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10 Things You Need to Know About Working with Vectors in Photoshop

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While Photoshop is essentially a pixel-based image editing application, it also includes a considerable amount of features to help you work with vector graphics and type. In this tutorial, we are going to have a look at 10 of some of the most important vector features in Photoshop. We will learn how to use the Freeform Pen Tool, the Rubber Band feature, Live Shape Properties, Path Operations, Path Arrangement, Isolation and much more. Let's get started!


1. Freeform Pen Tool

The Pen Tool is a very useful tool in Photoshop but it is not easy to learn how to use it properly. Drawing straight lines with it is easy, but curves can be much more difficult to create. If you master the Pen Tool you can use it for precise selections, drawing shapes, creating vector masks and so much more. If you want to get a feel for the advantages of working with paths you can try starting with the Freeform Pen Tool. It will allow you to draw freely using anchor points but without having to use the Pen Tool. This tool is like a mixture of the Brush Tool and the Pen Tool. It is not as accurate as the real Pen Tool but still can be useful in many cases.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Freeform Pen Tool

2. Rubber Band

Setting up the direction and length of handles on an anchor point in order to get a curve segment right can be challenging. By default Photoshop doesn't help users to see how the next path segment will look before they place down the next anchor point. There is a hidden feature called Rubber Band for the Pen Tool however, that can give you a preview of the next path segment before you actually place down the next anchor point. This can be very helpful especially for anyone trying to learn how to use the Pen Tool.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Rubber Band

3. Shortcuts for the Pen Tool

The Pen Tool has some useful keyboard shortcuts that can make it much easier to use:

  • Command/Ctrl: Move anchor point or handles by temporarily switching to the Direct Selection Tool from the Pen Tool.
  • Shift: Drawing horizontal, diagonal or vertical straight lines with the Pen Tool.
  • Option/Alt: Convert anchor points from corner points to curve points and vice versa.

4. Transforming Shapes With Rounded Corners

Rounded corners can become distorted if you try to re-size the shape using the Free Transform command. In order to avoid this, and if you are using a version of Photoshop older than Photoshop CC, you can adjust the size of shapes with rounded corners by selecting the Direct Selection Tool and nudging the anchor points to your desired shape and size.

In Photoshop CC, you can use the Live Shape Properties panel to easily maintain the corner radius even when using the Free Transform command on vector shapes with rounded corners.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Transforming Shapes with Rounded Corners.

5. Live Shape Properties

This is one of the most exciting new features in Photoshop CC, especially for user interface and web designers. Live Shape Properties are located in the Properties panel and they appear when you select a vector shape. You will be able to easily adjust the following things:

  • Position of the shape in the document
  • Size of the shape
  • Fill Color of the shape
  • Stroke Color of the shape
  • Stroke Width of the shape
  • Stroke Style of the shape (including dashed line options)
  • Additional Stroke Options (like Stroke alignment, Cap and Joint type)
  • Corner radius options (not available for elliptical shapes)
  • Path operatons.
Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Live Shape Properties

6. Merging Vector Shapes

Another cool feature in Photoshop is the easy and non-destructive way of merging Vector Shapes together. Normally, you would merge pixel layers together with the Command/Ctrl + E shortcut, but in Photoshop CC you can also use the same shortcut to merge Vector Shape layers together without rasterizing them. Once two or more shapes are merged together you can still select them individually with the Path Selection Tool (black arrow) and change the way they interact with each other by using Path Operations.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Merging Vector Shapes

7. Path Operations

Already mentioned in the previous paragraph, Path Operations can be used to change how shapes interact with each other. For this feature to work, you have to have more than one path in the same Vector Shape layer or Vector Mask. These are the path operations you can set to create interactions between your shapes:

  • Combine Shapes
  • Subtract Front Shape
  • Intersect Shape Areas
  • Exclude Overlapping Shapes.

The easiest way to find out their effect is by trying them out. The good thing about Path Operations is that they are completely non-destructive so you can always easily change them around.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Path Operations

8. Path Arrangement

Once you master Path Operations, you have to also learn how to work with Path Arrangement. This can also affect the way your shape combinations will turn out. This is the same concept as Layer structure, where you can move paths up and down in the hierarchy. The paths on top of the others will be superior to them. This feature can only be found in the Options bar whenever you select a Vector Mask or a Vector Shape layer.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Path Arrangement

9. Path Selection Tool - Select All Layers

The Path Selection Tool includes a very handy feature, which you can change in the Options bar whenever the tool is selected. You can choose to use the Path Selection Tool to select paths only from Active (selected) layers or from All layers. This is probably an option you will need to change back and forth depending on what is more useful in a Photoshop project. You can save a lot of time if you have several Vector Shape layers in a document and you want to quickly edit them to set the Select option for the Path Selection Tool to All Layers. That way you won't have to switch between layers to edit the paths in them.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Path Selection Tool - Select All Layers

10. Isolate Layers

Another new feature of Photoshop CC is the Isolate Layers option, which is particularly useful when working with Vector Shapes and Paths. I mentioned in the previous paragraph the option to Select All Layers for the Path Selection Tool, which makes it easier to work in documents with lots of Vector Shape Layers. On the other hand sometimes you want to constrain the Path Selection Tool or the Direct Selection Tool to make sure you only affect a specific path and nothing else. Simple example is when you have two Vector Shapes on top of each other and you only want to select the one in the back. In these cases you can double click on that shape with the Path Selection Tool. This will isolate that layer from all the other layers in your document and you will be able work with it easily without affecting any other parts of your design. To exit the isolation mode just double click again somewhere else in your canvas and that will bring back all your layers again in the Layers panel and turn off the isolation mode.

Vector Graphics in Photoshop

Isolate Layers
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