Adobe Photoshop: top 20 secret features

Adobe Photoshop offers such a broad range of tools that it can be bewildering. Even experienced users of the software probably aren’t fully familiar with all of its menu options and controls. We’ve compiled a list of 20 of the most useful features tucked away in Photoshop, which can save you considerable time and effort, and give great results with no fuss.

In many cases, these features offer a range of options and settings that we don’t have space to cover in full, so for each one we’ve also provided links to Adobe’s own documentation so you can learn more. The good news is that most of these features are available even in older editions of Photoshop, with some of them dating back to version 3 of the software, which was released in 1994. We’ve indicated the version of the software in which each feature made its debut.

1. Puppet Warp (CS5)

Puppet Warp

Puppet Warp lets you reshape or distort an image element by creating a “skeleton” for it, which can then be dragged around or transformed to give the element a new pose. Here’s how it works: if you want to move a person’s arm, first copy them onto a new layer, and cut around their body so the rest of the layer is empty. You don’t have to trim precisely around the body – just cut away unneeded elements. Then select Edit | Puppet Warp to make Photoshop create a mesh, then click to “pin” parts of it in place. You can now drag the pins around to your heart’s content to change your subject’s pose. You can fine-tune adjustments as much as you like, and optionally create a hierarchy of pins – to determine which bits of the mesh move with which others – via the options bar. Click for full documentation.

2. Content-Aware Scale (CS4)

Content-Aware Scaling lets you change the shape of an image without distorting its contents or cropping important features. Start by selecting what you want to scale (if nothing is selected, the whole layer is affected); then select Edit | Content-Aware Scale and drag the handles to recompose the image. Photoshop tries to trim away unimportant detail: if it gets it wrong, you can specify what should be protected by masking it on an alpha channel and selecting this channel from the Protect dropdown in the options bar. Click the person icon to always protect skin tones. Click for full documentation.

3. Layer styles (6)

A layered approach makes it a piece of cake to create drop shadows, halos, embossing effects and similar stylings. The interface is hidden away, though: to find it, put the content you want to stylise on its own layer, then double-click in the blank space to the right of that layer’s name in the layer list. The Layer Styles window opens, letting you apply 12 types of non-destructive effect to your content. Click for full documentation.

4. Camera Raw for JPEGs (7)

Camera Raw

Photoshop’s Camera Raw importer isn’t only for raw files – it works with JPEGs and TIFFs, too. Some versions of Photoshop offer it under the Filter menu. Otherwise, select File | Open As… and choose Camera Raw as the image type (or right-click in Bridge and select Open In Camera Raw). Camera Raw offers some handy tools that aren’t in the main Photoshop interface, including the Clarity slider towards the bottom of the main view; the White Balance tool for fixing unwanted colour casts; and Noise Reduction sliders for removing speckles and blotches from your images. Click for full documentation.

5. Adjust Vibrance (CS4)


Adjusting the saturation of an image can often make already bright areas look too garish. Try Image | Adjustments | Vibrance instead: this “smart” colour adjustment pumps up areas of low saturation without pushing richer colours to unrealistic extremes. It’s designed to have only a subtle effect on skin tones, too, so you won’t end up with a radioactive face. The dialog has its own saturation slider, so you can balance the two to get the perfect colouration. Click for full documentation.

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