One thing I really love about Photoshop is that it offers many different ways to solve a problem. There is generally no right or wrong way, just another way! And in coming up to speed with Photoshop, one of the key skills you’ll need to develop is creating selections and masks.
As with most other areas of the program, there are many ways to create a selection: ranging from the selection tools themselves (lasso, marquee, quick select, etc), to brushing on a layer mask or quick selection using any of the brush tools (brush, pencil, eraser, stamp, smudge, gradient, dodge, burn, etc) to even alt-clicking on a layer’s or channel’s thumbnail to load it as a selection (opt-click for you Mac users). However, I’m going to set all that aside today, and focus on another way to create complex selections – using paths and the paths panel.
For creating smooth curves and complex geometries in your selections, nothing can beat using paths. Paths are vector objects, and can be created using the pen tool, the shape tool, the type tool, or by importing from another program such as Illustrator. Once you have a path, how do you use it? You most likely will need to convert it to a selection! We’ll take a look at several methods for that here.
Let’s consider a Photoshop document in which you’ve drawn a couple of paths using the shape tool (with the tool set to create work paths). Open the Paths panel (Window > Paths) and click on one of the paths in the panel. The path outline shows up in your document (Side note: click anywhere off the path in the paths panel to deactivate the path so it is no longer visible – this tends to confuse people).
Once you’ve clicked on the path, look to the bottom of the panel. The icon at the bottom that looks like a dotted circle is used to “Load path as a selection.” This hides the work path and leaves the familiar marching ants in the shape of the path.
Now, if that were all there was to it, this would be a short article! But, there are a few hidden features with this one small button that allow some creative solutions when you create a selection from a path.
If you Alt-click (Opt-click) the “Load path as a selection” icon, you get a small dialog box. This will allow you some interesting options as you create your path – the first section being “Feather Radius” and “Anti-aliased.”
Feather radius will allow you to give your selection a soft edge rather than a crisp hard edge. The number of pixels depends on the size of your document, and how soft you want the edge. I tend to adjust this later with the Masks panel.
The second option, “Anti-aliased,” will help to smooth out the selection border by a slight softening of the edge. This helps to avoid the “jaggies” in a low resolution document.
Notice the second section of this dialog box (Operation) is mostly grayed out? This comes into play when you combine multiple paths. For example, let’s say we’ve loaded the flower design above as a selection. Then, we click on the other path while the selection is active. We have this:
Now, Alt-click (Opt-Click) the “Load path as selection” icon. The other options are now available:
At this point, we can choose to combine the ribbon selection with the flower selection by adding, subtracting, or intersection the two areas. Here are the results of each of those operations:
As you can see, there is far more to this than meets the eye… Get out there, create some paths, and start experimenting. By combining paths into complex selections, there is no limit to your creativity!