Photoshop A to Z of Terminology

A Brief Explanation of Various Photoshop Terms

Photoshop A to Z

Photoshop A to Z: With more and more people turning to digital photography, there is a greater demand for more power on the home PC and bigger and better editing programs. None is more elaborate, powerful, useful and complicated than our old friend Photoshop.

It re-incarnates itself time and time again, and just when you think it has all it needs, a new tool is added that makes our lives just that little simpler…or does it?

You see, each time a fascinating and complex new tool is added, it takes time to learn it, and once you have mastered it, you feel the urge to use this method, as well as all the others you have learned, on all your future images. It is also quite compelling to go through all of your "finished" images and just give them a little "tweak" with these new tools, meaning we have a never ending workflow for photos.

Don't Overkill

My advice is to just use the tools necessary, don't overdo it and once the image looks good and you like it...leave it alone...for ever!!! (Unless, of course, you want to get all "abstract" on it once you learn to be more creative. And so it goes on. Arrrghh!

Anyway, when you are working with or starting out with Photoshop, it is always handy to have information that you can refer to now and again. Information to stop you from becoming lost in all the jargon and gobbledygook!

This Photoshop a to z is hopefully that resource. Remember this is just a simple guide that should be used as you work in Photoshop as practice and actually using the software is the best way to learn. The later editions of Photoshop have so many features, it would be virtually impossible to write them all down and even more impossible for you to read without going mad.

I have just included the essential features and functions that may or should be used regularly to enhance you images. There are "many ways to skin a cat" within Photoshop. For example, many features do pretty much the same thing. Learn them and use just the one that you are more comfortable with.

A - Photoshop A to Z

Active Layer

When you create multi layers for your images the active layer, or the only one that will be affected by your actions, is the one with a blue background in your layers palette.

Adjustment Layers

The neat thing about adjustment layers is that they don't add data or pixels to your image; it will stay "underneath" the adjustment layers in its original state. What they do is simply "float" a command such as curves, colour adjustment or levels and can even be partially used on a portion of the image only. By doing this, you can always revert back, change your mind and re-tweak the desired effect. Without using adjustment layers, your changes are permanent once the image is saved as a JPEG or TIFF etc.


This should be the most used menu on your imaging system or workflow. It contains all of the necessary tools needed to maximise and enhance your image quality. Contrast and colour will be the biggest "tweaks" you make to a photo by using the ever useful variation dialogue box.


For the more artistic of you, the airbrush is an add on to the brush tool. It acts like a real airbrush allowing you to work with "pressure sensitive" pen styluses. This creates natural looking brush strokes and is not normally a tool I would use everyday. It is more for your own artistic creations.

Alpha Channel

When you make a selection of part of an image and save that section, an Alpha Channel is made, which you name at the time of creation. It is a simple black and white channel that you can edit independently from the rest of your image. Once you have saved an alpha channel, you will find it in the channels palette and can be used for filtering or lighting effects.

Anchor Points

When using the "Oh so useful" pen and paths tool, the anchor points are essential to the overall look of the finished effect. The anchor points will plot the outline of a selection and make it easy for you to re-arrange them or make a better fit. By zooming in and making more anchor points, the effect will be more natural looking. Feather the selection by a couple of points too for an even, diffused effect.


If you are into the latest computer games, you will see this term used more and more with new releases. It is a process whereby you can avoid jagged edges to your digital images or artwork, like the "staircase" effect. Anti-aliasing smoothens and softens the edges for a more pleasing look.


Artefacts are not like the useful and exciting things you find on an archaeological dig, they are a pain. They are the all too visible remains of high ISO settings or over-editing otherwise known as compression or noise. They can be removed but image quality will pay the price. However, add-ons to Photoshop such as Neat Image and Genuine Fractals are becoming quite popular in dealing with this issue. Both are recommended purchases for ultimate control over quality issues!

Art History Brush

Can’t paint for toffee? You can now. By selecting this brush to suit the chosen theme or image, you can create stylized brush marks to make a radical paint effect on your photos. Overdoing it here will simply create a smudgy mess, so choose a small to medium sized brush from the palette and just draw around the edges of your picture. The original colour and image data stays where it is, but you are giving it the impression that it was made by a series of brush strokes. Use the history box to retrace any steps if necessary and have some fun, the results can look great if done right!

Artistic Filters

Again, when you first see a filters palette, it is too easy to "let rip" and over cook an image. There is a huge range of filters available from painting, sketched or drawing effects, to more elaborate and intricate hand crafted appearances. Each filter can normally be modified or enhanced to suit your mood or particular image, but do it sparingly. Open an image and go through each one over time to see what is on offer. That way you will know which filter to use and how much, when necessary…or just have some fun!


The actions commands can be extremely useful for repetitive tasks such as re-sizing or "save-for-web". Adobe has supplied a few as standard such as sepia effects or shadows and framing, but you can buy other pre-recorded ones or make your own. You open the actions palette, name a new action and press record. Then you go about making your sequence of alterations to an image and when it is done, press stop…just like recording your favourite program on TV. Then you can apply this exact same action to one or all of your images at once (or any number in between)!

Another handy function is the ability to assign a particular action to a function key for a “quick fix” to your photograph.


This is the command used to adjust the stacking order of any layers that you have created. This can also be done by click-dragging the layer icons into position.

Assign Profile

A method of colour management, whereby the colour profile of an alien file is discarded and replaced by the default profile of the application. This tool is used to accurately reproduce the colour files.

Auto Contrast

This sets the lightest and darkest components of a picture to black and white. The 1st .5% of each end of the scale is ignored.

Auto Levels

This maps the extreme values of your image to black and white, but does so on each colour channel. Can be used effectively for some images, but for others, the effect may be too bizarre for your liking. Basically it doesn’t always get it right to don’t come to depend on auto anything when it comes to Photoshop.


Used with features such as the Actions command, for applying pre-set commands to a batch of image files. Web Gallery and resizing are two time saving applications. Another is creating a contact sheet either for your clients or simply as a record for disk file storage, it saves hours!

B - Photoshop A to Z

Background Colour

In the toolbox you will see two boxes or squares for colour choice. The "underlying" one is the background colour and the one on top is "foreground". Whenever you create a new canvas size adjustment, it will be created in the background colour as will the areas removed by the eraser tool.

Background Eraser

The background eraser tool is a useful process for removing unwanted image areas. Similar to the Extract tool, it is set to identify pixels within a set colour range and will remove them at the end of a brush.


A bevel is a simulated angled edge that can be applied to your image. It is great for using on your web graphics such as buttons and counters. One simple example is the border as found in SELECT - MODIFY - BORDER. Note that an area of the image has to be selected before the modify menu can be accessed.

Bezier Curves

These are found in paths created using the pen tool. These curves are made by moving the straight handlebars found on the anchor points. They are also used in other applications such as Adobe Illustrator.

Bicubic Interpolation

This is the best method of re-sampling photographic pixel images. New pixel colour is determined by the colours of the original surrounding pixels. Re-sampled images are susceptible to loss of sharpness if enlarged or reduced in excess.

Bitmap Images

"Bitmap" refers to digital images that are constructed out of pixels arranged in a chess board style grid. This is called a bitmap where each individual pixel has a unique placement on the X and Y axis.

Bitmap Mode

A Bitmap mode image is constructed out of just 2 colours, black and white and because of this, they have a tiny file size. This mode is commonly used for saving line art scans and can only be edited in Photoshop using the basic commands.

Blur Filters

In all Photoshop has seven different blur filters, these are: Blur, Blur more, Lens blur, Gaussian blur, Motion blur, Radial blur and Smart blur. They all work by merging the colours of adjoining pixels together to give the visual impression of unsharpening.


This is an effective way of adding an edge around your image for printing etc. By using EDIT - STROKE, once you have selected an area to add the border to, you can create a border and alter the widths and colours of the border here too.


All images have a measurable brightness along a scale of 256 steps where black is 0 and white is 256. You are able to fully manipulate the image brightness using the levels and curves commands.

Brush Creating

In addition to the default brush styles and palettes supplied in Photoshop, you can also make your own brushes too. After you have made a selection, the Define Brush command will save and store your new brush for any future use should you wish.

Brush Editing

All brush properties can be edited. For example, brush shape and edge softness can be set to your own tastes or needs and you can also set the spacing of each stroke.

Brush Size

Described in pixel diameters, your preset brush can be re-sized until it fits the exact dimension of your editing task.

Burn Tool

A term from the old darkroom days, the "burn tool" darkens down areas and can be used to work on highlight, mid-tone or shadowed areas. You set the exposure value to determine the strength of the application.

Button Mode

This is another way to display individual actions in the actions palette. In button mode, the list view is simply replaced by buttons and you can make your own actions by pressing the record button and then stop at the end of the sequence.

C - Photoshop A to Z


The calculations command will allow you to blend and merge two individual channels from a number of different source images. This technique is mostly used when you want to create complex outline selections from different colour channel information.

Canvas size

The canvas size command adds new pixels to your image, so that you can increase the area of your design. Extra canvas is always created in the current background colour.

Channel Mixer

The Channel mixer is useful for remixing original colours in an image file. It is also used for making eye-catching conversions from RGB to monochrome without getting the characteristic low contrast associated with a simple mode change.

Check Spelling

This command will run a spell-check on your words, so you don’t make a typo on your image file. It will not work once your type layer has been rasterized.


Edit-Clear allows you to delete the contents of a selection. Once this command has been made, the selection shape is filled with the current background colour.

Clipping Path

An embedded outline that is saved and stored with image files used in litho printing. The path is created by the pen tool and is used for making cut-out images in a page layout.

Clone Stamp Tool

Used for retouching small blemishes in a digital image. It works by first identifying a sample point, then copies and pastes this area onto the end of a brush.


This is the act of terminating an image editing session. Unless saved first, your commands and actions will not be saved when the close command is made. A warning from Photoshop will appear first however.

Close All

Close all is a command which will shut all active windows down in your application. Like the close command, any unsaved work will be lost unless saved first.

Clouds Filter

This filter creates a simulated cloud pattern on your entire image or a smaller selected area. It works by mixing your current foreground and background colours together in a cloud like pattern.


This stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (a printers term which refers to Black, to avoid using the letter B which could be mistaken for blue). A universal imaging mode used when preparing images for printing.


Collage is an artist’s term used to describe the act of combining several different source images together into a new design. Photoshop layers are much used when making collage projects fit together perfectly.

Colour Balance

The colour balance control offers you the chance to remove any colour casts that are present in your image. The controls work by adding or removing colour in 3 tonal sectors; highlights, mid-tones or shadows.


The colourise command is found within the Hue/Saturation dialogue box and offers a one stop method for toning colour images. Image colour can be changed by moving the hue slider, and intensity is controlled by the saturation control.

Colour Range

The colour range dialogue is a sophisticated tool for making a selection based on colour rather than area. In addition to target colours, the dialogue also offers a fuzziness slider for growing or contracting the selection.

Colour Sampler Tool

This is a useful gadget for detecting colour values within your image. Like a mini densitometer, the samplers can be attached to critical areas of your image to provide a real time read out.

Colour Settings

Photoshop’s colour management tools are accessed via the colour settings menu. Here you can establish preference settings for the control and creation of colour profiles.


This occurs when the data used to create a digital image is written in shorthand or compressed. Compression allows for faster network transmission and easier storage but can lead to a drop in visible quality.

Conditional Mode Change

A by-product of working with automated actions is the ability to change the current image mode to another, all within the sequence of the action. Much used when converting from grey-scale to RGB within an action.


The term contrast refers to the tonal characteristics of a digital image file. In a low contrast image file, there are many shades of grey and little pure black and white. In high contrast there are few greys but there is solid black and white.

Convert to Profile

Found as a colour management policy option, the convert to profile command automatically changes the profile of an incoming image to the default colour profile of the application.

Crop Tool

The crop tool is used to shave off unwanted areas at the edge of a digital image. Cropping an image can really improve its composition, but discards original pixels in the process and will lead to a smaller document size.


The cursor is the floating icon that signals the position of your mouse or stylus. When changing tools in Photoshop, the cursor icon will also change but it will always indicate your position on the bitmap grid.


Curves offer the most advanced method of manipulating image contrast. Unlike levels, the curves command can manipulate up to 15 different tonal sectors within your image, to create uniquely finished results. In addition to editing the composite channel, individual colour channels can also be edited using this tool, and is often used for precise colour correction.


The Edit-Cut command is a common method of removing an area of pixels from an image. When cut, the discarded pixels are copied to the clipboard and can then be pasted into another part of the image.


Unlike the cut command, the Edit - Copy copies an area of pixels to the clipboard but leaves them intact in the original position. Once copied, the area can then be pasted into another part of an image and will create a new layer.

Custom Colour Table

Used when working with web graphics, the custom colour table is a user defined palette of colours which is preserved with the image file. This ensures that colours are not changed or converted when viewed across a network.

Custom Shape Tool

The custom shape tool is a method of creating irregular vector drawing shapes in your pixel image. Vector drawing elements are resolution independent and can be scaled up or down without losing sharpness.

…To be continued…

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