There was a time when photographers were advised that Photoshop’s Pen Tool was the most powerful way to make accurate selections. Thankfully this myth seems to be fading into obscurity. It was never true.
The Pen Tool has its place. It is principally used in the Prepress and Graphic Design industries, for cutting out product photos and placing them on a different background, or no background at all. It is the best tool for this purpose.
Professional photographers may also be required to perform this kind of work from time to time. But in the course of most photographic editing, layer masking is much better.
For photo editing, The Pen Tool has two major drawbacks:
1. It’s difficult to learn.
If you’re not familiar with vector editing (such as in programs like Adobe Illustrator) then it is fiddly and unintuitive to learn. With perseverance you’ll get there, but in my opinion there is no need.
2. It doesn’t allow precise feathering.
This is the big one. The Pen Tool (just like the Marquee and Lasso tools) requires you to create your entire selection, then apply a uniform feather if desired. There is no capacity for varied feathering around the selection. When using layer masks, on the other hand, you can vary the softness of your selection as often as you need to, simply by changing brush size as you go along.
Ironically, when pressed, the Pen Advocates admit that they often have to paint the mask after creating their Pen selection, in order to fine-tune it. This is weird double-handling.
But if you are a budding photographer or retoucher who is climbing the steep learning slope of Photoshop, then you have come to a fork in the trail. To your left, masking; to your right, Pen Tool. My firm advice is – follow the masking path. It will take you much higher, and the view is spectacular.
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