Magic with Photoshop and Microsoft Surface Dial

Guest post by David Tristram, Senior Computer ScientistPhotoshop Engineering


Hi, I’m David Tristram, Photoshop User-Interface Engineer, and I’d like to tell you about the Microsoft Surface Dial device and how it works in Photoshop.

Microsoft’s new input device, the Surface Dial, is a simple and intuitive input device available to all users of Windows. The Dial is a conveniently hand-sized short cylinder that connects wirelessly to your computer. The Dial can be rotated continuously in either direction, and pushing down on it activates a micro-switch button. Microsoft automatically sets up the Dial to control common system operations like audio volume, undo/redo, scroll and zoom, and screen brightness adjustment.

The magic happens when Photoshop adds a Dial menu choice to set Brush properties. In Photoshop, the Dial offers six ways to change how you paint:

  • Size
  • Opacity
  • Hardness
  • Flow
  • Smoothing, and
  • Control

The first five parameters correspond directly to the Brush Tool Options that can be set using the Options Bar near the top of the application frame. Four of the options here should be familiar to users who have explored Photoshop brush tools earlier. The fifth, Smoothing, is a brush setting added in Photoshop CC 2018. Tap the Dial to select one of these parameters and then rotate to adjust the setting.

However, just as with the Options Bar, the first five Brush Options can only be changed between brush strokes.

The Dial’s sixth parameter, Control, is much more dynamic and flexible. Control can be assigned to any brush setting that has historically been controllable with the Pen. Any change in Control is reflected instantly in the stroke being painted! For example, the Dial Control can be assigned to modulate the stroke width. Rotating the Dial changes the width of the stroke from its maximum all the way down to zero. The Dial Control value always acts as a percentage that multiplies the Brush setting to which it is assigned.

The Dial Control is very powerful and can be assigned to any of the following:

  • Shape Dynamics settings
  • Size, Angle, and Roundness
  • Scattering settings
  • Scatter (distance), and Count
  • Texture settings
  • Shadow Depth
  • Color Dynamics settings
  • Foreground/Background Color Mix
  • Transfer settings
  • Opacity, Flow, Wetness, and Mix

Considerations for using the Dial Control

The Dial Control is a new and powerful way to control painting. Here are a few things to be aware of when you use it:

  • Dial is easier to change more abruptly than Pen pressure. Even though, in Photoshop, the Dial’s rotation sensitivity is better than a tenth of a degree, an artist can make rotations that can appear discontinuous while painting. To avoid this problem, choose maximum Brush setting values that are near the desired ultimate appearance, so that larger Dial rotations are required to accomplish the effect you want. That is, don’t use a Brush that is over 100 pixels in size if the ultimate size on canvas will be controlled by Dial to be only few percent of that size.
  • The Dial’s Fine Control Mode is another way to make changes more smoothly. To adjust any Dial value with finer control, rotate the Dial while pushing down. This gesture is a little tricky. If one presses without rotating, in short order, the top-level Dial system menu will appear. But if the Dial is also rotating, Dial will operate in the Fine Control Mode and values will change five times more slowly. Of course, you’ll have to rotate the Dial much further to accomplish the same effect, but the intermediate values will change in smaller increments and the final stroke appearance will appear smoother.

Nothing to do!

With the Dial, there are two situations where it can look like Photoshop is not painting anything!

  • The Dial Control can be any value, unlike Pen pressure, which is zero at the beginning and the end of every stroke. So, with Dial Control, paint strokes can start or end at any fraction of the current size. This setting is handy for making bold marks, but it is also possible to leave the Control at zero percent. If the Dial is not rotated, then an entire stroke could have zero width and it could seem like Photoshop just stopped working altogether! Photoshop tries to identify a few of these cases and warns you when a stroke is made with Control entirely at zero percent.
  • And of course, for Dial Control to control anything, it must be assigned to something that affects the resulting Brush stroke. Photoshop tries to notice you twirling the Dial when it is not assigned and will let you know. You’ll still have to figure out how to open the Brush Settings panel and find a setting to adjust.

Thanks for reading about Microsoft Surface Dial in Photoshop. Also check out our official Help page that explains the gestures in a bit more detail.

I do think that the Dial gives an entirely new kind of expression to Photoshop artists. I’ve had a lot of fun helping bring Dial control to Photoshop painting and I’m excited to see what people accomplish with it. Please feel free to drop me a line with your reactions and let me know how Dial works for you, and help me make Photoshop even better!

David Tristram

Photoshop User Interface Engineer, tristram[at]adobe[dot]com