Getting Started With The Photoshop Interface

March 04, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

If you’re new to Photoshop, or dabbled just enough to get really frustrated, welcome to the club. It’s very daunting at first because there is so much there. My experience is that the best way to approach it is to start very small and take a few things at a time. Once you get comfortable with the littler things you can begin to take on bigger more difficult tasks. It’s a building process.

I think the first thing you should get comfortable with is the interface itself. If you can’t get around and don’t know where to find things the frustration will only get worse. So let’s take a look at what you get when you first go into Photoshop. See image below. I use a Mac, but the Windows interface is almost identical.

Photoshop CC 2018 Screen Photoshop CC 2018 Screen


This opening screen is the default workspace. We’ll talk a bit more about workspaces in a moment, but for now just realize that you can customize the screen to look a way that works with your workflow.

There are 3 primary areas that you should become familiar with. The menus at the top follow the common practice of allowing you to get around and do most common functions such as opening a file, closing a file, editing a file, etc., including things unique to Photoshop such as working with selections, applying filters, applying adjustments, etc.. A deep dive into these will have to wait until another time. For now let’s just look at the workspace. You really can’t change the look and feel of the menu system and probably wouldn’t want to anyway.

Down the left side is the tool bar. This is where you can select tools to perform a particular task. These tasks could be making a selection, cloning an area, brushing, dodging and burning, erasing, adding text, etc..

Along the right side are the various palettes. These include windows into specific activities. For example, the History palette shows a history of all of the activities you have performed. The Layers palette includes all of the layers you have applied to the image. Other palettes include activities you can perform, such as the Adjustments palette. Here you can apply specific adjustments to the current layer.

These palettes can be grouped together and distinguished by tabs, such as the Libraries, Adjustments, and Styles. They can also be in a group of their own with no tabs. Finally, they can also be minimized and activated by clicking on their thumbnail, such as the History palette. See image below.

Palettes Can Be Made Available In Multiple Forms

So how can we customize the look and feel of these? You are not limited to the toolbar being on the left and the palettes being on the right. Let’s look at the Toolbar first. To move the Toolbar just click on the top of the Toolbar window and drag it. See below.

How To Move The Toolbar

You can also change the look of the Toolbar. Just click on the double arrow at the top of the Toolbar window. All this really does is change the tools to be in two columns instead of one giving it a shorter and more compact look. See below.

Change The Look Of The Toolbar

The Palettes can be customized even more than the Toolbar. At any time you can move a particular palette to a new location. As indicated above that palette can be grouped with other palettes, attached to other palettes but by itself (no tabs), reduced to a thumbnail, or out by itself. I’ll explain each of these next.

Let’s say I wanted to move the Swatches palette to be grouped with the Libraries, Adjustments, and Styles. All I have to do is click and drag the Swatches tab down to the other group. See below.

Move A Palette To A New Group

If you don’t like where it is you can always move it back.

At times you may want the palette to be in a group by itself. This may be if you use it often and do not want to have to click on the tab all of the time. However, the last tab used in a group is always the tab that is open when you open Photoshop, so not sure this is a valid argument. You also may want to create a new group that you will later add other palettes to or maybe it doesn’t really fit into any other group. To create the new group click and drag the tab to the separator line in between groups. When it turns BLUE, release the mouse and the tab will be in a group of its own. See below.

Click And Drag The Tab To The Separator Line Between Groups

New Swatches Tab Has Been Created

Now what if I know that I always use Swatches on every image so I want it to always be open and available. One way to do this is to add it to your workspace. To add it to the workspace just drag the tab out and on to the workspace area. See the result below.

Drag The Palette On To The Workspace

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this because it takes up valuable workspace, but it is an option. It may also be a temporary way to create a group that you want to move into the other linked groups later.

Finally, if I wanted to minimize or make the palette a thumbnail to save valuable workspace all I have to do is right click on the tab and select either Minimize or Collapse to Icons. See below.

Minimize Or Collapse The Palette Into Icons

Selecting these options will give you one of the results below.

Minimize A Palette

Collapse To Icons

Just like the groups, you can rearrange these items by dragging them to a new location. You can also create groups of icons by dragging one icon to another. When you see the BLUE bar and release it will snap them together. You can group them side by side or vertically.

Now that we know how we can add and create different ways to access the palettes let’s look at one more way to setup the palettes.

Let’s create a couple of groups of palettes to demonstrate. See below.

Two Groups Of Palettes

If I link these two groups together I get the following. Remember, you just need to drag one group below or beside the other until you see a BLUE line. Once you release the mouse they will be snapped together as one unit. Then you can drag them to anywhere on the workspace.

Link Two Groups

This is important because of the following. If you now collapse these into icons the icons for each group will be displayed, but the two groups will be segregated together as well. See below.

Groups As Icons

I bring this up because once you get the palettes the way you want and grouped the way you want they can be easily collapsed into icons to give you a tremendous amount of workspace. Take a look at the following. I have added only the palettes I want and grouped them the way I want. There are so many that they go off of the workspace without collapsing them.

Palettes Grouped And Linked Together

Now if you collapse the palettes into icons and move the toolbar under them look at all the room you will have to work with your image. I almost always have the Layers palette open, but I will only open the other palettes, as I need them.

All Palettes Collapsed Into Icons Except the Layers Palette

This is a pretty radical shift from what most people do, but it makes sense to me. One gripe I see all of the time is how difficult it is to see everything and work most effectively on the image. Hopefully this can help with that problem.

BTW, these are not the only palettes available. To see a complete list you should navigate to the Windows menu. Every palette that is open will have a check beside it. Since everything is now an icon you will not see a check beside any except the bottom three. Those three control some things we will discuss at another time. If you see a palette you would like to add just click on it and it will appear on the workspace. Then you can drag it to where ever you want.

If you have a palette that you want to remove from the workspace you can right click on the tab and select Close from the menu.

Using these tools you can customize the workspace to your liking. At first you probably will not know what you will use the most and what you will absolutely not use. To help you with this there are some pre-defined workspaces and I would start with one of them. There is one called “Photography” that Adobe provides. You may want to start there and then make some adjustments. As you make the adjustments you should save them to a new workspace of your own. To get to the workspaces select the Windows menu and select Workspaces. See below which includes my saved workspace.


You should notice that if you really mess things up all you have to do is select “Reset {Workspace name}” and it will revert back to it’s last saved settings.

There is so much to know about Photoshop. Not knowing how to setup your workspace, or adjust it as things change, can be daunting as anything else. I hope this has helped you get started, or if you have already started maybe it has given you some new ideas on how to improve your workflow.



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