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Making the Most of Photoshop 6

Adobe Photoshop 6 is the world's leading professional image editor, exhibiting a depth of design and richness of function unequaled in any program I know. Although it can be staggeringly complex if you push against its edges, most users only scratch the surface of Photoshop's capabilities. Whether you use Photoshop all day to prepare images for print or just a few times a week for touching up Web graphics or digital photos, a few tips should help with your image processing chores. Let's begin by looking at a few new features introduced in the most recent update, then tackle a list of lesser-known shortcuts that speed up day-to-day use.


Reclaiming the Space in Your Workspace -- Ever get lost in Photoshop's mass of palettes, or perhaps you're still waiting for multiple Apple Cinema Displays to arrive? Although you can combine several palettes into a single group (such as the combined Navigator and Info palettes), sometimes you need more palettes than can fit on your screen. The new Options bar, located just under the menu bar, replaces the old palette of the same name and displays controls and parameters for the currently selected tool. At the far right end is a dockable area, where you can store other palettes for easy access. Drag a palette's title tab to this area to add it; when you need to use it, click the title tab to display the palette overlaid upon whatever is underneath.

If you need to reclaim your workspace quickly without juggling palettes, press the Tab key to hide them all; Shift-Tab hides everything but the Tools palette and the Options bar. Press Tab or Shift-Tab to display the palettes again.

Hidden Vectors -- If you use Macromedia Flash, Adobe Illustrator, or Macromedia Freehand, you're familiar with the power of vectors. Where Photoshop typically deals in pixels to display and reproduce rich photographic effects, vector-based applications deal in smooth, resolution-independent lines and shapes. Recent versions of these programs have blurred the once-crisp lines between pixel- and vector-generated artwork, enabling artists to use far more complex gradients, fills, and transparencies.

Photoshop can now use some of the most useful aspects of vectors, albeit in a bitmap-friendly manner. First, you can create and edit resolution-independent vector shapes, then use them as clipping paths for individual layers. It's also possible to convert text to shapes and edit from there - terrific for adapting symbols from dingbat fonts. Custom shapes can be saved for later use, and you can trade your own shape libraries with friends.

Many of the effects in Photoshop's Layer Styles (formerly known as Layer Effects) are vector-based, including gradient fills, glows, and bevels. If you export your image as a PDF file (turning on the Image Interpolation and Include Vector Data options when exporting), Layer Styles and Vector Shapes retain their resolution independence. Both will display cleaner on screen and print perfectly.

Watch out, though, if you're sending a PDF to be printed by a service bureau. Some printers may just convert the file to a flat bitmap (such as a TIFF file), which removes the vector information. Depending on the job, this resolution loss may or may not be important, but it's worth letting the printer know what you have in mind.

Freed Type -- It's finally possible to use the Text tool to just click and type on the canvas to add text. Further, controls from Adobe's page layout family have arrived, including a wealth of line composition, indenting, line and paragraph spacing, and font controls. Paragraph spacing? Yes, you can convert a regular type layer into Paragraph text (the command is in the Type submenu of the Layer menu), which makes the layer act like a text box found in a page-layout program. This enables you to control the width and height of the paragraph, including the capability to wrap the text at the end of each line. Another new feature is an option either to include the text's fonts or define text as paths if you export your image as a PDF.

Adobe added a new command, Warp Text, which makes text follow a number of predefined paths and distortions. Some flexibility in adjusting the paths is provided, though it doesn't compete with a dedicated drawing program's text-on-a-path option.

Layering on the Tips -- A blank canvas isn't just a flat space to draw on. Imagine a stack of clear acetate sheets that you can draw on, duplicate, move, hide, or modify. These sheets, which Photoshop calls "layers," are invaluable. Photoshop 6 provides an infinite number of sheets (compared to version 5.5's limit of 99), given enough memory. The Layers palette also now has checkboxes to lock a layer's transparent pixels, pixel values, and pixel positions, independently or as one.

The most basic use of layers is to move one layer above or below another - a simple click and drag. The next most common use is as a safeguard: duplicate the layer you're working on, then edit the copy, and if you're happy, keep the changes. That way, every change is safe, and you can always return to the original.

Duplicating a layer points to another aspect of Photoshop that demonstrates the program's depth: there are often multiple ways of accomplishing the same task. In this case, choose among three methods: select Duplicate Layer from the Layer palette's pop-out menu; Control-click a layer's name and choose Duplicate Layer; or, drag a layer to the new layer icon (which looks like a sheet of paper with one corner bent) at the bottom of the palette. As I found myself duplicating layers all the time, I saved some time by recording an Action (essentially a script within Photoshop that can perform a sequence of commands), and assigning it to a function key. Now I simply select a layer and hit F6 (just my preference, now a habit) to duplicate it.

If you don't need to duplicate a whole layer - perhaps you're stripping out a tree or removing a red eye effect from a photo - there's yet another method. Use the Marquee or Lasso tools to select a section of the image, and then type Command-J to create a New Layer via Copy (or select the command from the New submenu of the Layer menu); only the selection is copied to a new layer, leaving the original layer intact. However, try to avoid New Layer via Cut command, as it can leave a mess of deleted pixels around the edges of the selection and punch it out of the original layer image.

Layers enable you to work on different elements of an image, but you can also add layers, called "adjustment layers," that modify other layers below. For example, you can change the contrast or color levels of the image just by manipulating the settings on a separate, higher, adjustment layer. This way, you're not changing the original image data, making it easier to experiment with different settings or go back to an earlier version of the image. And now you can organise these layers into handy transparent sets that can be moved, hidden, or modified.

Some tools (like Text) create new layers with abandon. This is, by and large, a good thing. For example, you can apply Layer Styles to a text layer for special effects. However, text layers have their own format, so if you want to apply a filter or hand-paint some text, Photoshop needs to rasterize the text first - converting it to pixels - eliminating the ability to edit or smoothly resize it.

How to avoid rasterizing? Use the old standby, Layer Grouping. (Note that in this context, "grouping" is different than layer "linking," which simply connects two layers to make them act as one.) A grouped layer is applied only to the active pixels of the layer beneath it. So, for example, suppose you want the word "TidBITS" to appear with the letters filled-in by a photo of the staff instead of a solid color. You'd use the Text tool to write TidBITS, which automatically appears on its own layer, then put the staff photo on the layer above it. Select the photo layer and choose Group with Previous from the Layer menu, or Option-click between the two layers in the Layers palette. The pixels outside the word become transparent, while the word itself is filled with the visible portion of the photo. You can then apply layer styles to the text layer, or rasterize it and edit it further. Since both layers remain independent, you can move or edit them separately.

Layer grouping also comes in handy when you're using adjustment layers to change aspects like color levels. As mentioned above, an adjustment layer contains settings that are applied to the layers beneath it. But if your image file includes multiple layers (which is almost always the case), you may not want the settings to apply to every layer beneath the adjustment layer. Instead, simply group your adjustment layer to the layer it modifies, which constrains the changes to that layer.

The Dance of the Keys -- A number of Photoshop functions are accessible only through keyboard commands, some so frequently useful that I urge you to memorize them. For example: Shift-click the Brush or Eraser tools from point to point to make straight lines.

The majority of Photoshop's most useful shortcuts haven't changed for a few years now, though some of the tool shortcuts have. Just point the mouse cursor at a tool for a moment if you need to know its current shortcut key, and refer to the cheat sheet that came with the program while you're trying to memorize them. For example, M selects the Marquee tool, B selects the Brush, E selects the Eraser, and so on. In previous versions of the program, typing the same key again would switch between tool options: activating the Elliptical Marquee tool versus the Rectangular Marquee. In Photoshop 6, you need to add Shift when typing the shortcut key to move among similar tools. It's a challenge at first, but your hands will soon remember.

Another set of keys you'll find yourself using often are D, which sets the background and foreground colors to their defaults (black and white), and X, which exchanges background and foreground colors. These are good, but not great, until you get into Q for Quick Mask. If you've never been able to make a great selection using the Lasso, Marquee, or Magic Wand tools, that's because they're often not the best tool for the job. Quick Mask lets you paint your selection as an overlay, using any brush you like; D and X help you to paint (black) and erase (white) without changing tools or visiting color pickers. Pressing Q switches you back to the image when you're done, and turns the painted pixels from the Quick Mask into a selection (you'll see the familiar "marching ants" line that indicates a selection).

With a selection made, or even on a blank layer, type Option-Delete to fill with the foreground color, or type Command-Delete to fill with the background color. Adding Shift to the Delete key brings up a dialog with even more options. Though fills are no longer in vogue with Shapes and the Layer Styles fill options, they're still quick, dirty, and useful.

Easy Rotation and Cropping -- Rotating and cropping scanned images is easy now, and it was easy in Photoshop 5.x. Find the Measure tool, now hidden under the Eyedropper tool. Drag a line from left to right, following the edge of the scanned photo closely. Release the line. Now, go to the Image menu, and select Arbitrary from the Rotate Canvas submenu, then press OK. The angle from the Measure tool is automatically added to the Rotate dialog, and your image rights itself.

There is a quicker way, though, if you're cropping images too. Select the Crop tool and drag a rough crop around the photo from your scan. Rotate the cropped area by clicking and dragging outside of the cropped area (away from any handles on the edge). Match the angle of the photo, then bring the cropping area in by dragging the center handles. Press Enter to approve the crop, which rotates and crops the image in one action.

One last reminder: Photoshop, like most of the Mac interface, is consistent in its application of shortcuts. The Enter key always approves a dialog box, while Escape always cancels one. Holding down the Option key while clicking the Cancel button (or typing Option-Escape) resets a dialog back to its starting values. The Up and Down arrows increment and decrement values in almost any options field; adding Shift changes the values in groups of 10 units.

Photoshop will reward you for learning its tricks; just try a few keys and shortcuts to get started. The learning curve can be long, even if the incline varies from time to time. But sooner or later you'll be hooked, and in the case of Photoshop, it's a happy addiction.

[Iain Anderson is a designer/developer in print, multimedia, and motion graphics, currently based in London. He's been using Macs for over 10 years and is angling to get on Adobe's beta program.]


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