How To: Customize Photoshop for a Better Workflow

Sometimes all you need is a little interface renovation

Photoshop has changed its default look slightly over the years, but for the most part it’s been quite consistent: Toolbar on the left, options on the top, and a given set of panels (which used to be known as palettes) on the right. Despite the consistency, Adobe has added new ways to control and customize Photoshop’s interface with almost every new version.

Why customize? Doing so can make the program faster and more efficient to use. It can render Photoshop more legible. And you can save variations on the interface for different tasks.

Here are some simple techniques for making Photoshop CS5 work better for you, along with some cool built-in secrets that you won’t want to live without. Some of these tips work for CS3 and CS4 as well, though under slightly different menu items.

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The interface above has lots of image area and consolidated panels. Photo: Peter Kolonia
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FYI: Hidden Features
Besides customization, Photoshop's interface has other secrets; scrubby sliders are one of the coolest. Mouse over the word that precedes a number box, such as the word Opacity in the Layers panel, and you'll see a pointing finger with a left- and right-pointing arrow. Click and drag left or right to increase or decrease opacity without using the pulldown menu. Scrubby sliders are in almost every numerical option that appears in the Options Bar for a given tool, such as the amount of feathering for a selection or a font size.

Tip 1: Make Words Legible

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If you have a large or a high-resolution screen, Photoshop's default font can seem tiny, so make it bigger. Go to Preferences > Interface. Under UI Text Options, choose UI Font Size: Large. (You won't see the new font size until you close and reopen the program.) While you're adjusting the preferences, you can change the background color that shows up behind your images. Choose the default gray or black, or a custom color such as the one shown here, a darker gray. Click OK to save your changes.

Tip 2: Expand Your Panels

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To see more gridlines when you're working in Curves, Ctrl + click on the Curves background.
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Make the panels and the information they contain easier to see, too. Start with the layer thumbnails. Right-click on the empty gray part of the Layers Panel to see a menu, and choose Large Thumbnails. The Adjustments panel is small by default, but you can enlarge that as well. Click the flyout menu in the top-right corner of the panel, and choose Expanded View. Do the same for the histogram to make it bigger.

Tip 3: Pick Your Panels

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Display only the panels you use regularly.
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If you use, say, Adjustments, Layers, and History often, keep only those visible. Start by making the Histogram less prominent. Grab it by its tab and drag the tab to the column of small buttons to the left until it docks. Then go to the Window menu and uncheck Navigator to hide its panel. This will leave you space for lots of layers. If you refer to History often, go to Window > History to show it, then grab its tab and drag it down next to the Layers panel. There's no reason for the main toolbar to be on the left if everything else is on the right. Drag it over to join the rest.

Tip 4: Your Menus, Your Shortcuts

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When changing keyboard shortcuts, Photoshop will alert you if your proposed shortcut is already in use.
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You don't have to see every menu item Photoshop offers. To pick the ones you want, go to Edit > Menus. Then click the eye icon to hide a given item. You can also create or customize your own shortcuts—click the Keyboard Shortcuts tab to edit them. Choose the menu item you want to access faster, and type the keyboard command you want to use to activate it.

Tip 5: Save an Interface

When you get an interface set up the way you like, save it. Go to Window > Workspace > New Workspace. Name it, and check the boxes to save Keyboard Shortcuts and Menus, too. Create as many as you want: make a minimalist version for lots of screen real estate, or one with simplified menus. To return to Photoshop's default, go to Window > Workspace > Essentials (Default).

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