Let's once again start fresh, either by opening up a new
blank document in Photoshop or by deleting what you've already done.
We're going to draw our first curve so we can put all of our
newly-aquired direction handle knowledge to use. First, with the Pen
Tool selected and the Paths option selected in the Options Bar, click
once somewhere in your document to add an anchor point. Just click,
don't click and drag. You should have one single anchor point on the
screen when you're done.
Then, move your mouse cursor up and
to the right of your initial anchor point. Click again to add a second
anchor point, but this time, drag your mouse a little to the right of
the anchor point to drag out direction handles. Hold down Shift
as you drag to constrain your movement to a horizontal direction. As
you drag out the direction handles, you'll see your path appearing as a
curve between the two anchor points! The further you drag your mouse,
the longer you make the direction handles, and the more of a curve you
Click once to add an anchor point,
then click and drag out a second anchor point with direction handles,
creating a curved path segment between the two points.
Click down and to the right of the second anchor point to add a third anchor point. This time, don't click and drag, just click:
Add a third anchor point down and to the right of the second one by clicking with the Pen Tool.
As soon as you add the third anchor point, a second path
segment will appear, joining the second anchor point with the third one.
And because our second anchor point has direction handles extending
from it, this new path segment is also curved! We now have a nice,
smooth arc starting from the first point on the left, then passing
through the anchor point with the direction handles up top, and coming
to an end at the third point.
One thing you may have noticed, and you can see it in the
screenshot above, is that when you added the third anchor point, the
direction handle extending out the left side of the second anchor point
disappeared. It's still there, Photoshop simply hid it from view. To see
it again, use the keyboard shortcut we've already learned to
temporarily switch to the Direct Selection Tool, which is by holding down the Ctrl (Win) / Command
(Mac) key, and then click on the second anchor point to select it. As
soon as you do, the missing direction handle reappears as if it was
there the whole time (which it was):
Hold down the "Ctrl" (Win) /
"Command" (Mac) key to temporarily switch to the Direct Selection Tool,
then click on the top anchor point to select it. The missing anchor
With your "Ctrl/Command" key still held down so you still
have access to the Direct Selection Tool, try resizing each direction
handle by clicking on the end of each one to select it and then dragging
it towards and away from its anchor point. Again, hold "Shift" as you
drag to constrain your movement horizontally, and watch what happens. As
you increase the length of a handle, you get more of a curve, and as
you decrease its length, you get less of a curve. Also notice that each
handle controls its own side of the curve. The handle on the left
controls the curve coming into the anchor point from the left, and the
handle on the right controls the curve flowing out from the anchor point
on the right.
Here, I've made my handle on the left shorter, and as we
can see, there's much less of a curve now than there was originally,
almost becoming a straight line. I've also made the handle on the right
longer, and as a result, the curve on the right is now much more
pronounced. The faint curve is the original for comparison:
Change the shape of the curves by
resizing the direction handles. The left handle controls the left curve,
and the right handle controls the right curve.
I'm going to undo my changes by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Z (Win) / Command+Option+Z
(Mac) a couple of times to set my direction handles back to their
original sizes so they're equal length once again. Now let's try
rotating the handles. Hold down "Ctrl/Command" once again to access the
Direct Selection Tool, then click on the end of either handle to select
it and try rotating it around the anchor point. Since we selected the
handle with "Ctrl/Command", both handles rotate together. Here I've
dragged my left handle down and to the right, and the angle of the curve
on the left changed along with it, now appearing as more of a slope as
it rises up towards the anchor point. By dragging the left handle down
and to the right, I caused the right handle to rotate up and to the
left, and again, the angle of the curve on the right changed along with
it, now rising above the anchor point briefly before making a steep
decent down to the anchor point on the right. Again, the faint curve is
the original for comparison:
Rotate the direction handles to
change the angle of the curves. Select a handle while holding "Ctrl"
(Win) / "Command" (Mac) to rotate both handles together.
The Dreaded "Loop"
One thing you want to avoid is rotating the handles too
far, which will cause your path segments to overlap and create loops.
Here, I've rotated my handles all the way around so that the left handle
is now on the right and the right handle is on the left, and notice
what's happened. My path segments are now overlapping each other,
creating a loop:
Rotating the direction handles too far causes the path segments to overlap, creating an unwanted loop in the path.
Loops can be caused by rotating the direction handles too
far, as I've done above, but more often than not, they're caused by a
handle being too long, making the curve too long and causing it to
overlap with itself. If that happens, which it does sometimes as you're
drawing a path, simply shorten the length of the direction handle. Most
people end up creating a whole bunch of loops in their path when they
first start working with the Pen Tool, so don't think you're the only
one. No need to panic or become frustrated though. As I said, the
problem is most likely being caused by a direction handle being too
long, and all you need to do is shorten the handle to "un loop" the
I'm going to press Ctrl+Alt+Z (Win) / Command+Option+Z
(Mac) a few times once again to undo my changes and reset my path back
to the nice smooth arc I started with. Now, what about rotating the
direction handles independently of each other? As we learned on the
previous page, to rotate the handles separately, instead of selecting
them with "Ctrl/Command", we simply select them while holding down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac), which gives us temporary access to the Convert Point Tool.
Click on the end of a handle to select it, then drag it with your mouse
to rotate it and this time, the other handle will stay in place,
breaking the connection between them.
Here, I've selected the handle on the
right while holding "Alt/Option" and then rotated it down and to the
left. Notice how once again, the angle of the path segment on the right
changes to match the new direction of the handle, and this time, the
handle on the left, along with the path segment on the left, both stay
in place. My path now looks a bit like a shark fin:
Hold down "Alt" (Win) / "Option"
(Mac) to temporarily access the "Convert Point Tool", then click on the
end of a direction handle to select it and rotate it independently of
the other handle.
Moving An Anchor Point
One thing we haven't looked at yet is how to move an
anchor point. If you recall, I mentioned on the previous page that the
Pen Tool is extremely forgiving, and one of the reasons for it, besides
being able to rotate and resize our direction handles after we've
created them, is that we can easily move anchor points from one spot to
another if we need to. As we've already learned, anchor points anchor a path into place. The anchor points themselves, however, are not
anchored into place. You can move an anchor point anywhere, anytime,
and any path segments that are connected to it will move and adjust
right along with it.
To move an anchor point, hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command
(Mac) to temporarily access the Direct Selection Tool as we've already
been doing, then simply click on the anchor point to select it and drag
it to its new location with your mouse. Any path segments connected to
it will move with it to the new location. Here, I've dragged my middle
anchor point down a bit from its original location (again, the faint
path marks the original location for comparison). Notice how the path
itself has changed shape to adjust to the new location of the anchor
Hold down "Ctrl" (Win) / "Command"
(Mac) and click on an anchor point to select it, then drag it to a new
location. Any path segments connected to the point will move with it,
changing shape as needed.
Normally, when outlining an object with a path to select
it using the Pen Tool, you won't need to move to an anchor point quite
as far as what I've done above, but it's very common to go back around
your path after you've created it and nudge a few anchor points here and
there to fine-tune the path. Once you've selected an anchor point, you
can nudge it up, down, left or right using the arrow keys on your keyboard.
Combining Straight Paths With Curves
What if I didn't want both of my path segments to be
curves? What if what I needed was for the first path segment to be
curved, but the second one needed to be straight? Let's see how to do
that. I'm going to delete my existing path and start over again. First,
I'll click to add an anchor point to start things off. Then, just as
before, I'll click to add a second anchor point up and to the right of
my initial point, and this time, I'll drag out direction handles, which
will create a curved path connecting the two points, giving me exactly
what I had way up at the start of this page:
Click once to add an anchor point, then click to add a second anchor point and drag out direction handles to create a curve.
I now have my initial curve, but I want my next path
segment to be straight. If I was to simply click somewhere to add
another anchor point right now, I would get another curve because I have
that direction handle extending out from the right side of the last
anchor point I added. What I need to do is get rid of that one direction
handle. Without a direction handle controlling the angle and length of a
curve, we get a straight line.
To remove the handle, leaving only the handle on the left of the anchor point, all I need to do is hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac), which will again temporarily switch me to the Convert Point Tool,
and then I just click directly on the anchor point. When I do, the
direction handle on the right disappears, leaving only the one on the
Hold down "Alt" (Win) / "Option"
(Mac) and click directly on the anchor point to remove the direction
handle on the right, leaving only the one on the left.
Now, with the direction handle gone, if I click to add a
new anchor point, I get a straight path segment between the two points :
With the direction handle on the
right now gone, clicking to add a new anchor point adds a straight path
segment between the two points.
I now have a curved path segment on the left and a
straight one on the right! What if I wanted the exact opposite? Suppose I
needed to start with a straight path segment and then follow it with a
curve? To do that, first I'll start by clicking to add an initial anchor
point. Then, since I want a straight path segment, all I need to do is
click somewhere else to add a second anchor point, and I automatically
get a straight path connecting the two points:
Click with the Pen Tool to add an
initial anchor point, then click again somewhere else to add a second
anchor point and create a straight path segment between them.
I'm going to keep my mouse button held down after
clicking to add my second anchor point because I want my next path
segment to be curved, and we know that in order to create a curve, we
need a direction handle. To add a handle extending out from the right of
my anchor point, I'm going to hold down Alt (Win) / Option
(Mac), and with my mouse button still down, I'm simply going to to drag
to the right of the anchor point. As I do, a direction handle will drag
out along with it:
Hold down "Alt" (Win) / "Option" (Mac) and drag out a direction handle on the right of the anchor point.
Notice that the direction handle extended only from the
right of the anchor point, not from both sides, leaving my straight path
segment on the left in place. And now that I have my direction handle
on the right, all I need to do to create my curve is click to add a
Click to add a third anchor point, which creates a curved path segment between the previous anchor point and the new one.
And there we go! I now have a straight path segment on
the left, followed by a curved segment on the right. Of course, most
paths you draw are going to consist of more than just three anchor
points. Let's say I wanted to continue this path, moving in the same
general direction towards the right, and I want my next path segment to
be curved as well. Just as I did a moment ago, I would leave my mouse
button held down after clicking to add my third point. I would hold down
Alt (Win) / Option
(Mac) and I would drag out another direction handle. So far, we've only
been dragging handles out towards the right, but what you really want to
do is drag your handles out in the general direction you want the curve
to follow. I want to create a curve that goes up and to the right, so
I'm going to drag out a small handle in that same general direction:
Drag out your direction handles in the general direction of the curve.
Tip! A good practice to get into
is to keep your direction handles small when first dragging them out,
since you never really know how long or at what exact angle they need to
be until the actual curve appears, and the curve doesn't appear until
you've added both of its anchor points. Once you've added both points
and the curve appears, you can easily go back and make any adjustments
you need to the handles. You may even want to wait until you've drawn
the entire path before worrying about adjusting the handles.
anchor point, and I'm going to drag out direction handles from it as
Adding a fourth anchor point along with direction handles extending from it.
I now have a third segment added to my path, this one being a curve. Notice that this curve actually has two
direction handles controlling it, one extending from the right of my
third anchor point and one extending from the left of my fourth point:
The third path segment now has two direction handles, one on either end, working together to control the curve.
The overall shape of this curve is now being controlled
by the length and direction of both of these handles. Watch what happens
to the curve when I move the handles. I'll drag the bottom handle down
and to the right, and I'll drag the top handle up and to the left. I'll
also drag both of these handles longer. The faint curve is the original
Changing the direction and/or length
of either handle changes the overall shape of the curve. After rotating
and lengthening both handles, the curve now appears in an "S" shape.
The curve is now a bit "S" shaped, and that's because the
bottom handle is controlling the angle and length of the curve as it
flows out from the third anchor point, while the top handle is
controlling the angle and length of the curve as it flows into the
fourth point. Changing the length and/or direction of either handle will
change the overall shape of the curve.
I'm going to press Ctrl+Alt+Z (Win) / Command+Option+Z
(Mac) a couple of times to undo the changes I made, so the curve is
once again in a simple arc shape as it was a moment ago, and I think
I'll finish off this path with another straight segment, which means
I'll need to remove that direction handle extending out from the right
side of the fourth anchor point. We've already learned how to do that,
by holding down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and clicking directly on the anchor point itself:
Hold down "Alt" (Win) / "Option" (Mac) and click directly on the anchor point to remove the direction handle on the right.
With the direction handle gone, all I need to do now to add a straight path segment is click to add another anchor point:
The direction handle on the right is
now gone, so we can add a straight path segment simply by clicking to
add another anchor point.
We could continue this path for as long as we wanted,
adding more straight segments and curves, but I think we'll stop here
because we've pretty much covered everything we need to know about
drawing paths with the Pen Tool at this point. That was a lot of
information to take in, especially if this is your first time learning
about paths. As I mentioned at the beginning, you won't become a Pen
Master simply by reading through this tutorial, just as you won't learn
how to ride a bike, or drive a car, learn to swim, or play the piano
simply by reading about it. But hopefully you have some sense at this
point of how to draw paths with the Pen Tool, how to draw straight path
segments, how to draw curves by dragging out direction handles, how to
change the length and angle of the curve by rotating and resizing the
handles, and how to combine straight and curved segments in a path.
To finish off our look at making selections with the Pen
Tool, let's see a practical example of how to select an object with
If you're still with us after reading through all the information on the
previous couple of pages where we learned about paths and path
segments, anchor points, direction handles, drawing straight lines and
curves, controlling the angle and length of curves by rotating and
resizing direction handles, and combining straight and curved segments
in a path, give yourself a pat on the back because that's a lot of
information to take in, especially if you're new to paths and the Pen
Tool in Photoshop.
A photo of two dolphins jumping out of the water.
Let's say we want to select these dolphins so we can use
them for a design or a collage, or whatever the case may be. If you were
to try selecting them with the Lasso Tool, which is most likely what
you would end up using if you didn't know how to use the Pen Tool, not
only would you have a tough time, you'd have an even tougher time
trying to convince yourself that you were happy with the results when
you were done. The reason is because the Lasso Tool simply isn't capable
of making curved selections very well. The biggest problem with it,
besides being a pixel-based selection tool, is that it relies on you
having a steady enough hand to move it smoothly around the curves. Even
if you don't suffer from a caffeine addiction, you could drive yourself
crazy trying to draw a perfectly smooth curve with your mouse, or even
with a pen tablet, and when you've finally given up, you'll still be
left with a selection full of rough, jagged edges that just scream
"amateur!". No one likes to be called an amateur, especially when
there's no need for it thanks to the Pen Tool!
Examine The Object First
Whenever you're about to select something with the Pen Tool,
before you begin, take a moment to examine the object carefully to get a
sense of where you're going to need to place your anchor points. Forget
about all the details in the object and focus only on its shape. Where
are the areas where the shape changes direction? Which parts of the
shape are straight? Which parts are curved? If there's a curve, is it a
smooth, continuous arc or does the angle change at a spot along the
curve? Visualize in your mind where you're going to need to place your
anchor points, because when you place one, you always want to be
thinking about the next one and what the path segment between the two
points needs to look like.
A Tool Of Elegance
One more thing to keep in mind is that the Pen Tool is meant
to be a tool of elegance . It's not a nail gun or a staple gun. You
don't want to just go clicking around your shape adding anchor points
all "willy nilly" (that's a technical term). When using it to draw
curves, you want those curves to be nice and smooth, otherwise we might
as well just stick with the Lasso Tool. To keep the curves flowing
smoothly, we need to limit the number of anchor points we use to create
them. That's why you want to take a moment to examine the object first
and visualize where the anchor points need to be. If you can outline a
large section of the shape using only one curve with an anchor point on
either end, that's what you want to do, because that's what's going to
give you the kind of results you're looking for. The kind of results
that scream "definitely not an amateur!".
Let's select these dolphins. I'm going to start my path in
the middle of the photo, at the spot where the side of the dolphin on
the left overlaps the rear flipper of the dolphin on the right. There's
no right or wrong place to begin a path. This is just where I've decided
to start. The first part of that rear flipper is straight, so since I
don't need a direction handle to create a straight path segment, I'm
simply going to click once with my Pen Tool to add my first anchor
point, which will serve as the starting point for my path:
Adding the first anchor point.
As I mentioned earlier, you'll probably find it helpful to
zoom in on your image as you're drawing your path. To scroll the image
around on the screen as you're zoomed in, hold down the spacebar, which will switch you temporarily to the Hand Tool and allow you to move the image around on the screen by clicking and dragging it.
The top of that flipper actually has a slight curve to it
as it approaches the dolphin's tail section, so for my second anchor
point, I'm going to click at the point where the flipper and tail
section meet, and I'm going to drag out short direction handles,
dragging up and to the right in the direction that the tail section is
moving. Notice that I've now created a slight curve along the flipper:
Adding the second anchor point and dragging out small direction handles to add a slight curve to the first path segment.
As I continue up along the tail, I can see that it stays
straight for a short distance, followed by a curve to the right, so I'm
going to click to add a third anchor point at the spot where the curve
begins. This gives me a straight path segment between the previous point
and the new one. I know there's a short direction handle extending out
from the previous anchor point, which normally means that my new path
segment will be a curve, not a straight section, but because the handle
is so short and is also moving in the same direction as the path
segment, there is no noticeable curve to it. Consider it a "mostly
straight" path segment:
Clicking to add the third anchor point, creating a (mostly) straight path segment.
Continuing along, we come to the first real curve in our
path. For this, I'm going to need to drag out a direction handle from
the anchor point I just added, so I'm going to hold down Alt (Win) / Option
(Mac), then drag out a handle in the general direction where I want the
curve to flow as it starts. Notice how I'm only dragging out a handle
from the one side of the anchor point, not both:
Hold "Alt" (Win) / "Option" (Mac) to drag out a direction handle from one side of an anchor point.
To add the curve, I'll click and drag at the spot where the
curve ends, shaping the curve as I drag out the handles until it
matches the curve of the dolphin's tail. If I needed to, I could also go
back and change the length and direction of the handle at the start of
the curve to fine-tune it, but in this case, I don't need to do that:
Adding an anchor point at the opposite
end of the curve and dragging out direction handles from it, rotating
and resizing them as needed until the curve matches the curve of the
The next area of the dolphin is pretty straight, right up
until its back begins to merge with its dorsal fin, at which point
there's another curve, so I'm going to click to add an anchor point just
before the curve up the dorsal fin begins, which is going to give me
another "mostly straight" path segment between the previous point and
the new point. Then I'm going to once again hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and drag out a direction handle as I prepare for my next path segment which will be curved:
Click to add an anchor point, then
hold down "Alt" (Win) / "Option" (Mac) and drag out a direction handle
to prepare for the next path segment.
The left side of the dorsal fin consists mainly of one
continuous curve upward until it gets near the very top, at which point
the shape changes, so to create this curve, I'm going to click and drag
at the point near the top where the curve will change direction. As we
can see in the screenshot, this adds a curved path segment between the
previous anchor point and the new one, but the curve is not yet
following along the shape of the fin. It's going to need some
Adding a curve along the left side of the dorsal fin. The curve still needs some adjusting.
To adjust the curve, I'm simply going to hold down the Ctrl (Win) / Command
(Mac) key, which gives me temporary access to the Direct Selection
Tool, and I'm going to drag the handle extending out from the bottom
anchor point towards the right to lengthen it, which is going to pull
the angle of the curve in towards the right along with it, lining it up
nicely with the curve of the fin. I've also rotated the top direction
handles slightly in a clockwise direction just to be nit-picky, but the
majority of the adjustment was done using the bottom direction handle:
Adjust the curve by adjusting its direction handles.
opposite side of it to add another anchor point with short direction
handles. Notice though that we run into a bit of a problem. The
direction handle on the left side of the curve is too long and it's
pulling the curve away from the top of the fin:
The direction handle on the left of the curve is too long, resulting in the curve not following the shape of the fin.
To fix that, all I need to do is once again hold down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac), then click on the end of the handle to select it and drag it shorter until the curve is the proper shape:
Shortening the length of the direction handle to adjust the shape of the curve.
Let's finish creating our path around the dorsal fin. The
remainder of the fin is basically a straight line, so I'm going to click
at the base of the fin to add another anchor point which adds the
straight path segment, completing our path around the fin:
Adding an anchor point at the base of the fin to finish drawing the path around it.
Since you and I would both be here all day if I was to
continue commenting on every anchor point, direction handle and path
segment as we make our way slowly around the dolphins, and since we've
covered everything we need to know at this point, I'm going to go ahead
and draw the rest of the path, outlining both dolphins:
Both dolphins are now outlined by the path.
The dolphins have now been outlined with the path, and if
we look at the Paths palette, we can see that sure enough, we have a
path in the shape of the dolphins:
Photoshop's Paths palette showing the outline of the dolphins in the preview thumbnail.
As we've learned, Photoshop automatically names the path
"Work Path", which means it's temporary and will be replaced if we start
a new path. If you wanted to save it, you would need to double-click on
the name "Work Path" and rename it to something else, like "Dolphins"
in this case. I'm not going to worry about that, since I have no need to
save it. All I want to do at this point is convert my path into a
selection, and since I'm already in the Paths palette, I'll do that by
clicking on the Load path as selection icon at the bottom of the palette:
Clicking the "Load path as selection" icon at the bottom of the Paths palette.
I could also have used the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Enter (Win) / Command+Return
(Mac) . Either way converts my path into a selection, and if I look at
my photo, I can see that my path has indeed become a selection around
The path around the dolphins has now been converted into a selection.
And there we go! The dolphins are now selected and ready
for whatever plans we have for them. And with that, we wrap up our look
at drawing paths and making selections with the Pen Tool in Photoshop!