If you thought the Photoshop Pen Tool was strictly for designers and professional photographers, think again. Our jargon-free tutorial shows you how to make cut-outs and super-precise selections.
If there’s one photo editing tool that provokes more animosity, apathy and confusion than any other, it’s the Photoshop Pen tool. Maybe this is because it’s one of the few Photoshop tools that lacks instant usability – it’s difficult to figure out how it works by picking it up and having a play. But approach the Photoshop Pen tool armed with a little know-how, and everything quickly falls into place.
The Photoshop Pen tool works by allowing you to plot a series of lines, either curved or straight. These lines are called paths. They’re vector-based, which means they’re defined by angle and shape rather than by a group of pixels, and can be up-scaled as much as you like.
But if that sounds at all complicated then forget it for now. The only thing photographers need to know about the Photoshop Pen tool is that they can use it to make precise selections and super-clean cutouts of objects like this car.
In this tutorial, we’ll trace around the car with the Photoshop Pen tool, then cut it out and apply a soft white vignette to the background. So, let’s get cutting out…
How to cut out objects with the Photoshop Pen tool
01 Set the options
Grab the Pen tool from the Tools Panel, then zoom on the back of the object you want to cut out – in our case, the car. We’ll start by making a path around the background inside the spoiler. Before you begin, make sure the tool is set up correctly in the Options Bar at the top: the top-left dropdown should show ‘Path’ rather than ‘Shape’.
02 Make a curve
Go to Window>Paths to access the Paths Panel. Click to add a point on the inside part of the spoiler, then click further along the shape and drag. Note how the line curves depending on the direction and length you drag. Continue clicking and dragging to trace along the outline.
03 Change direction
When we get to the sharp corner on the spoiler we’ll need the path to turn back on itself and go in the opposite direction, otherwise we won’t get a sharp point. To do this, hold Alt and click on the anchor point to remove the control outside handle. Now continue plotting points in the opposite direction.
04 Tweak points and handles
We carry on making points to trace the outline of the shape. If we need to adjust any point or its handles, we could switch to the Direct Selection tool, make the adjustment and then switch back to the Pen tool, but it’s easier to hold Cmd/Ctrl to switch temporarily, then drag a point or its handles to adjust.
05 Close the Path
When we get back to the start point, hover over it and a little circle icon will appear, allowing us to complete the path. We can still add more points to the path simply by clicking along the path line. Once we’ve gone round the spoiler and completed the path, we’ll go to the Paths Panel and drag the ‘Work Path’ to the New Path icon.
06 Cut out the car
Next we carry on using the Pen tool to make a path around the whole car. When done, we click the ‘Load Path as Selection’ icon in the Paths Panel. Hit Cmd/Ctrl+J, then make a new layer above the background and fill it with white. Add a Layer Mask, grab the Gradient tool, set style to Radial Gradient then drag a black to white gradient from the centre.
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