Minhajul Haque

The A-Z of Photoshop User Interface

Photoshop User Interface

Photoshop user interface is simply what you get to see when you first launch the application. But that doesn’t say much about it. Understanding the Tabbed Window Interface, different Screen Modes or where all the Panels, Menus, Tools, and Functions are located is absolutely critical for a power user to increase efficiency and productivity.

No application ever became popular until it was user-friendly. Photoshop is a giant application featuring lots of tools and functions. And it was a real challenge for the UX designers to lay them out in a way that becomes friendly even for a novice.

Screenshot of Photoshop User Interface
Screenshot of Photoshop User Interface

Before you make any serious consideration about learning Photoshop you should be very comfortable with its user interface. An efficient interface dictates how a user can interact with it. This is what determines the friendliness of an application. Without a clear understanding of how they are organized and how they can be reorganized, you may never know how productive you could be with a very customized interface or knowing exactly where the tools and functions are located.

Tools, Options Bar, and Panels

As you will be working inside Photoshop make sure you know where all the tools, options, and panels are located and how they can be accessed. Once you familiarize yourself with the tools and functions you will begin to pick them spontaneously as necessary without thinking too much about it. Let’s begin with the Photoshop Tools.

Photoshop Tools

Photoshop Tools are what you will be accessing the most frequently. You have the Tools Panel on the left. Certainly, you can move around and change its position. But it is there on the left by default. You can select any tool by simply clicking on it or using a keyboard shortcut.

If you don’t see the Tools Panel in your current workspace then go to the application menu Window then select Tools.

Every tool has its own shortcut assigned to it. If you hover your mouse pointer over a tool and pause for 2 seconds it will show its name and shortcut─in the parenthesis─associated with.

Screenshot of Photoshop Tools Panel
Tools Panel

Each of the tools has a tool slot which is a tiny triangle at the bottom right corner which indicates that there are other tools hidden inside it. If you click and hold your mouse button on any particular tool it will bring up the list of tools associated with it. Then you can select a specific tool from the list.

Screenshot of Photoshop Lasso Tools
Lasso Tools

Although all the other variations of the tool have the same keyboard shortcut you can cycle through them by adding the Shift key with the shortcut letter.

For example, here for the Lasso Tools if you like to select the Magnetic Lasso Tool using a keyboard shortcut you have to press and hold the Shift key then press L twice. Since the current selection is Lasso Tool pressing L once with the Shift key will select the next tool which is Polygonal Lasso Tool and then the next time you press L with the Shift key still pressed and held it will take to you the next tool which is Magnetic Lasso Tool. Pressing L thrice will bring you back to the Lasso Tool from which you started.

Screenshot of Photoshop Tools Settings
Photoshop Preferences Settings for Tools

If you don’t like to add the modifier Shift key to cycle through the variations then you can do so going to the Photoshop Preferences. Then under Tools tab, you will see an option Use Shift Key for Tools Switch. Turn that option off to cycle through the variation just with a single key. Here for example, just pressing the L key twice alone will get you the Magnetic Lasso Tool.

Options Bar

At the top of the application, you have an option bar which is sensitive to its context. As you select a different tool the options on this bar will change accordingly. These options allow you to perform additional tasks, modify, change the behavior of the currently selected tool.

Screenshot of Photoshop Tool Bar
Context Sensitive Toolbar Showing the Options for Currently Selected Move Tool

Photoshop Panels

For having tons of features and functionalities Photoshop can easily intimidate a user. Panels make Photoshop more comprehensible. Photoshop Panel is what groups similar tools or functions and everything else that goes together. The Tools we discussed earlier is also residing on a Photoshop Panel.

Panels can have different states. They can be opened, minimized, or closed as necessary. You can also detach and keep the panels float independently to perform a specific task.

Screenshot of Photoshop Panels and Its Different States
Photoshop Panels and Its Different States

You can access all the Photoshop panels inside the application menu Window. You also see some of the panels have checked mark next to them which means those panels are open in your current workspace and on top of other panels docked together.

The third-party plug-ins and extensions you install inside Photoshop usually comes as a panel. You will find them under the application menu Window > Extensions.

The Tabbed Window Interface

Tabbed Window Interface was first introduced in Adobe Photoshop CS4. It comes as a default setting on a Windows computer. This feature enables you to dock different images side by side to dedicate the entire working space to a single image at a time.

Why is it necessary?

This feature will enhance your editing experience and help you concentrate on the task at your hand. For example, if you are working with many reference images to make a composite or maybe you want to sample colors and tones from different images, you might need other references opened inside Photoshop at the same time.

Those open documents may become distracting and unmanageable as they float around the other documents and interfere with your decisions while working on the main project. Arranging them on tabs will minimize this distraction and can help you keep track of them in a specific order.

Screenshot of Photoshop Tabbed User Interface
Multiple Photos Opened with Photoshop Tabbed Window Interface

How to disable the Tabbed Window Interface

However, if you find yourself more comfortable and prefer to work otherwise and also want Photoshop to start up with floating windows by default you may turn it off in the Photoshop Preference dialog box. To enable this feature, uncheck Open Documents as Tabs under the preference settings tab Workspace.

Screenshot of Photoshop Preference Dialog Box for Workspace
Photoshop Preference Dialog Box for Workspace

On an ad hoc basis, you can enable the floating window feature temporarily without changing the default Photoshop Settings if that brings convenience to a particular situation. To enable it, click on the Window menu on application bar then Arrange > Float All in Windows. Once you have it enabled you can rearrange and drag as necessary to see the different images at the same time.

Screenshot of Photoshop Float All in Windows Window Arrangement
Photoshop Float All in Windows Window Arrangement

In a situation you want to go back to the Tabbed Windows view with multiple image open then you can do so by clicking on the other option Consolidate All to Tabs in the menu Window > Arrange.

Screenshot of Photoshop Consolidate All to Tabs Window Arrangement
Photoshop Consolidate All to Tabs Window Arrangement

There are many other viewing options as shown below. You can take advantage of them while working with reference images or comparing similar images side by side and location by location─or the same image opened in a new window to see the overall result of your editing at a different zoom ratio.

Did you know that you can open the same image in multiple tabs and when the same image is opened in a different window as you make changes to the one image Photoshop applies the effects to the others at the same time? Here what doesn’t change is the zoom ratio of those windows.

In my own Photoshop projects, I create at least one more window of the same image to see how the colors, tones, and details appear at a different magnification level. For example, I might want to see how the final print will appear. Because the print has a different resolution than that of the monitor and a fixed dimension that the full-screen view or 100% magnification will never simulate. For me, it is 25% magnification on a 27-inch monitor having a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels that closely match the print output. Which helps me to decide how much tone, detail, and color adjustment I need to make while making localize adjustment at high magnification.

Why you shouldn’t use Photoshop’s default Print Size command

Yes, there is a command on the application bar inside the View Menu called Print Size which calculates the size of the image and the resolution of the monitor and tries to match it. To maintain the accuracy of this calculation you need to measure the actual resolution of your monitor which is probably higher than 72 ppi and set it to Photoshop Preference.

The reason I don’t take this approach is on my monitor the Print Size magnification ratio is always above 25% and below 50% while the print resolution is set to 300 ppi. And for all the magnification levels in between that range, Photoshop renders the image soft and blurry. So I tend to stay with 25% magnification level for print simulation.

Screenshot of an Image at 50% Magnification Level
Image View at 50% Magnification Level
Image at 25% Magnification Level
Image View at 25% Magnification Level

How did I get this number? It is very simple. Calculate the actual resolution of your monitor which is not 72 ppi. Let’s suppose the actual resolution of your monitor is 100 ppi and you want the print output to be of 300 dpi which is three times higher than the resolution of your screen.

Therefore the print will hold three times more dots per inch than your monitor. To simulate the print effect on your screen you have to scale it down which is roughly 33% magnification. Nevertheless, I set it to 25% magnification level because Photoshop has issues rendering details at different magnification ratios other than 12.5%, 25%, 50%, and 100%.

Screenshot of Photoshop Tile All Vertically Window Arrangement
Photoshop Tile All Vertically Window Arrangement
Screenshot of Photoshop Tile All Horizontally Window Arrangement
Photoshop Tile All Horizontally Window Arrangement
Screenshot of Photoshop 2-up Vertical Window Arrangement
Photoshop 2-up Vertical Window Arrangement
Screenshot of Photoshop 3-up Stacked Window Arrangement
Photoshop 3-up Stacked Window Arrangement
Screenshot of Photoshop 4-up Window Arrangement
Photoshop 4-up Window Arrangement

These are some of the screenshots of other arrangements options that Photoshop offers you. You may find them helpful and consider using them in your particular editing workflow.

Photoshop Screen Modes

Although there are three screen modes available when you open Photoshop it starts with the Standard Screen Mode by default. However, you can further customize your workspace by enabling different screen modes. Which you can enable by clicking the button Change Screen Modes─found at the bottom of the Tools Panel─or you can use a shortcut key F. By pressing F multiple times you can actually cycle through the three different screen modes.

Screenshot of Photoshop Screen Modes
Photoshop Screen Modes
Screenshot of Standard Screen Mode
Standard Screen Mode
Screenshot of Full Screen Mode with Menu Bar
Full Screen Mode with Menu Bar
Screenshot of Full Screen Mode
Full Screen Mode

The Screen Modes other than the Standard Screen Mode allow you to have more screen real-estate by filling the area between your opened panels. This may also give you a workspace free from distractions.


Now you should be very familiar with the Photoshop user interface and I hope you can arrange or rearrange different tools and panels according to your need. Most importantly, don’t forget to create and save your own Workspace to work efficiently inside Photoshop.

In This Article

Related Blog Articles