Path & Direct Selection Tools in Adobe Photoshop

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May 11, 2021
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I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve never been much of an artist. I couldn’t draw if my life depended on it. I suppose that’s part of the reason I’ve yet to look into the drawing tools that Adobe Photoshop has to offer. Hey – if I’m no good at something there’s very little reason for me to bang my head against the wall trying to get better. Well, that’s what I used to think anyway.


Photoshop has got a really nice set of illustration tools for us to take advantage of an enjoy. These tools consist of the Pen Tool, Freeform Pen Tool, Add Anchor Point Tool, Delete Anchor Point Tool, Path Selection Tool, Direct Selection Tool and some others. The best part about a few of these tools is that they exist in some of Adobe’s other applications. For instance, you’ll find the two tools I’m going to discuss in this post today in both Adobe Illustrator as well as Adobe InDesign (in addition to Photoshop). While these tools may have different names here and there, much of their functionality remains the same.

In today’s post, I’m going to take the first few steps of breaking out from my fear of anything that has to do with anchor points and the pen tool. After years and years of meddling with a few of those pesky icons located towards the bottom of the left vertical toolbar in Photoshop (and failing), I’m going to dive right in and get my hands dirty. I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching videos lately and I believe I’ve got a firm grasp on what’s up with the two, and probably most important, tools when it comes to drawing and manipulating vector objects inside of Adobe Photoshop. The tools I’ll be discussing in today’s post are called the Path Selection Tool and the Direction Selection Tool. One of them is solid black and the other is white with a black outline. I’ll talk about which one is which and what each of them does below.

The Path Selection Tool​

I can’t stress this enough. While this post may seem ultra basic for those who already use Adobe’s drawing tools, it’s absolutely perfect for those who don’t. Take it from me – you need to start at the beginning when it comes to stuff like this. As I mentioned above, I’ve messed with some of these things since the beginning and I was left wondering what I did and why nothing ever worked consistently. The reason is because I never started at the beginning. While it’s simple to click on a tool in Photoshop to test it out, it’s quite another thing to click on a tool and actually achieve something effectively. If you read what I have to say below, you’ll understand a bit of what each of these two tools can do, without a doubt. It’ll be the beginning of a learning process for both you and me.


The black, left leaning arrow you see above is called the Path Selection Tool. Currently, it’s the fifth tool from the bottom in the left vertical toolbar inside of Photoshop. I’m sure you’ve seen it before.

One of the areas we need to look at first is a definition. Before we go on, we’ll need to define what a “path” is in Photoshop and the other appropriate applications. Basically, a path is a shape. It can be either straight or curved. It can go one way or another and it’s made up of anchor points. So if we know what a path is and we’re working with the Path Selection Tool, it only makes sense that this tool “selects” the path, or shape. Let me show you below.

I’ve gone ahead and drawn a black box in a document. I’ve also centered it. Right now, the box isn’t selected by any tool.


If I use the Path Selection Tool and click on the box (providing the layer in the Layers panel is selected first), the path, or shape, will be selected.


In the above screenshot, I enlarged the view so you can see the anchor point in the corner of the path. That, along with an outline, indicates that it’s selected.

To move the path, I’d simply drag it. To delete it, I’d select it and press the Delete key on my keyboard. I could also do a whole bunch of other things that I’ll lay out in future posts. Basically, what I want you to know is that the Path Selection Tool in Photoshop selects entire paths and easily moves them around.

The Direct Selection Tool​


This tool is different than the previous in that instead of it selecting the entire path, it only selects anchor points and segments of a path. Let me show you what I mean.

If I were to switch tools to the Direct Selection Tool and click inside the black box I created earlier and try to move it, nothing would happen. After clicking the box, the four corner anchor points would appear, but I wouldn’t have the ability to do much dragging.

If I were to click on just one of those anchor points and drag, things would be different. I’ll go ahead and click on the upper left anchor point and drag outward.


See? By directly selecting just that one anchor point, I was able to change the entire shape. If I were to click a segment (the line between two anchor points) and drag, something similar would happen. I’ll show you that below. I’ll go ahead and click between the two right corner anchor points and drag to the right.


As you can see above, by dragging to the right, I’ve stretched that side, making the entire shape longer than it was previously. By the way, to drag either a path or a segment in a fixed, straight line, just hold down the Shift key while dragging. That will keep you on the straight and narrow.

Tool Keyboard Shortcuts​

If you’re a keyboard shortcut fan, listen up. The keyboard shortcut for the Path Selection tool is A on your keyboard. To choose the Direct Selection Tool, press Shift+A. To switch back and jump between both of these tools, continue using the Shift+A shortcut. Just clicking A by itself, once you’re in the tool, won’t do much.


I’m going to stop here. There is so much to cover when it comes to these tool that I’ve decided to take things in very small chunks. I’ve found that it’s easier to search this site when some tidbit of knowledge is necessary when the titles and content of the posts are direct and concise. Either way, I hope you enjoyed the post.

If you have any questions or concerns, please leave them in the comment area below. Thanks for reading!


May 11, 2021
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Identifying the Parts of a Path in Adobe Photoshop​

I recently wrote a post on this website that dealt with a few selection tools. In that post, I promised that I would start writing more about the Pen Tool and how it works. Well, just as luck would have it, I decided to write this post as the second in this series. In it, I’ll describe the attributes that make up a path in a variety of different Adobe programs, such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. After all, each of these applications uses the Pen Tool and paths pretty much the same way.

In my last post, I discussed the Path Selection Tool and the Direct Selection Tool. That post was a good start at learning what exactly paths and selections are. In today’s post, I’m going to move somewhat further on the same topic and will discuss the anatomy of a path itself. Once you get a firm grasp of this concept, you’ll begin to complete drawing projects and projects that include vector graphics in them with much more ease. It’ll take a while, but eventually, muscle memory will take over and you’ll be a pro at this type of stuff.

What is a Path?​

The idea behind a path is fairly simple. A path is a line with anchor points at either end of it. It can be a straight line or it can be a curved line. Whether it’s straight or curved depends on how you created it or how you manipulated it. For the example below and for the one I’ll use for the rest of this post, I quickly put a path together with the Line Tool. I added some anchor points and bent some things. Here, take a look:


I’m sure you’ve seen something like this before. For the remainder of this post, I’ll cover the various aspects of what make a path a path and what items are contained therein.

Anchor Points & Segments​

Along any path, there will be two items called Anchor Points and Segments. The anchor points are the things that the segments travel between. Think of it this way. If you have two large rocks and place each rock on a big lawn twenty feet away from each other, you can consider them anchor points. If you took a rope and placed it on the ground from one rock to the other rock, that rope would be considered a segment. If you kept the rope straight, that’s fine. You would have a straight segment. If you stretched the rope and made it curved, that’s fine too. It would merely be a curved segment.

In the next screenshot, I’ve placed some blue squares along the path that represent the anchor points. All of the anchor points, except for one, have a white center. All this means is that the solid blue anchor point has been selected and is therefore active. If I were to click on the path with the black arrow tool, or otherwise known as the Path Selection Tool, all anchor points would be solid and active. If I were to use the white arrow tool, or otherwise known as the Direct Selection Tool, only one anchor point would be solid and manipulatable. Remember, the Path Selection Tool moves the entire path while the Direct Selection Tool moves only that one anchor point. Or as many anchor points you’ve selected with the tool.


To be clear, all of the blue squares are anchor points. To be even clearer, the two anchor points at either end of a path are more precisely called End Points. So if someone asks you to click on an end point one day, click on one that’s at the end of a path.

I want to talk about the path I made as an example for this post. Since I used the Line Tool, it became a shape after manipulation. If I has simply drawn a line with the Pen Tool, my example would have remained a path.

Moving An Anchor Point​

If I were to click on an anchor point with the Direct Selection Tool, I could drag that point anywhere I want. In the screenshot below, I clicked and dragged the third point in upward a bit so the anchor point was moved.


You can definitely see the result of that. What’s neat is that I can also move a segment. If I were to click the third segment (the lower dip) and drag it upward so it sits above the center line, I could change the entire shape. Take a look.


If I did this, the curved segments would be opposite of what the originally were.

What’s a Control Handle?​

Control Handles are little things that will make you scratch your head for hours. Before you get the hang of them, they’ll drive you nuts. However, once you master them, you’ll think they’re just the coolest things ever.

So, what is a control handle? Well, they’re lines with little round ends that stick out of anchor points. They are used to warp and bend segments. In the example I’m using in this post, I already used some control handles to make the shapes I made. Don’t worry, I’ll give you some examples of what I’m referring to below. First though, let me offer an exaggerated view of what a control handle looks like.


As you can see from the example above, the control handle I just created emerges from the anchor point when I click on it. Now, the tricky part is understanding how these things work. If you consider a path as made of bendy metal and the round end of a control handle as a magnet, life will be much better. As a control handle stretches, the magnet pulls the segments that’s attached to it. You can twist and turn control handles and they’ll make the related segments do all sorts of weird things. To understand this thoroughly, you’ll really need to open up one of the applications I mentioned earlier and play around for a while. You’ll quickly get used to how things work.

To access the proper control handles, you’ll need to pay attention to where it is you’re selecting. If I were to use the Direct Selection Tool to select an anchor point, both of that anchor point’s control handles would be activated. In this next example, I did just that.


I could click and drag either of this anchor point’s control handles to warp the segment.

If I were to select a segment as opposed to an anchor point, different control handles would be activated.


I can now click and drag either of these control handles to manipulate the segment I selected.

While both examples show different control handles when I select different things, the control handles will always perform the same functions. Basically, by pulling and pushing them and moving them side to side, you will have the ability to add curves to the related segments.

If you practice enough with paths, segments and control handles, you’ll eventually learn how to master each of these features. And really, they aren’t too challenging. All you need to do is sit for a while and play. Reread this post though, because it provides the basics for what each part of a path is. When I first began, I discovered the functions of these things, but I never knew if I was doing anything correctly. I also never knew if I was just scratching the surface or not. These days, I know the limits of the tools I use, which reduces the wonder. I can now effectively complete projects with the tools I know and understand.


I really like the Pen Tool, shapes and paths in Adobe Photoshop. It’s a topic that’s just deep enough for me to spend the rest of my life thinking about. As you read this post, please comment down below if you have any questions or concerns. Thanks for reading!