Fast, fluent editing

One of the hallmarks of mastery is the ability to get more done with less effort. It can be a treat to watch somebody work with a tool or do an activity that they are truly fluent in - no superfluous movement or wasted energy.

I've been using Photoshop since version 3, released back in 1994; my copy came on seven 3.5" floppy discs just like this (that's actually pretty impressive, considering that those seven floppies would only fit one reasonably high-quality mp3 today). Despite having almost 20 years of experience with Photoshop, I am constantly learning new ways to improve my productivity with the software. 

In this article, I'll share 10 shortcut tips and tricks that I use every day to streamline my workflow. The goal of these shortcuts is to allow editing to progress in a smooth, uninterrupted fashion. Whenever I need to click into a menu - or, worse, dock my stylus in order to type something with both hands - it's like hitting a speed bump. It kills my productivity.

To maintain efficiency, I keep one hand on the mouse or tablet stylus as much as possible, and use the other hand to update tools, settings or contexts via keyboard shortcuts - I call this "fluent editing."

Here are the shortcuts that I find most useful, along with tips for combining them in a fluent manner. While many of these shortcuts and techniques may be familiar to you already, they can be combined to minimize context switches for maximum efficiency.

1. Scrubby zoom

While using zoom (magnifying glass) tool: click and drag left or right

Scrubby zoom is a feature that some users find annoying until they start using the "fluent editing" (one hand to mouse / one hand to hotkey) approach. To use this feature: while using the zoom tool, click and hold the mouse button, then drag the mouse left to zoom out or right to zoom in - no extraneous clicks and no extra keys to zoom out. Just click and drag until you reach the appropriate zoom level.

To enable Scrubby Zoom, check the box in the Zoom tool's palette. You may also need to select "Enable OpenGL Drawing" under Preferences -> Performance.

2. Scrubby hand

In any tool, hold space bar and drag the image

I don't know if this feature has a proper name - I call it "scrubby hand" since it feels similar to scrubby zoom to me. Regardless of the name, it's incredibly useful when you're working on an image at a high zoom level.

Rather than mousing over to the scroll bars or switching to the hand tool to pan your image, just hold down the space bar - your pointer will turn into the "hand" tool icon; you can now simply click anywhere in the image (while continuing to hold the space bar) and move the visible part of the image, similarly to how you would move an image on a tablet or smartphone.

Imagine you were zoomed in to edit this small flyaway hair, which goes off the top of the screen. Without leaving the healing tool or mousing over to the scroll bars, simply hold space and click to pan the image with the scrubby hand to get the rest of the hair. 

3. Temporary tools

Hold any tool shortcut key

Let's say that you're using the paint brush tool to paint on a layer mask, and you want to change zoom level before continuing to paint.

The non-fluent approach requires 3 steps:

  1. Type (z) to switch to the magnifying glass
  2. Use scrubby zoom to change the zoom level
  3. Type (b) to go back to the brush tool

It's even worse if you're not yet familiar with the tool hotkeys.

The fluent approach: just hold down z and drag to use scrubby zoom.  When you release z, Photoshop will automatically return you to the brush tool.

This technique works for temporarily changing to any tool, not just zoom. Simply hold down the hotkey for the tool you wish to use temporarily.

4. New layer

With options dialogue: Ctrl+Shift+N / Cmd+Shift+N

Without options dialogue: Ctrl+Shift+Alt+N / Cmd+Shift+Option+N

On many of the images I edit, this is the first command I execute. I often start with a new empty layer for baseline retouching. I use a non-destructive editing workflow, which means that I make changes to my images in a way that allows the edits to be tweaked or reverted at a later time. This is useful for situations where you learn a better way of doing something, or the capabilities of the software you're using improve.

For example, after I started using the color blending mode to adjust odd skin tones, I was able to go back and update photos on which I'd originally used a less-effective combination of hue/saturation and curves adjustment layers, but I didn't have to start from scratch.

This layer stack contains many non-destructive edits, each on their own layer or adjustment layer.

Pro tip: when you're creating a large number of layers and adjustment layers, it can be very useful to give them meaningful names, such as "global contrast" or "dust spot retouch." Some of my more heavily massaged images can have 10 or more layers, so it's useful to have left yourself hints as to what's going on if you ever re-edit the image.

5. Merge stamp visible

Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E / Cmd+Shift+Option+E

Once you have a pile of layers and adjustment layers, it is sometimes necessary to composite them together (e.g., to apply a filter to the overall image). This command is a one-handed shortcut that creates a new layer comprised of all of the currently visible layers in your layer stack. I don't know how I survived before learning this one.

The selected layer was created with "merge stamp visible" in order to produce a composited base to apply a filter.

When using filters, I often find it useful to annotate the layer name with information about the filter settings used (in this case, Color Cast / Contrast / Dynamic Contrast values for Nik Software Color Efx Pro's "Pro Contrast" filter).

Keep reading for the next 5 tips!