Essential time-saving Photoshop tips

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.

In this article, I’ll share 5 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.

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.

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.

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.

Conclusion

It takes some practice to stop mousing over to tool palettes and use the keyboard hotkeys instead. Investing the effort pays off in the long run – you can save a lot of time while editing images by getting to know the hotkeys for actions you perform frequently, and getting into the habit of leaving your non-primary hand on the keyboard so that you can access those hotkeys quickly. These tips are time-savers that I use every day, and I hope they are useful for you as well!