Basic use of tools in a toolbox

Every professional photographer knows that mastering light and camera function is only half the work when trying to achieve great photos. The other part is post-processing. Some photos may look good straight out of the camera but most photos might need some adjustment. Ultimately every photo that you will choose to showcase will need to be “processed,” even if it’s just to resize the image. If you are not familiar with post-processing software, a range of different tools can seem overwhelming. That’s why I would like to briefly go over s some of the tools most used by photographers and their general purposes. These notes are intended for people who are completely new to editing software.

In this article my tool descriptions are based on Adobe Photoshop because that it the most advanced and versatile program, widely used by professional photographers. However, I understand that Adobe Photoshop is very expensive and is cost prohibitive to most beginning photographers. Fortunately many of these tools are available in other editing software such as significantly cheaper Adobe Photoshop Elements and free alternative programs such as GIMP, Pixlr and tools in Adobe Photoshop


Toolbox has a range of tools which you can use to perform specific task. Each tool has a unique icon and can either be activated by pressing on the icon or using a keyboard shortcut which is indicated in (). Some tools will have same shortcut letters because they are positioned in the same subgroup. Please note that I will not go over each tool in a toolbox but will only cover tools used most often by photographers.

         Move Tool (V) 

As the name implies this tool is used to move objects/layers. You can hold the [Shift] key to limit the movement to horizontal/vertical change or you can hold the [Alt] key to duplicate the layer by moving it.

         Marquee Tool (M)

This tool allows you to make a selection on an image. It can be rectangular, elliptical or single row/column. When it is active, the area selected by this tool will be affected by other tools and actions. When using rectangular or elliptical variation of this tool, holding [Shift] key will make the selection perfectly square/round. If one selection is already created, holding [Shift] key will make it possible to create additional selection. Holding [Alt] key will set the center of selection to where the cursor has started the movement. If at least one selection is created, holding [Alt] key will make it possible to remove sections of that selection.

Additionally, when using this tool, you can specify feather and stipulate a fixed size or a ratio in the top Options bar.

         Lasso Tool (L)

Similar to Marquee, Lasso tool deals with selections. But unlike Marquee, lasso tool allows for a completely custom control over your selection. You can manually guide a selection with a lasso tool by holding down left mouse button and moving the cursor. There are two additional variations of a Lasso tool: Polygonal and Magnetic.

         Polygonal Lasso Tool (L)

With Polygonal Lasso tool you can create geometrical shapes by just clicking on the spots where you want the line to change direction. Holding [Shift] key will force the lines to most common degrees (ex. 45, 90, 180 etc.).

         Magnetic Lasso Tool (L)

Magnetic Lasso tool uses advanced algorithm to analyze the image and determine the most contrast areas for convenient selection. You can move the cursor in a general path of a desired selection and the program will automatically choose its best path when using Magnetic Lasso tool. Moreover, since Lasso tool deals with selection you can specify feathering amount.

         Magic Wand Tool (W)

Magic Wand tool is used to make a selection of a range of colors. You can adjust the tolerance level of this tool on the Options Bar on the top to increase/decrease the range of colors included in the selection. By holding [Shift] or [Alt] keys you can add or subtract from the selection respectfully.

         Crop Tool (C)

As its name implies this tool is used to crop images. Simply select a Crop tool and while holding left mouse button outline the area you want to crop to. Once selected, click a checkmark button on the top Options Bar to complete the crop. This function can also be achieved by selecting an area with a Marquee Tool and going to Image>Crop on the top Navigation Bar.

         Eyedropper Tool (I)

This tool is used to select colors from your image. When this tool is active click on a color you would like to set as your foreground. Holding [Alt] key while clicking will change the background color.

         Healing Brush Tool (J)

With a Healing Brush tool you can remove dust, scratches, sensor spots and much more. This tool is also heavily used in fashion and beauty photography to make skin look consistent without any pimples or scars. To use this tool look for a spot where texture is consistent, while holding [Alt] key left click on that spot, then let go of [Alt] key and brush over the problematic area. Basically this tool copies texture from a specific area and applies it to the area you select while preserving colors accurate to the brushed area.

         Spot Healing Brush Tool (J)

Similar to Healing Brush tool this function can “fix” inconsistencies but in this case you don’t have to select a specific spot form which to copy texture. Spot Healing Brush tool uses progressive algorithm that analyses texture around a specific spot and creates texture based on these calculations.

         Red Eye Tool (J)

This is a straightforward too that does exactly what you think. Just select an area with a red eye and it does its best to darken it.

         Brush tool (B)

This is one of the most basic tools but it allows for many possibilities because it can be heavily customized. Essentially it works like a pen or a brush but you can select the size and choose how feathered (hardness) you want it to be. Additionally in Photoshop you can select form a large amount of textured brush designs, combine that with opacity changes and blending options and you can create many interesting effect in your photos.

         Color Replacement Tool (B)

With this tool you can brush color on a select area while keeping that area’s original texture. This is especially useful when trying editing an image with color inconsistencies or images with strong purple fringing.  To select a specific color you can either use the color boxes (explained below) or hold [Alt] tab and click on a color you prefer.

         Mixer Brush Tool (B)

Think of this tool as a brush that can smudge colors on freshly painted oil painting. Basically this tool mixes color through which your cursor travels while left mouse button is pressed. It is also responsive to the direction and speed of your stroke so if you stroke is fast enough the direction of your movement will be distinguishable.

         Clone Stamp Tool (S)

This tool is similar to a Healing Brush tool (explained above) but instead of blending with surrounding areas it makes an exact copy of the spot you have initially selected. Its edges depend on the hardness (feathering) you have selected for your brush. As with Healing tool to use this function hold [Alt] key to select the area you would like to copy from and click left mouse button. Then let go of [Alt] key and just “paint” over the area you want to cover.

         History Brush Tool (H)

This tool acts as a brush that paints over your image with elements from the image set in history tab. To access history tab go to Window>History on your top Navigation Bar. There you can select an original or a snapshot of a current process to be used by a History Brush tool. Essentially with this tool you can revert to some sections of the image to original state while keeping the rest of the image with applied changes.

         Eraser Tool (E)

This tool works opposite to Brush tool (explained above). Just like its name implies it erases parts of a selected layer with option to use a wide variety of brush styles.

         Paint Bucket Tool (G)

This tool simply fills an area or a selection with a solid foreground color. You can change its tolerance (sensitivity to color changes) on the top Option Bar.

         Gradient Tool (G)

With this tool you can choose a set of colors to use and the program will make a pallet with a smooth transition between those colors. You can either apply this effect to a selection or a full image. To select colors for this tool click on gradient selection icon on top Options Bar. To use this tool click and drag the cursor in direction you want this effect to be applied.

         Blur Tool

This is a straightforward tool that uses brushes to blur select areas. Simply brush over the area which you want to blur. The more you brush over a section the fuzzier it will get.

         Sharpen Tool

This tool functions opposite to blur, as the name implied it sharpens areas where you brush. Use this tool conservatively because its overuse can lead to substantial loss in image quality.

         Smudge Tool

This tool is a simplified version of Mixer Brush tool (explained above).

         Dodge Tool (O)

Film photographers should be familiar with this function. This tool uses brushes to lighten specific areas of an image. You can choose a range of tones to be affected by this tool on top Options Bar, from highlights to shadows.

         Burn Tool (O)

Similar to Dodge tool this term is a descendant from film development. Conversely to Dodge tool, Burn tool is used to precisely darken specific areas of an images using a wide variety of brushes. With Burn tool you can also choose which range of tones you want to be affected.

         Sponge Tool (O)

This tool allows you to increase/decrease color saturation in specific areas of your image.

         Pen Tool (P)

This tool is used to create paths. Paths are useful in many ways but mainly for creating clipping paths or selections. When using Pen tool you can add point by clicking and the program will create a straight line form one point to another, or you can hold left mouse button and move the cursor to create various shaped for a more precise outline.

         Type Tool (T)

Type tool does exactly what you might think, it makes it possible to place text on an image. It is available in several forms: horizontal, vertical and mask. To use this tool simple click on an area where you would like the text to start. You can also drag a cursor over an area to which you want to limit text position. Once done typing click on a check mark on top Options Bar to complete.

         Zoom Tool (Z)

This tool is used to change your zoom level. Options Bar on the top provides some useful shortcuts when this tool is activated, such as show actual size, fit image on screen and fill screen.

Color Boxes

These boxes represent current foreground and background colors. They can be changed by clicking on them and selecting desired color or using Eyedropper tool. Background and foreground colors can also be switched by pressing [X] key. Additionally, you can set them to default black and white by clicking a little black and white icon.

This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

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