Surviving Photoshop

Many times when working with Photoshop beginners (and even some experienced users), I find that they sometimes struggle with Photoshop not reacting the way they expect it to. Even if you know exactly what tool or method to use, it can be frustrating and confusing when applying that tool or method doesn’t act as expected. Photoshop is a complex application and a particularly unforgiving one as well. It very rarely gives feedback, and when it does, it ‘s almost always negative. Because of this, it ‘s easy to lose track of what tool is selected, what settings are being used, and which layer you are working on. But with a little detective work, it ‘s fairly simple to track down the problem.

With that in mind, here are the things to check when a tool doesn’t work.

1) The Toolbox

2) The Options Bar

3) The Layers Panel

4) Do I have a selection or transformation active?

Let ‘s look at each one of these individually and see what problems might occur.

Do I have the right tool selected?

It might seem silly, but even seasoned Photoshop professionals like me occasionally lose track of what tool they’re using, and try to use the paint brush to make a rectangular selection. So the first place to look is the toolbox to make sure you have the correct tool selected.

Do I have the right options selected?

Photoshop is a program with a very long memory. Even if it was hours ago that you set up something in the Options Bar, the next time you use that tool, Photoshop will remember, and continue using those settings.

After ensuring you have the right tool selected, take a close look at the Options Bar:


An example of the Options Bar with a tool selected. Notice how low the opacity is.

If you can’t tell which setting is causing problems, try to reset the tool, by clicking the tool image on the far left side of the Options bar.


From this pop-up window, click the palette menu, and then click ‘Reset Tool’.

Do I have the right Layer Selected?

It ‘s easy to lose track of which layer is active in Photoshop. The Layers panel is tucked away in the corner, and you are frequently focused on the image in the center of the screen.

The third place to look if your tool is not behaving as expected is the Layers Panel. It is easy to tell what Layer is selected (the selected Layer will be highlighted in blue), but it might not always be easy to tell what is on a particular layer.

There are two ways to combat this. First off, name your layers. By naming your layers you can easily keep track of what is in each one, and what its purpose is.

The second thing you can do is view each layer individually. Next to each layer is a small ‘eye’ icon, which indicates layer visibility. Hold Alt, and click this icon, and all the other layers will be hidden. Continue doing this for each layer, to see what each layer contains. With this information, you should easily be able to find which layer needs to be selected.

Do I have a selection or transformation active?

The final place to look is the image itself. Once a selection is active, it is very easy to forget its still there. A selection is your way of blocking out a particular section of the image to work on in Photoshop.

Let ‘s see the difference between what you see, and what Photoshop sees when a selection is active.

What You See

What Photoshop Sees

When a selection is active, it ‘s as if the rest of the image doesn’t exist for Photoshop. This means that any tool you use will only work on the selected area.

To fix this problem, you need to turn off the selection. You can do this by clicking the Select menu, and clicking ‘Deselect’, or hitting Ctrl-D on the keyboard (Cmd-D on the mac).

The other problem you might run into is if you have a transformation active. Look at the upper right corner of the toolbar.  Is there a Checkmark and a circle with a line through it there?  If so, that means you have begun to transform something in Photoshop, and it is waiting for you to finish before moving on.  If everything in your image appears correct, just click the checkmark to continue.
These four things aren’t the only things that can go wrong, but in my experience, these are the things that newer users tend not to notice, and become very frustrating. Even experienced Photoshop users forget these things, so when Photoshop causes you problems, take a deep breath, and follow this map, and you’ll be back on track in no time.

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