Photoshop Efficiency: Don’t Fear the Keyboard Shortcuts

My dear dekeRastinators. It’s February: the shortest month of the year. So say goodbye to the luxuriously lofty goals of January, and let’s get practical. I’m here to talk about Photoshop shortcuts. For some of you, that means: “Ugh, maybe there’s a Quora thread full of other people talking about why they hate learning shortcuts that would be a better use of my time.”

But before you run off, let me tell you a little story: the first time I read a Deke McClelland Photoshop One-on-One book, I was the newly assigned editor for the CS2 update to the original. I was also newly exposed to Photoshop. Now, never let it be said I didn’t love Deke from the outset, but I was not as initially fond of his insistance on trying to teach me shortcuts for commands I had only just been introduced to seconds before. My brain wanted to assimilate the how and why of doing something before it allocated neurons to memorizing how to do said thing more efficiently.

But sometime around the, oh, 37th time I repeated the same set of tedious mouse movements to move a selection to an appropriately named new layer, I started understanding I could use a little more Ctrl+Alt+J in my life. Make that Command-Option-J, because I was trying to switch to a Mac as well. (That’s a lotta new stuff, no wonder my patience was thin.)

Point is, when you encounter Photoshop tutorial sites with well-meaning articles on “The Best 27 Photoshop Keyboard Shortcuts You’ll Definitely Want To Stop and Learn Right This Minute,” it’s hard to make the connection between shortcut-learning and true efficiency. So, Deke and I, based on our own personal and totally biased experience, have come up with five of our favorite time-saving shortcuts that we think are worth the time consider memorizing, saving your creative concentration and exposure to Repetitive Mouse Injury for things that you may do less often.

Read on for how and (of course) why these Photoshop keyboard shortcuts made our list:

Ctrl+Alt+J / Command-Option-J: Jump a copy of my selection into a new layer and let me name said layer before I forget.

Adobe calls Ctrl+J (Command-J) the shortcut for “New Layer via Copy.” But years ago, Deke named this command “Jump to a New Layer” because, frankly, otherwise how are you going to remember the letter J?

The idea here is you have a selection and you want to make a copy of it on a new layer and yet conveniently preserve the original pixels for whatever reason (maybe you’re making a mask?). Ctrl+J (Command-J) would do the trick.

The inclusion of the Alt or Option key means that along the way, you’ll get a new layer dialog box where you can give your new layer a name.

(And yes, while we’re talking about efficient practices, you should name your new layers.)

Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E (Command-Shift-Option-E): Copy everything I can see, flatten it, and paste the results into a new layer.

Basically, this will make a flattened copy of your entire image and paste it to the top of your layers panel, but still leave the original individual layers available. If you can’t conceive of how this could be useful, feel free to make room in your shortcut brain for something else.

But, learning this one was a revelation to me, and this is one where you actually have to learn the shortcut because there’s no other one-step way to make it happen (so that settles that).

Use the [ key to make my brush size larger, the ] key to make it smaller.

Anytime you have a brush-based tool, the right- and left-bracket keys allow you to increase or decrease the size of your brush as you work. So, you can paint with your mouse/stylus hand, and adjust the brush for nooks and crannies or wide open areas with your other hand.

Generally, you probably know how hard or soft you want a brush when you start painting, so setting the hardness at the outset by right-clicking your mouse for the brush options isn’t particularly distracting. But the size of the brush should vary depending on how close you are to the detail of what you are trying to paint, and with these keystrokes at hand, you won’t have to stop painting to adjust on-the-fly. 

Ctrl+Shift+Alt+T (Command-Shift-Option-T): Repeat that last transformation and make a copy out of the results.

This is another one of those “mash your fist” scenarios, i.e. you hold down every modifier key you can and press T. This applies your most recent Transform operation to a new copy. Breaking it down: Ctrl+T (Command-T) evokes the Free Transform, Ctrl+Shift+T (Command-Shift-T) repeats the last Transform operation, and adding the Alt (Option) key makes a copy along the way.

Here it is visualized in Martini glasses, since that always helps. In this case, the second martini was created by moving and scaling the first (the same shortcut without the Alt (Option) key, then the third was created with the shortcut in its full glory. Note Photoshop knows to scale and move relative to the previous step.

Ctrl-Alt-Z (Command-Option-Z): Go back more than one step, please.

Ctrl-Z (Command-Z) is ubiquitous enough across the software communication world that you know it’s the international plea for “Oops, go back.” In Photoshop, Ctrl-Z (Command-Z) is still the shortcut for Undo, but it only allows you to toggle between what you just did and the previous state. To get “multiple undos” in Photoshop, you actually have to navigate back through History states. And while that may sound daunting, it really just means that when you feel like reflexively pounding Ctrl-Z (Command-Z) multiple times, just make sure you drop your ring finger on to the Alt (Option) key along the way.

Well, those our our nominees based on general usefulness and avoiding menus. Try one that sounds useful and see if it doesn’t make you feel a little more Photoshop-wizard-ish.

And for those of you who don’t need convincing, if you were going to recommend a thoroughly useful keyboard shortcut to the shortcutophobic, what would you suggest?

Next entry:The Secrets of Warichu: Great Mysterious Trick for Making Real Movie Poster Credits in Illustrator

Previous entry:Deke’s Techniques 201: Op Art Experiment 2a: An Undulating Pattern in Illustrator


  • I used to hate shortcuts

    It used to intimidate me because quite frankly there are so many shortcuts there is no easy way to remember them all. Also a shortcut that works in one app doesn’t work in another or it totally does something you didn’t expect or can’t undo. I kept thinkin “Why do I need to learn all these new fangled shortcuts when I can click my mouse a dozen times?” ..oh wait…

    Eventually my method was to load Deke keys and slowly learn a few. Then every once in a while add a new one. You really don’t know how much time they save until you use them.

    That said I really wish the shortcuts/modifier keys for the Photoshop pen tool worked like they do for the pen tool in Illustrator (i.e. spacbar).

  • I wonder if Deke would still

    I wonder if Deke would still consider [ and ] to be shortcuts if he wasn’t left handed? For lefties, your right hand comfortably rests near the bracket keys and you can use them without taking your eyes off the screen. For us righties, it means moving our left hand all the way across the keyboard to get to them, or worse, taking your hand of the mouse. Using Alt+right drag seems the more efficient shortcut for righties since it involves the least amount of hand movement (and you don’t have to take your eye off the screen). Just sayin… grin

  • Interesting theory, Nelar.

    Your observation makes a lot of sense, and also reveals that it’s not always about easy reach. I’m right-handed, and I use the brackets. It dawns on me that part of the reason is that I can more intuitively predict how many strokes of the [ or ] I’ll need to get where I want to go.

    Also, can you explain the alt-right-drag? When I press the Option key with a brush selected, I get the color picker and no amount of dragging adjusts the size. I seem to recall there was a way to change the brush size with a movement, but I can’t discover one in CS6.

  • Alt (and I assume Option) by

    Alt (and I assume Option) by itself gives you the color picker. With the Alt/Option key held down, if you click (and hold) the right mouse button you should get a small tooltip telling you the current brush size, hardness and opacity, and the brush appears with a red area that shows you not just the size, but gives you a sense of how much of the outside of the brush is “soft”. You can then drag left or right to increase/decrease the brush size.

    If there is a way to enable/disable that functionality, then I don’t know what it is—we’d need to ask the master (aka Deke) for help with that. I *think* the functionality was added to CS5 and works for me in CS6 as well.

  • I know!  I know!

    If you hold the ‘Alt’/‘Opt’(Mac) key, right-click and slide the mouse left and right, the brush size changes.  Slide it up and down and the hardness changes.  But, the hardness thing only works if you have checked ‘Vary round brush hardness based on HUD vertical movement’ in ‘Preferences’ under ‘General’.  With it unchecked, the opacity of the brush will be changed when you move the mouse up and down.

    I like this shortcut stuff!  I’ve been learning to use them!  They save so much time and, er, activity of the hand.  wink  Thanks!


  • step and repeat.

    btw, if you ctrl click the layer to make a selection it will not jump the new copies to new layers, this is great if your repeating dots or something, so that you dont have to merge down 200 layers.


  • and with Intuos 5…..

    Recently got a Wacom Intuos 5…

    I have sooooo many shortcuts I cannot remember them all (keystrokes, pad buttons, gestures, et al and different for different programs), so I sometimes hit a wrong combo . . . but still worth it for efficiency (most of the time).

    I made 4x6 printed cards for every program with shortcuts on a keyboard layout and mouse etc.  14 cards like a Rolodex; if I don’t use a program for a while and plan to do a lot of work…its like a shortcuts refresher course on a card.

    My mind can remember only so much!

    and don’t forget ctrl+d (no selection)

    Deke: any special/good/your info for use with Wacom pads?

  • Rolodex cards are a good tip, Doug.

    Except my rolodex is an electronic address book. But for me the mere act of writing them down does a world of good, even if I never consult what I wrote. But my new trick is to just force myself to remember one at a time. Once the muscle memory is kicked in, I can mentally add a new one.

    Wish I could force myself to learn the layer navigation shortcuts, but at the moment my brain must be full.

  • shortcuts…

    I love shortcuts and one I see you have in your line up for Target Path I use for History Snapshots and couldn’t do without it, it is Ctrl+Shift+H . To help myself learn new shortcuts I put them on the Windows desktop sticky notes and pull them up when I need to refresh my memory.  Try to only have a few at a time until I get them down pat. 

    One I haven’t used is the Alt+Ctrl+J that is a good one. Thanks, enjoy learning from you.

  • I agree that its not very

    I agree that its not very easy to remember the shortcuts on the keyboard for every function, but once remembered then it very easy to use it. It also helps to do the work very fast.

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