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7 Photoshop efficiency tips

Photoshop is an immense application, packed full of so many features that almost no one will ever discover them all, or how to use them to their full potential.  With so many features also comes a bunch of shortcuts and hotkeys, which are often hidden away in documentation, and in my experience, most people only use things recommended by other people, or things they find by accident.

So here are the shortcuts and various bits of trickery I use literally every single day in Photoshop, to make life just a little bit less painful.  Some may seem so simple that ‘everyone should know THAT one’, but that’s not the case.  If even 10 people find something new here that helps their workflow, then my mission has been accomplished.

Hotkey Reference Chart

1. Quick tool switching

These are obvious, but the tool hotkeys I use all the time are:

  • (M) Marquee Selection
  • SHIFT+(M) to change marquee type
  • (V) Move tool
  • (T) Type tool
  • (G) Gradient/Bucket Fill tool
  • SHIFT+(G) to switch between Gradients and Bucket Fill
  • (B) Brush tool
  • SHIFT+(B) to change brush type
  • (E) for the Eraser tool.

If you use vector shapes a lot (which I don’t), then you probably want to memorise the vector tools hotkeys too.

2. Moving around the canvas

Getting to where you need to be is easier when you hold SPACE, and click and drag.  Combined with the Zoom tool (Z) and the ability to zoom back to 100% size with CTRL+ALT+0 (⌘+ALT+0), you’ll rarely need to use anything else.

Apple magic mouse users can also scroll in all directions with a single finger, but if you own one you probably know, as it can be pretty sensitive to accidental touches also.

3. Visual Layer Selection

I’m terrible at naming and grouping my layers.  It slows me down, and as quite a visual person, the layers palate with it’s tiny thumbnails often doesn’t help me find what I need, in order to select it.  So to quickly select a layer, or select multiple layers to move or group, I use visual layer selection.

For this to work, you need to select the Move Tool (V), and then up the top, check the “Auto Select:” box, and then select “Layer” from the dropdown, and then uncheck the box again.  If you don’t do this, the behaviour will select groups instead of layers inside groups, which can be frustrating. (you only need to do this step once)

With the Move tool selected (V), CTRL+CLICK (⌘+CLICK) on a layer on the stage to select it.  Hold down SHIFT as well to select multiple layers, or click and drag to select all layers your drag selection touches.

This method does not work for layers with very low opacity.  To select layers like this, RIGHT CLICK on them, and the list that appears will show all layers that your cursor is currently hovering over.

It’s also worth noting that when selecting tiny layers, the single white stroke around the edge of the move cursor is *not* the point that you should be aiming for, instead it’s the first black pixel on the tip of the arrow.  If in doubt, zoom.

4. Quick Duplication

If you ever need to duplicate a layer (or multiple) to move somewhere else on the canvas, simply select the layer using the method described above (though any selection method will work), and hold ALT while clicking and dragging the layer.  It will drag out a duplicate, leaving your original where it was.  I use this all the time for creating multiple tabs or menu items, paragraphs of text, headings, boxes, pretty much everything.

Note: The duplicated layer will appear above the topmost selected layer in your layers palate, so if you like to keep your layers grouped and named nicely, you’ll have to move and name them manually to keep everything in order. (this is also one of the reasons I don’t bother in my initial designs).

5. Quick Colour Selection

The 2 keys that will help you manage your colours a bit faster, are (D) which resets the foreground and background colours to black and white respectively, and (X) which swaps the foreground and background colour positions.  Say you wanted to quickly apply a white fill to something, you’d simply hit (D), (X) and then apply your fill.

6. Quick (and useful) Fills

The 2 fills I use most often have slightly different behaviours.

The first is just a standard area fill. Pressing ALT+BACKSPACE will fill the whole of your layer with your foreground colour.  If you have a text layer selected, it will change the text colour, and if you have a marquee selection of some form, it will fill the whole of the selected area (if the layer type allows this, does not work on vector shapes).  This is again useful with the quick colour selection hotkeys above.  (D), ALT+BACKSPACE will fill your layer with solid black.

The second, and slightly more useful fill type, fills the area while maintaining transparency.  What this means is say you have a complex clearcut shape, and you wanted to make the whole shape black without messing around with selections or channels, you would press ALT+SHIFT+BACKSPACE, and you’d see the shape be completely filled with your foreground colour, while maintaining the transparency level of each pixel.  An example is shown below:

Fill Example

This is an excellent way to retain nice antialiasing on your shapes.  It also works with marquee selections, and will fill the non-transparent area within the selection.

To be honest I have no idea how to do this using Photoshop’s menus, as I’ve always used hotkeys, but I’m sure there is a way (maybe someone could let us know in the comments.

7. Selection from layer

Selecting the opaque area of any particular layer is a useful thing to be able to do quickly.  In the layers palate, hold CTRL () and click the thumbnail image of a layer.  You should notice that this creates a selection around the edges of that layer, and also preserves the alpha channel of the original layer.  The uses of this are too numerous to list, but I’m sure you’ll find many by yourself.

Enough for now

I think seven things is more than enough to be helpful, and I don’t really want to pad the list with stuff that isn’t that useful, just to make it a nice round number like 10.  There are also less “Top 7” lists, so it’ll be easier for you to google later.  (listen to me, justifying my laziness… pathetic!)

Anyway, you’ve now got a bunch more tricks to keep up your sleeve, but just be aware that practicing these things is the only way to get them into your muscle memory to truly boost your working speed.  And if you already knew these things, well you’re a Photoshop guru and you can pat yourself on the back, smile, and go get yourself a nice cold drink.


  1. Picture of Steve Dennis
    Steve Dennis says:

    First time I’ve had to use the ⌘ character in an article.  Keen to hear what OS’s/Browsers/Devices it doesn’t display on.  Cheers guys :)

  2. Picture of Andrew Lee
    Andrew Lee says:

    I will translate it into Chinese.

  3. Picture of Juris
    Juris says:

    cool stuff, there are stuff I knew and some tips I didn’t, thank you very much.
    ⌘ is ok on my PC (Firefox 3.6.6/WinXP)

  4. Picture of Ogłoszenia

    Useful tricks, i will translate it into Polish language.

  5. Picture of Ryan Cole
    Ryan Cole says:

    these are great. I really need to learn the ones to merge layers, and such.

  6. Picture of Tucson Web Design

    You forgot one of my favorites: When you drag a selection with the marquee tool, but before releasing the mouse button, press and hold the Spacebar to relocate the selection. If you’re like me and don’t get the selection right first time (or a are a real perfectionist) this can be a real time saver

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