshop for a long time. It’s my core designing tool, but I guess I need to take the leap to CS5 from CS3. Thank you Stephanie!

  22. / Reply

    I don’t use puppet wrap that much but thanks for reminding me. Even advanced users can forget things like that sometimes.

    • Scott,
    • October 8, 2011
    / Reply

    Great tips, especially the first one :)

  23. / Reply

    Really very helpful tips. I have knowledge in Photoshop but not as an expert. I really like the Liberty Statue design , a great tricks.

  24. / Reply

    good tutorial for beginers.. Warp is one of the best upgrade in new CS.

    • Suresh Pattu,
    • February 15, 2012
    / Reply

    Very nice article!

  25. / Reply

    Really useful tricks, thanks for posting

  26. Thanks for sharing this list! They are all usefull photoshop tips.

  27. / Reply

    Great collection of tuts.. nice share

    • dwoz,
    • June 16, 2012
    / Reply

    wow,really nice tricks…m gonna try them and make some difference than before…you guys really rock..thanx alot and thanx alot to ur whole team..and keep it up rocking….

    • sarmen,
    • July 19, 2012
    / Reply

    thanks for sharing, im not a usual photoshop user and i knew all of these from trial and error. i think the best way to learn is to mess with every existing photoshop option even the ones that you have no clue what they do. either look it up or play with it and you will be a master, that is what i did. I was a master up until cs3 everything after that i stopped updating myself.

  28. / Reply

    These are all well known tricks. However, it is a good review.

    • Tom,
    • October 30, 2012
    / Reply

    Thank you SO MUCH for the auto-selection tip. I don’t know how this wasn’t easier to find on all the google results. This saved me so much time, I appreciate your great website!
    – Tom

  29. / Reply

    Thanks for this great list of tips.

    I came here to check if you would mention how to select multiple layers with auto-select. Good thing you added that bonus point:)

  30. / Reply

    These are some really great tricks! I only knew few of these. Current Tool Size Control, Puppet Wrap and Multiple windows are really useful to speed up the workflow. Already started using these. Thanks a lot for sharing

    • Joshua Day,
    • September 18, 2014
    / Reply

    Another use case for multiple windows is tiny icon design. I usually zoom in as far as I can go to do pixel level detail and have the second window at 100% so I can make sure my nice map icon is really not starting to look like a booger. Icons today are flatter and have much less detail than the old Web 2.0 icons of yesteryear. But still, resizing a large icon down to 16 or 24px can create some undesirable results along edges. The second view of your work eliminates the back and forth of making a pixel level adjustment and then zooming to 100%.

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