September 07, 2008

Obscure shortcut tips o’ the day

At Photoshop World this week, an attendee asked me why, after switching from Windows to Mac, she was having trouble changing layer blending modes via the keyboard.  It turned out the choice of OS had nothing to do with it.  Rather, she was missing a subtlety in how these shortcuts work: their target depends on which tool is active.


  • With the Move tool (V) selected, you can:
    • change a layer’s blending mode by hitting Shift-plus/minus, cycling forward/backward through the available options;
    • apply a specific mode via Shift-Opt/Alt-letter (e.g. Shift-Opt-O for Overlay);
    • change layer opacity by hitting number keys: "5" sets it to 50%, "6" to 60%, etc., while "55" sets it to 55%, "66" to 66%, and so on.  (Insert joke about "666" erasing your hard drive.)
  • With other tools selected (Brush, Eraser, Gradient, Clone Stamp–anything that can be applied with its own blending and opacity options), these shortcuts apply to the tool options instead of to the layer.  Therefore you can quickly alter your brush opacity by tapping the number keys, but to change the opacity of the layer, you’ll have to switch to the Move tool.
  • For completeness I should point out that you could also switch to another tool that doesn’t have it’s own blending options, such as Crop, and have the shortcuts apply to the layer.  Really, though, it’s easier to say that Move = layer, and brush = brush where these shortcuts are concerned.


Hopefully that’s of some value/interest.  For reference, here (bottom of the page) is a list of the specific blending mode shortcuts.  For further geekery I recommend scoring a copy of the Photoshop Power Shortcuts book on which I collaborated with Michael Ninness.  Skim it and you’ll quickly see why finding shortcuts for new functions in PS is, ah, non-trivial.

Posted by John Nack at 10:21 AM on September 07, 2008


  • imajez — 5:45 PM on September 07, 2008

    I’d say the girl was correct. I use both Versions and do they vary in subtle ways.
    The Mac version certainly differs from the PC version in how you can select blending modes. I tend to click on blending mode to select whichever one I think is apposite and then simply go up and down list with arrow keys – on a PC that is and it doesn’t matter what tool you are using either. Very handy.
    Another way the Mac differs is when you enable drop down lists [like blending modes. alt clicks..], as that OSX, doesn’t simply reposition list up or down to fit on screen so all options can be seen, like in Windows. No, OSX makes you have to scroll up and down the reduced and varaibly sized list which makes using muscle memory to choose options, impossible.
    Also in Windows, when dragging layers to bin or to be duplicated you get a ghost version as visual feedback as it heads towards bottom of pallette. Whereas on the Mac you get a confusing symbol saying ‘not possible’, until you hit the bottom of palette.
    Off hand, I cannot think of any ways in which the Mac version has subtle and better variations than the Windows version. Though I’m sure someone will remind me.
    Even on the new PS CS4, the Windows version is better, as the new interface you demoed a while back is much more effective in space usage on the PC, than it is on the Mac version.
    I’m very excited about this snippet I came across on JP Caponigro’s blogs
    “Configurator – a soon to be released utility that lets you customize and share your PS interface”
    Apparently you mentioned this groundbreaking possibility at PS World. Yet I only found one tiny little mention of it in all the coverage.
    [Here’s a bit more info. –J.]
    Only been asking for this for about 12 years now!!
    Hopefully it will be worth the wait. :-))

  • Christopher Wisznarewski — 10:53 PM on September 07, 2008

    Mr. John, I have a few questions regarding Photoshop and Open Source. I know, I know, you’re probably sick of it(It’s not that I’m surprised, I would be too if I wasn’t eager to expand creating Open Source products:))
    1) What does Adobe think of Open Source? Is it afraid that opening code of Photoshop will be used by their competition in their closed-source apps?
    2) Would Adobe open the source code of Photoshop if there has been a license which tells that customers get the source code of application but they are not allowed to redistribute for a fee? Let’s say they are allowed to modify application in any way they want and give the corrected code to the public for free and they must write at the end that app. belongs to Adobe.
    3) Will Adobe ever try to write Photoshop in Java language or using nVidia’s CUDA to improve speed of Photoshop? As we know with more program’s features there is a problem with speed and size of it and writing in Java would bring Photoshop on every OS(but the then Ps. would be more slower than it is now) and writing some code in CUDA would speed up Adobe’s products in present C++.
    P.S. Sorry for my English, it’s not my native language:).

  • jack — 6:30 AM on September 08, 2008

    I also agree with imajez. I too use both a Mac and PC and I use the same method to switch blending modes. I tend to click on a blending mode and then use the up and down arrow keys to try other modes. I got so accustomed to doing this on a pc that when I began using a Mac, it was very hard to get used to. In fact, I still don’t have the keyboard shortcut down for this, so when I’m on a Mac, I tend to just use the mouse to click on each blending mode one at a time which takes much more time and is a lot less convenient. I’m sure this has more to do with the OS drop down menu style than it does with Photoshop, but I have to agree with the previous comment that the girl in your post was correct.

  • Pamela Viola — 10:37 AM on September 08, 2008

    John –
    I was the person who asked the question, and that was the answer – finally! Thanks so much.
    Now here’s another one…
    I have my preferences set to open tiff and jpegs in camera raw, but only the jpegs do. What could I be missing about the tiffs? – Thanks!
    [Tom H. replies, “In CS3 there are three locations to set JPEG/TIFF handling preferences: Photoshop preferences, Camera Raw preferences and Bridge preferences. Double check your settings in the Bridge and Camera Raw preferences to ensure that they’re both enabling TIFF editing in Camera Raw. (Photoshop’s preferences only address JPEG handling.) Another checkpoint is selecting the file in Bridge and choosing CMD/CTRL R in order to open the TIFF file in Camera Raw manually.” –J.]

  • thinsoldier — 1:14 PM on September 12, 2008

    Here’s an OS X specific annoyance.
    In windows I can click the layer blending mode select once to make it active and then very quickly cycle through every blending mode using up/down arrow keys.
    Can’t do this on a mac because the OS X interface sucks in dozens of little ways.
    (Been working with OS X 7 days a week for the last 5 years, nothing anyone says will change this opinion.)
    Not that Windows is any less annoying in lots of other ways.

  • Shangara Singh — 9:50 AM on September 13, 2008

    I don’t have problems with blend modes hiding (OS X 10.5). If I click on the pop-up menu, the menu drops down. Regardless of whether the Layers panel is docked to the top or bottom of the panel column.
    You can cycle blend modes by holding down Shift and then pressing the underscore (_) or plus (+) key.
    Windows has a similar shortcut: Shift+Alt then underscore or plus.
    As noted, depending on the tool selected, modes will change for tool or layer.

  • markzebra — 2:16 PM on September 17, 2008

    It comes to something when a senior product manager at Adobe refers to these shortcuts as “Obscure”, When you’ve been using them for years. My living really depends on these little things, making it possible to do my job efficiently enough that I can be competitive.
    [No question. If you surveyed 100 PS users, though, I don’t think you’d find a large percentage of them knowing these shortcuts. –J.]

  • Shangara Singh — 9:41 AM on September 22, 2008

    Maybe “obscure” is inappropriate? Undiscovered may be more descriptive.
    Now here’s one I didn’t know about till very recently: In Hue/Saturation, you can press Cmd/Ctrl and then drag the gradient bar left or right!
    How many people know you can hold down Shift+Opt/Alt and then use the “” keys to rotate a clone source?
    If there was a command at the bottom of the blend mode menu that showed you the shortcuts in a pop-up window or, say, a button in the Hue/Sat or Clone Source dialog, that would help bring some of these, erm, obscure shortcuts out into the open.

  • markzebra — 11:21 AM on September 27, 2008

    “If you surveyed 100 PS users, though, I don’t think you’d find a large percentage of them knowing these shortcuts” yes thats may be partially true. But there’s honestly hardly any excuse for this. By just concentrating on making it easier for beginners all the time, with panels replacing what advanced users have known all along, as one example, don’t you think that its really dumbing everything down and making the interface just too cluttered?
    Functional, and practical improvements are what’s really needed, not interface and “discoverability” changes. I like the inclusion on CS 4 of what appear to be dynamic layer masks! to be applauded – hopefully in some future version these will be combined with channel mixing and calculations abilities – thats something that everyone would appreciate, not just the few who have never bothered to learn the current features properly – sorry to sound bitter.

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