Photoshop, you're a tough old bird

How do you change wings on a plane while it’s still flying?

We sometimes feel that way working on Photoshop. It’s essential to keep improving the app, yet with such a rich feature set and so many things baked into customers’ muscle memory, we have to be very wary of breaking workflows. It can be tougher than you’d think.

Last week we were talking about adding a command to Photoshop’s Fill dialog (savvy readers might be able to guess why), and we wanted to assign a unique keyboard shortcut to it. Having ghost-written a version of the Photoshop Power Shortcuts book, I like to think I’m pretty darn knowledgeable on the subject. Yet even I wasn’t aware of all the little nuances & thoughtfulness that went into this old command.

Upon investigating, and just for your reference, here are the Mac shortcuts in play (Windows users swap in Ctrl/Alt as appropriate):

  • Delete (alone) = Clear: Fill with transparency for normal layers, or with background color for background layer
  • Cmd + Delete = Fill with background color
  • Option + Delete = Fill with foreground color
  • Option + Cmd + Delete = Fill with history
  • Option + Cmd + Delete + Shift = Fill with history and preserve transparency
  • Option + Delete + Shift = Fill with foreground and preserve transparency
  • Shift + Delete = Open fill dialog with last-used settings

There’s a whole little language at work here:

  • Opt means foreground
  • Cmd means background
  • Adding Shift means preserve transparency
  • Opt + Cmd means history
  • Therefore all four together = Fill with history and preserve transparency

[Update: Gah–I reversed the roles of Opt & Cmd above; now fixed. Just seeing whether you’re paying attention (yeah, that’s it).]

Why on earth am I rambling about all this? Tryptophan poisoning? No, just a couple of reasons:

  1. If nothing else, I thought this list of shortcuts might be handy.
  2. It’s this kind of fastidious attention to detail that made me delight in Photoshop & After Effects. I remember sitting in an AE class & figuring out the meaning of a couple of modifier keys, then combining them and seeing that, yep, they did just want I expected. My people!, I thought.
  3. This sort of “intellectual density,” as my friend on AE once called it, is exactly why evolving Photoshop is often hard & necessarily slow:
    • First things first, “Do no harm”–or as Stephen Colbert might subtitle it, “Doooon’t [Screw] This Up, America.”
    • The rules and connections are often subtle.
    • If you come up with a new, elegant solution to something, will you have time to retrofit your innovation to the rest of Photoshop? What about to the rest of the Creative Suite? And all at once, without stomping other well-established conventions? Yeah, good luck with that. So now you must choose: Innovation or Consistency?

We’re not curing cancer here. We’re not sending anyone to the moon, or writing software to keep heart-lung machines pumping. But we do care, an awful lot, about making the most beautiful, complete, cohesive tools possible. And if it weren’t challenging, it probably wouldn’t be fun.

14 thoughts on “Photoshop, you're a tough old bird

  1. Short Cut key strokes are a two edged cutting device. If you are used to them, use them a lot, they become the only way you know how to do something.
    I would like a keypad (not normal keyboard)that would readily accept the short cuts I wanted, use two keys max and maybe a 10X10 keypad.
    [I believe such things exist & support mapping of keys to arbitrary commands, but I haven’t researched it lately. Devices like this are popular among video pros, and I’ve seen them in use at animation houses. –J.]
    Or really neat would be a small device, like a calculator, keys on top row are like a dropdn object with selectable functions user assigned to “short cut” keys.
    In case it is not obvious, short cut keys are not one of my favorites, I use the normal function keys for a one stroke command.

  2. Bill is right about shortcuts sometimes being the only way someone remembers how to get to a function or command.
    Then there is Cmd+Opt+Shift+E
    I haven’t checked in CS4, but I think this one still isn’t even available any other way short of scripting. So that’s a case where changing a shortcut would eliminate a ‘feature’ altogether.
    And the idea to utilize an extended keypad is great, one that I’ve also thought about. Could be a huge market, but it’s a pretty nasty can of worms.

  3. The reverse is that relying too much on shortcuts is frustrating fro newer users.
    In my opinion, all shortcuts should be discoverable via UI and all shortcuts should have a mouse equivalent.
    [That’s not completely realistic, though, as PS offers some power-user functions like invoking various dialogs with last-used settings. We can’t lard the menus with every one of those. –J.]
    I hate it when a program forces me to use a shortcut – if I’m using a stylus, I usually put the keyboard away.
    [Configurator may be right up your alley. –J.]

  4. Good Day Jack
    I so like how you guys help a guy like me out. Being a Hillbilly in KY, my 10 toes have a hard time doing it right.
    Ken in KY

  5. Am I wrong or is the “whole little language” section cmd/opt description backwards?
    [D’oh–tryptophan poisoning indeed. Thanks for the correction. –J.]

  6. I wish adobe maintained a comprehensive shortcut dictionary for their apps. It is very frustrating picking up little tidbits here and there. I doubt there is a complete list anywhere for CS4. The ones I see posted by 3rd parties for lightroom are always missing something. It should be available from the help menu.
    [Good suggestion, but did you know that by choosing “Edit->Keyboard Shortcuts” in Photoshop, you can print out (to HTML) a relatively complete list by hitting the Summarize button? –J.]

  7. Thanks for the shortcut info. Unfortunately, this one isn’t quite right on the Mac:
    “Delete (alone) = Clear: Fill with transparency for normal layers, or with background color for background layer”
    The real Delete key (not the Backspace key that Apple mislabels “Delete”) does nothing in the Mac version, whereas the same key (on the same physical keyboard and system) does indeed perform a Clear under Windows.
    It would be really, really nice if Adobe would fix this defect.

  8. @Bill O’Brien:
    I, too, would like a peripheral dedicated to shortcuts. I’ve looked at every device offered by custom keyboard manufacturers, from LogiTech to PI Engineering, and even some of the hardcore game controllers. None of them offer a device that would make using tons of shortcuts fast, easy and ergonomically comfortable over the course of a long editing session.I’ve been trying to develop just such a device, but unfortunately, being short on money and connections, I’m having a difficult time getting anywhere with it. Without exception, Every. Single. Person. I’ve showed the design to has said the’d kill to have one of these on their desk. Wanna read more? Check this thread I started over at Fine Tuned Mac’s forum, trying to solicit some crowdsource collaborators. So far, no response.If anyone reading this would like to further the discussion, or would like to know more, please jump to that thread at F.T.M. I’ll be checking it regularly.

  9. @Rory:For years, Trevor Morris has done a pretty dang good job of maintaining and offering for D/L a nicely formatted PDF of Photoshop shortcuts. They can be found here.

  10. Thankfully shortcuts are customizable, however there are tasks I often do by performing key combos (hold Alt, then press L, N, B in sequence to make a layer the background). In a few versions of Photoshop these combos have changed or completly removed. I wonder if these are also considered.

  11. Pardon me if this question is off-topic. When I use CS3 I can switch between all tools within a group by hitting the
    shortcut key with no modifier. IE: each time I hit “J” I can cycle from spot healing through the three other tools, and back to
    spot healing without using the “shift” key.
    Is it possible to set tools shortcuts in CS4 and CS5 without using the shift key modifier?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *