As always the official doocumentation will be the most exhaustive. On these pages I've tried to be concise and pare down the information to what is necessary but if you want a more thorough explanation you can find the official site here:

Official Photoshop Pen Tool Reference

Pen Tool Settings

When using the pen tool make sure to familiarize yourself with the tool-specific options. Let's look at the various settings you can change in the pen tool options bar.

Shapes VS Paths

In photoshop you'll notice a difference between "Shapes" and "path". Both can be made using the pen tool and make use of some of the same settings in the pen tool settings you'll see at the top of the program when selecting the pen tool.

The first option dropdown and the three buttons after that all relate to whether or not the lines you are working with will be made / become either shapes or paths.

The primary difference between a shape and a path is that a shape is meant to be a visible object within the project while a path is a "helper" or component for another object. For instance a path can be used to store a selection area to be used later or be used as a way of containing text to a non-square shape.

If you start off drawing a shape and you can't see any color actually filling the shape, then either you've turned off the fill color, or more likely you've accidentally had the pen mode set to "path".

It's not difficult to convert a path to a shape. This is the sole operation of the "shape" button. Select a path (from the "path" tab from the window menu if the path tab is not already open) and simply press the shape button to convert it to a visible shape object / layer (you must have the pen in path mode to see this button).

Path operations

Probably the most important setting in the pen tool options bar will be the "path operations" setting which will dictate how newly made paths are being added to the project. Many new students will accidentally click off of the current shape they are working with which will result in the shape being deselected. If you do not have a shape selected when clicking on the canvas then a new shape will be created. Let's look at the different options for what happens when you do that.

Option 1: "New Layer"

This is the default option. With this option any new shapes made will create a new layer to exist within.

Option 2: "Combine Shape"

This is a useful setting to make early on if you know you are going to be working with an image that has multiple shapes you want in the same layer.

Aligment & Arrangement

The alignment and arrangement icons do as you would expect and allow you to move paths to precise positions on the canvas.

Using The Pen Tool

The actual pen tool in photoshop can be tricky at first precisely because there are so many different operations associated with one tool. The best way to learn them is to go practice with it as much as possible. Here's a guide to the different uses this versatile tool has none the less.

In photoshop specifically you can create and edit shapes almost entirely with the basic pen tool. The pen tool can be tricky because it is very dependent on the current state of the scene. For instance even if a paath is "selected" clicking in an empty area will make a new path instead of extending the old one unless a specific point in the old path is selected. Recognizing which "state" you're in will be key to good pen tool usage.

Photoshop should show this menu in the right hand column by dedfault. If it does not then select "Window > Layers" from the drop down menu. Note how "Layers" and "Paths" have seperate tabs. To see paths specifically you'll need to click on that tab.

The pen tool has many different function and modifiers but the basic operation is as follows.

  • To make a simple sharp point without handles just click the mouse once without holding it down.
  • To make a point with handles that indluence the segment direction click and hold the mouse and then drag the handles into position.
  • Once a line has been started CTRL-Z will delete only the last point made so don't be afraid to use it if you place a point in the wrong position.
  • Holding down the ALT key after you have clicked and held the mouse button will allow you to point the handles in different directions (don't release the mouse button until you are done with the point).
  • You can go back to old points you have made at any time and change their tangent direction positions by holding down ALT and clicking and holding the tangent handle.

Always be aware of the layers tab when working with the pen tool. A wrong click in an open area (not on a line or point) might create a new line altogether as a new shape.

If you do accidentally deselect the current line you should be able to select it again by simply holding CTRL and clicking on it.

Now let's look at that same exact info in grid format for quick reference!

Click while holding... And clicking on...
Empty space A point A point handle A curve segment
No keys Continue path (from a currently selected point) / Make new path (if no point is currently selected) Delete mid point or set link end point to continue a path from (if path is selected) / close path (if clicked point is an end point) Continue path (from a currently selected point) / Make new path (if no point is currently selected) Add a new point where clicked (if path is selected) / Make new path (if no path is selected)
CTRL Deselect current path Select a point (single click) / Move a point (click and drag) Move one handle while keeping both handle positions. (if handles are "flat") Select a path (single click) / adjust segment curve (click and drag)
ALT Continue path (from a currently selected point) / Make new path (if no point is currently selected) Reset handles (single click for hard point, click and drag to make new handles) Move one handle independently. Add a new point where clicked (if path is selected) / Make new path (if no path is selected)

Pen Tool Icons

Luckily you don't have to depend on rote memorization to know the functions outlined so far. There's another factor that's always important to pay attention to.

Always remember to keep one eye on cursor icon itself. It will change depending on the options that are currently available to you. The states change depending on what the cursor is hovering over and what keyboard modifiers, control or alt, are pressed. Let's look at all the different possibilities.

The basic pen icon.
In photoshop specifically this icon only appears when you have started a path and are in the process of drawing it. Clicking while the cursor looks like this will just continue the current path.
You see an asterisk next to the pen tool icon when a new path can be started upon clicking.

Plus sign
The "plus" sign indicates that a single click will add a new point *on* the line that is currently selected.

Minus Sign
The minus sign will always denote when you can remove a point. A simple left click will delete the point altogether and change the point(s) next to it to try and keep the original shape of the path as much as possible.

Link sign
The link sign appears when one path is selected and has two possibilities. If no points inparticular are selected it can be used to decide which point to continue a path from. If clicking a path seperate from the currently selected line it shows the two paths can be joined to form one.

Close sign
A simple circle will show when you can click and close an open shape to form a complete loop (remember that just because a fill color makes a shape "look" closed this doesn't mean the shape line itself is actually closed).
White Arrow
In this mode you can click and drag to move around points and handles (both at once). Activate by holding down control.
Handle editing mode
In this mode you can click and drag to move around individual handles or reset them when clicking on the point itself. Activate by holding down ALT.

Stroke sign
In photoshop specifically this symbol simply means that nothing can be done because you are hovering over the point you've just made.

Paths / Shapes as Layers

Finally it should be noted that sometimes the "new layer" option in the pen tool options will simply reset itself. It is inevitable, regardless of skill level, that you'll accidentally make a new layer when you actually want to just make a new shape on the same shape layer.

In this case be aware that combining shape layers is as simple as cutting and pasting text is in other programs. In fact they use the same shortcuts.

To move a shape form one layer to another:

  1. Press CTRL-X while one shape layer is selected to cut the selected shape from it
  2. Select the layer you want to move the shape path to.
  3. Press CTRL-V to paste the shape path into the selected layer

It's as simple as that. Just keep in mind that if you've got multiple shapes on the "source" layer then you may need to do it multiple times as it will only take the selected path.