Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Is the Pen Tool past its prime?

Every now and then I see a tutorial that recommends using the Pen tool as a means of selecting something in Photoshop. I've always suggested to use whatever tool works best for you, but in a couple of the examples I saw, I found myself asking "why on earth are they using the Pen tool?" Also in many seminars people come and tell me that they had heard that the Pen tool creates "better" or "more accurate" selections. Not necessarily.

One of the the advantages of using the Pen tool is the ability to "tweak" the results using the anchor points on the path that's created with the Pen. Does that mean you'll get a better selection? Perhaps, but not always. As other selection tools and techniques have gotten better I find myself using the Pen tool less and less for selections.

Here's an example. I wanted to select the chef in this photo to put him on a different background.
Original photo:

First attempt: Quick Selection tool, Auto-Enhance turned off. Approximately 9 seconds

Second attempt: Quick Selection tool, Auto-Enhance turned on. Approximately 12 seconds

Third attempt: Pen tool, creating and tweaking the path. Approximately 3 minutes

When I compare all three (shown above a green layer for better look at the edges) I'm pretty darn happy with the edges created by the Quick Selection tool with Auto-Enhance turned on. A couple of the edges of the Pen-based selection look a little crisper, but remember we're comparing that to the Quick Selection tool with no tweaking. If I'd spent another minute or so I could have created an even better edge.

So is the Quick Selection tool just as good a selection tool as the Pen tool? Very often, I'd say yes it is. If nothing else, I can create a selection that's very close to what I want with the Quick Selection tool and then tweak it - still in less time than it takes with the Pen tool. (This assumes that there is a pretty good separation between the colors and what you're trying to select and the surrounding background areas. If everything is the same color, then the Pen tool can certainly come in handy)

And remember, you've gotta think about the end result too. If the reason I'm extracting the chef is to use in a small banner ad like this

why would I spend all that time with the Pen tool when it looks just perfect at this size using the Quick Selection tool?

Do I use the Pen tool? Definitely - as a tool to create beautiful curves that I fill with a color, there nothing better. As a designer it's one of the best creation tools in Photoshop.

Would I recommend to a beginner that they should learn the Pen tool as a selection tool? Hmmmm, probably not.

So if you're a pro at using the Pen tool, keep at it. I just worry that many people continue to use the Pen tool as a selection tool because they assume that it's still the best tool for the job - and I don't think that's true any more.
So, just for fun, try the Quick Selection tool and see if you don't start liking this tool, at least for some selection work.

If you don't currently use the Pen tool to make selections I would suggest that you shouldn't worry about that too much. As long as you're happy with the results of other selection methods, stick with those. If on the other hand, you want to learn more about using the Pen tool as a creative drawing tool, yes - watch some of the helpful Pen tool tutorials out there and start playing with anchor points!

But in my opinion, as a selection tool the Pen tool is not as important as it once was.


Jan Klier said...

Interesting. The pen tool does not strike me as a tool for selection in photographs, because it creates extremely even shapes, rarely found in a rasterized photo. As you pointed out the quick selection tool does a pretty darn good job, and for those situations where it doesn't, the polygonal lasso is much faster at getting into those corners and with a much lower learning curve.

That said, the pen tool is a very powerful tool when creating paths and vector graphics, when a photograph meets design. It has it's place, but not in photo retouching.

Matt said...

I think it depends on the photograph and the background you are trying to remove. For *relatively* clean backgrounds, I think quick selection tool works just fine. However, I have had problems with it when trying to remove my subject from a very busy or cluttered background. In those cases, IMHO, the pen tool actually does work better and is worth the extra time.

Fuad Kamal said...

Don't forget about using quick mask and painting it to perfect your selection. With that, any of the other selection tools need only give you a near approximation and then you can perfect your selection with the quick mask. We do a lot of product photography and quick mask is essential when your selection edges need to be perfect.

Daniel Brown said...

The pen tool, as a SELECTION method (especially of organic shapes) is only occasionally appropriate. (Though try using the Quick-Selection tool on a white porcelain cup on a white tablecloth.)

There are a HUGE number of reasons to hunker down and learn how to use that obtuse drawing tool. (There was a great tutorial that used to ship with Illustrator back in the day where you would "trace" a shape and the template showed you where to drag the handles to.)

And there's also the clipping path concept, don't forget. (Still handy when bumping a photo against a spot color background.)

So... Yes, learn your pen tool, but try every other selection method before using it for selections.

Daniel Brown
Former Adobe-ite
GridIron Software

Kevin H. Stecyk said...

Dave, I'd be interested in which pen tutorials you found best or most helpful, especially with those that make use of the Wacom tablet. I am using the Intuous version three.

Here's one tutorial that I found helpful using the mouse:


Eric said...

personally I love and Pen Tool. I think that the Pen Tool still allows for better and more precise selections. While other selection methods are improving they just are not were they need to be for me to replace the Pen, I could see in couple of version down the road that my opinion might change though.

DaveBulow said...


A very valid thought, and it's one I've also noted while viewing others' tutorials. Often tutors recommend using the pen when it's a pointless in that instance.

An interesting thought too is this. In many cases while manipulating photos, when I know some would recommend using the pen (when quick selection would find no edges to grasp onto), I've quite deliberately chosen to use the polygonal lasso tool instead, even in the case of some fairly complex shapes. Why go 'back' to such a simple tool you ask? For speed.

If you need the non destructive capabilities of vector selections or the mathematically perfect looking curved edges possible with the pen tool, then great! By all means use it.

But if not, then at least in the context of 'cutting out' an object from its background, the polygonal lasso tool is probably a quicker and more appropriate choice.

Same way as you *could* use a scalpal, a straight edged ruler and a rubber mat to open your mail everyday. It might look amazing, but would border on pointless in context.

As someone has already said, pen tool is great in many design contexts. It's a marvellous tool. But I wholly agree with what you're saying, Dave. Maybe its not so much 'past its prime' as simply misapplied and used unnecessarily by those who don't know any different.

Regards, DaveBulow

Jason Anderson said...

I think the pen tool does still make for a more precise instrument once you become skilled with it to a certain degree. Like Photoshop, initial learning curves aren't exactly the easiest things, but as an old saying goes about baseball:

"If it was easy - everyone would do it." Those that can maximize their creativity through the use of tools like Photoshop and the graphics tablet are a breed that will always be needed.

You're right though - it was odd for ROux to post a comment over in the NAPP forums yesterday. What a great segue for your post today!

Russ said...

Could you show us how you removed the chef using the quick selection tool in a tutorial on Photoshop User TV Dave. I have used that tool on one colour but on a selection with more then one colour. It would be interesting to see how you use the tool properly.

Kevin Stohlmeyer said...

I personally use the pen tool for creating clipping paths, not selections. Like your demo showed, there are much faster ways to select than with the pen tool. However, I would never use a selection to create a clipping path either.