All posts tagged: tutorial
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Direct selection of layers

To some, this may seem like a total “duh” tip – but you wouldn’t believe the number of people I run into that don’t know that you can directly select layers in Photoshop (from your canvas) without having to wade through the layers window. I am somewhat ashamed that even I didn’t know this until a few years ago. Immediately upon discovery, I couldn’t help but to think of all the wasted hours I had spent scrolling trough the layers dialog in search of elusive layers that I was too lazy to name.
So what’s the trick to selecting layers directly from the canvas? It’s actually very simple, and I can explain it in a few simple steps:

  1. On your canvas, hover over the element you want to select the layer for.
  2. If you’re on a Mac without left and right mouse buttons, hold down the “control” key and click the mouse. Or, if you are using a mouse with left and right buttons, right click on it (works on both Mac and PC).
  3. A dialog should appear, showing you a list of all your layers located at that spot where you clicked, with the layer of the element you selected already chosen for you.
  4. Click on it, and…voila! You have just selected that layer without even having to navigate inside your layers window.

This is a total lifesaver for those times when you receive a complex PSD file from someone else who hasn’t taken the time to organize and name their layers. As a matter of fact, that’s actually what led me to discover this little trick. I was up late one night fighting my way through an edit of a PSD that I had received from another designer, and in a fit of frustration, the smashing of the keyboard and simultaneous clicks of the mouse somehow magically aligned to reveal this handy little shortcut. I was like, “Whoa! How did I do that??” Then I spent the next 10 minutes trying to recreate those key and button smashing combinations before I finally gave up and summoned the power of google to find an explicit description of the shortcut. My life as a designer was forever changed from that moment on.

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Photoshop Blending Modes

I admit it – I’m a blending mode junkie. Most of the background images in my portfolio are the result of a LOT of blending mode combinations that are used together to create interesting effects. Before I begin to create a new background image, I don’t always have a clear idea in my mind of what I want it to look like – I usually just end up throwing several textures together in the layers palette and experimenting with blending mode adjustments until I get something that looks halfway decent.

If you aren’t aware of the power of these layer blending modes in Photoshop, you’re missing out on a whole world of creative possibilities. In a nutshell, this tool is found in the layers palette in the form of a drop down box at the top of the window. You need several layers in your palette before this drop down box becomes active, and you cannot apply these blending modes to the bottom (base) layer. Go ahead and pick any layer (as long as it’s not the bottom one), and try out a few blending mode options. Your image will update in real time, and depending on the blending mode that you choose, it can create some rather dramatic effects. Pretty neat, huh?

If you are like me and you incorporate these blending modes into your normal workflow, you’ll need a quick way to cycle through them quickly instead of picking them one by one (which takes far too long). Here’s how to do that:

On Windows:
Make sure the layer you wish to apply the blending modes to is selected, then click on the blending mode drop down box. Choose “Normal”, and let go of the mouse. The drop down box will stay highlighted, and you can now quickly toggle through the entire list with the up and down arrow keys on your keyboard.

On a Mac:
Make sure the layer you wish to apply the blending modes to is selected, then click on the blending mode drop down box. Choose “Normal”, and let go of the mouse. The arrow keys on your keyboard won’t toggle through these blending modes like they would on a Windows machine, so you’ll have to hold down the Shift key and use the “-” and “+” keys to cycle through all the modes.

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I’m not really sure why, but FormZ just doesn’t get any love in the 3d modeling community. While it does have a respectable following with architects and environmental designers, product designers and animators don’t even seem to give it a second look. But the fact is that it’s a very good 3d modeling program for everyone from beginners all the way to experienced designers (like me) who don’t need all the fancy animation tools that are a part of other 3d software like 3ds Max and Maya. Sometimes all a designer needs to do is to build a simple 3d model that will result in an attractive rendering. And that is what FormZ does so well.

Setting up a simple and nice looking scene in FormZ and it’s built in rendering engine (RenderZone) is very simple. This tutorial will guide you through the steps of creating a simple, but well-lit and attractive scene for placing your objects into.

Step one: build some sample objects

Begin by creating a new file from the main menu (“File > New Model”). A blank 3d space will be created which is void of any environmental data. Ah, a blank canvas! Note that there is one default light provided in the light palette, plus a collection of default surface styles in the surface style palette. Ignore those for now…we will deal with them later. After selecting “File > New Model”, this is what you should see:

Now build a flat floor surface by selecting the 2d surface rectangle tool in the Modeling Tools palette, and drawing directly on the grid in the main window. Then add a few primitive shapes to set onto that surface. A couple boxes and a sphere is fine. The size of all these elements isn’t important – just make something that sort of looks like this:

Step two: create your environment

Now that you have a few sample objects built, it’s time to define the parameters of the environment you will render these object in. Go to “Display > Display Options…” and you will see a dialog box that looks like this:

Since we will be rendering this scene with RenderZone, press the “RenderZone Options” button. This will launch the RenderZone settings window. In the “Scene” tab, set the rendering type to “Raytrace” and the “Background / Project Color” to white. That’s all you need to do here, so hit “Ok” to close the window.

Step three: create your lights

Setting up the lights is probably one of the most important steps in creating a good rendering, and it’s really not all that complicated with FormZ. The goal is to create a uniform series of lights that illuminate your objects from all sides without being too harsh, and you can do that in just a few simple steps. In your light palette, click on the title text of that window (which is “Light Name”). This will launch the light parameters window, and here you can manage all of the lights in your scene. Since the only light currently in our scene is the default one, we need to add a few more. Click on the “New” button to create a new light, and up will come the “Light Parameters” window. This is where you define all of your settings (like intensity and shadows) for the light. For the sake of simplicity, lets create a simple directional light with an intensity of 100. Give it a name of “New Light”.

Now, click on the “Shadows” tab, and select “Soft (mapped)” and Quality: High. Increase the softness to 20.

Press “Ok” and close the window. As you can see in your scene, it looks like nothing happened – the light doesn’t appear by default, so we need to make it visible. In your Lights palette, click on the column with the diamond shape next to your new light (highlighted in the screenshot below). Now your light should be visible in the window:

If you tried to render your scene right now, it would be very dark and the light would only be coming from one direction – because you only have two lights after all. But that can be fixed very easily by copying your new light and positioning those duplicates all the way around your objects. But before we do that, let’s put our new light in a slightly better position. Go to the front view and position your light as you see in the image below. Note: you can do this by using the “Move” tool (from the Tools palette) and selecting only the handle at the top of the directional light indicator (the heavy looking dot). Don’t select the long line, because it will move the entire light – we only want to change the angle!

Now go to the top view, and position it again just like so:

Finally, select the “One Copy” option and then the “Move” tool from the Tools palette. Then click on the handle of your light and move it 90 degrees. Since you have the “One Copy” option selected, a new light will be created and your original one will stay as it was.  Do this again two more times so that you have four lights positioned around your objects in the top view:

Step four: creating your surface styles:

For the simplicity of this demo, let’s create two surface styles: one for the floor, and the other for your objects. Let’s begin with the floor: click on the first blue (defualt) surface style in your Surface Styles palette. Change the name to “Floor”, make the color white, and change the Reflection type to “Catcher” as shown in this screenshot:

Click on the “Options” button next to Catcher and set the following paramaters: Shadow Intensity: 100, and Reflectivity: 45:

Press “OK” to close the window and return to the scene. To make the surface style for your primitive shapes, double-click on the next pre-existing surface style in the Surface Styles palette and select the following parameters: Color: white, and Reflection: Matte. Click on the “Options” button next to Matte and set the following paramaters: Ambient Reflection: 0, Diffuse Reflection: 26, and Glow: 21.

Finally, we need to assign these surface styles to our objects. With your white “Floor” surface style selected in the Surface Styles palette, choose the “Color” tool in the Tools palette (the icon that looks like a color palette). Click on the outside line of the floor surface, to assign that surface style to the floor. Deselect the floor (“Ctrl + D” on Windows, “Command + D” on a Mac), and do the same thing with the surface style for your objects.

Step five: render the scene

Your scene is ready, so it’s time to render it. For the best looking rendering, let’s compose the scene a little better. First, change the view to “Perspective” (“Views > Perspective”). Next, zoom in so that your objects fill the window better. Now you’re ready! Press “render” (“Ctrl + k” on Windows, “Command + K” on a Mac) for a raytrace rendering, and this should be the result:

One final note:

Now that you have built a basic scene with basic lighting and materials, you may want to consider saving this file (without any other models included) as a template that you can use to start any new project. Of course you may not always want to render your objects in this sort of environment, but it’s a good starting point, and better than beginning from scratch. Besides, building a 3d model in a decently-lit scene is much better than doing it without lights and shadows. It’s much easier to evaluate your surfaces and textures with good lighting!

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As a producer of royalty-free images, there are a lot of repetitive tasks I am faced with in my day to day work. Every illustration I produce must go through some sort of post processing before I can upload them, which can include things like resizing, keywording, and general retouching of any sections that didn’t render exactly like I had planned. I wish it were as simple as just pressing the “render” button in FormZ (my 3d modeling program of choice) and have the resulting image prepped and ready for upload to – or any other site that I upload to. If life were easy, that’s exactly how I would envision it to work. But as we all know, life is never that convenient is it?

For the sake of this explanation about Photoshop actions, I’ll discuss one of the most common repetitive tasks that I must do with all of my royalty-free 3d illustrations: batch resizing. I normally need three sizes of every image that I produce: one large version that is 8000px wide (for my own archives), a version that is 5000px wide (for uploading to all of the major microstock websites), and one 4000px version with some minor alterations specific to‘s strict upload requirements. Of course, if it’s an exclusive image that will only be uploaded to, I only need two versions for my archives: an 8000px version, and a 1024px version. But no matter what the image will be used for, the same issue applies: I need a quick way to batch resize images, and Adobe’s “Actions” tool in Photoshop can really help with that.

This is how I set up my Photoshop actions to automate my image resizing tasks

First of all, if you aren’t familiar with the actions tool, it can be found in the “Window” menu drop down box in Photoshop’s main toolbar at the top of the screen. Selecting the actions tool will launch a small window in your screen space containing all of the functions and options for setting up your actions.

If the idea of yet another floating window on your screen seems a bit messy, have no fear – you can very easily organize them with Photoshop’s powerful window tools. Did you know that you can combine several windows into one? Yep, it’s true – just click and drag any window into another, and they will “attach” together. The contents of each will be viewable by selecting the associated tabs in the new combo window. Pretty neat, huh? I normally combine my layers, actions, and text windows into one, as they are by far the most useful palettes for my particular workflow. Feel free to arrange things however you prefer.

Step one: Creating a new action from scratch

So now that you’re organized and ready to go, let’s set up an action that will re-size large images down to, say, 2000px. The first thing to do is to open an image that you want to resize. This will be your “template” image, meaning that the actions you apply to and record for this one will be applied equally to any other image you will apply this action to.

Open your actions palette, and you will see a list of default actions already in place. Ignore those for now, as none of them will do what we want to do. So we will need to create a new action from scratch.

Now that the palette is open, you will notice a small “page” icon in the bottom right hand corner of the frame (screenshot shown at right). This is the “new” icon, and it is a common element in all Photoshop palettes. Clicking this icon is a much faster way than manually selecting the “New Action” item from the main menu at the top of the page – so it’s something that you might want to make a habit of. It will make your workflow much more efficient!

Don’t worry about about all those other icons along that bottom menu yet – I’ll explain what each of those do as I go through each individual step. Click this button, and proceed to the next section.

Step two: create a name for your new action

After clicking on the “new” icon, it will launch a dialog window that will allow you to set basic parameters of the action such as a name and color identification (which comes in handy if you’re going to create a lot of actions). Go ahead and name it whatever makes the most sense to you – and you can also set up some keyboard shortcuts if that sort of thing floats your boat. I think it’s a neat feature, but I had difficulty setting it up to work correctly on my Macbook Pro. No matter what Function keys I selected, my Macbook refused to execute the actions. I’m sure there is an easy fix for that, but that’s the topic of another tutorial… Anyway, I will name may action: “norebbo 2000 wide”. I know, I know. Sometimes I astound myself with my own creativity.

Step three: setting the parameters for the action (or, more simply: recording the action)

As you can see in the actions palette to the right, the name of my new Action named “norebbo 2000 wide” is automatically selected. That means that it’s ready to receive recording information. It is very important that you pay attention to what action is selected in your palette before you begin recording! I can’t count the number of times I made the bone-headed move of recording data to an action I had made previously.

With the name of your new action selected, press the red “record” button in the bottom menu of the action palette. The button will appear to be pressed in when you click it, indicating that you are now in a recording mode.

It is very important to understand that from this point forward, with that red “record” button selected, everything you do now will be recorded as part of the action. So this is not the time to experiment with color variations or layer adjustments. You don’t want your actions to be bloated with unnecessary tasks, so be very certain that what you do to your image while you are recording is what you want to do to every image you apply this action to. Filling your actions with a lot of unnecessary steps will increase the time it takes to perform the action, and that can add up if you have a lot of images to process.

So now that you are in a recording mode, you can begin processing your image. In my case, I need to make an action that will scale a large image down to 2000px wide. As I complete that step, everything I do is recorded in the actions palette as a separate list item. As you can see from the screenshot to the left, I have also added one more adjustment in addition to the image size change: a bit of shapening, faded it by 50%. Happy with the way the image looks, I save the image and close it. Notice how the actions palette records every step – even the closing of the image!

Before you do anything else, stop the recording by pressing the gray square “stop” icon at the far left of the tool bar (shown in the diagram to the left). This is the one step that I seemingly forget over and over again, and if the action is still gathering data, it will record everything I do until I press that “stop” button. Don’t forget!

But if you are like me and you do end up forgetting this crucial step, no worries. You can edit your actions even after you’ve stopped recording. Just double-click the item in your action that you wish to change, and you will be able to change the parameters you set while you were recording. Note that you can also change the order of the steps by just clicking and dragging an item, or you can even delete individual steps as well by selecting it and pressing the trash can icon in the far right end of the tool bar. It’s an easy way to fix your action if you are bone-headed like me and forget to press the “stop” button before moving on to other things.

Step four: executing your action on a single image or an entire batch of files

Now that you have created your action, it is time to apply it to other images. You have several options in order to go about doing this. The easiest way is to simply open up another image into Photoshop, select the name of the action you want to execute, and press the gray triangle icon (“play button”) in the toolbar of the actions palette. Photoshop will take care of the rest and process your image quicker than human hands ever could. Voila. It’s that simple!

But what if you need to apply that action to an entire folder of images? No problem – that’s very easy too. Use Photoshop’s built in “Batch” command (found by going to “File > Automate > Batch…”) to set up the parameters for applying actions to large batches of images. This will launch a dialog window crammed full of settings that will require you to select the action you want to use, choose the images you want to apply that action to, and how you want to save them. Personally, I find this dialog box too complicated for simple batch tasks. Luckily, there is one more (easier) way to do it: use Adobe Bridge!

Adobe Bridge is a visual file browser, which lets you see thumbnail images of all your files instead of just text file names. If you have Photoshop, you have Bridge – they are bundled together. Launch Bridge, and go to the directory where you have placed your files that you want to apply your new action to. Select every file that you want to change, and then go to the Bridge menu and select “Tools > Photoshop > Batch…”  This will invoke that same dialog I discussed above, but the added benefit of doing it through Bridge is that the files you want to change are already selected in that dialog. So basically, it eliminates one step. You may prefer to do this directly through Photoshop, but I have found that it’s easier to do it through bridge – try it both ways to see what works best for you.


As you have just read, Photoshop’s actions tool is a great way to automate repetitive tasks. It can be used for very simple one-step processes like renaming files, but it’s also powerful enough to create complex 50-step actions that would take forever to do on an image-by-image basis. And since every step in the actions are fully editable, you can continue to tweak and fine-tune your actions until you get them right. No need to delete and start over if you don’t get it right the first time!

Although setting up and using Photoshop actions may seem complicated, you will quickly discover how much of a valuable asset they are in developing an efficient work flow.