How to Use the Freeform Pen Tool in Photoshop CS6

By Barbara Obermeier

The Freeform Pen tool in Photoshop CS6 is kind of a hybrid Lasso/Pen tool. Just click and drag around the element you want to select, and the tool creates an outline that follows your cursor, exactly like the Lasso.

After you release your mouse button, Photoshop provides the anchor points, lines, and curves for that path. In this way, the Freeform Pen works exactly like the Pen.

The downside of the Freeform Pen is that you’re back to needing a steady hand in order to get an accurate selection. The Freeform Pen tool’s probably one notch better than the Lasso tool because you get a path that you can refine before you load it as a selection.

Here are some Freeform Pen tips:

  • To create straight segments by using the Freeform Pen, hold down Alt (Option on the Mac) while pressing the mouse button and then click to create the anchor point.

  • Holding down Alt (Option on the Mac) temporarily turns the Freeform Pen into the regular Pen. When you want to return to using the Freeform Pen, release Alt (Option on the Mac), keeping the mouse button clicked.

If you release Alt (Option on the Mac) after releasing the mouse button, Photoshop ends your path, and you can do nothing about it.

The following sections give you the scoop on the options (which you can find by clicking the gear icon on the Options bar) that go hand in hand with the Freeform Pen tool.

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Curve Fit option in Photoshop CS6 Freeform Pen tool

The Curve Fit option lets you adjust the amount of error Photoshop allows when trying to fit your cursor movement to a path. You can enter a value from 0.5 to 10 pixels; the default setting is 2 pixels.

At the default setting, Photoshop doesn’t register any movement of your cursor that’s 2 pixels or less. Setting the value to 0.5 pixels makes the Freeform Pen very sensitive to your movement and forces the tool to follow the edge closely.

The disadvantage of this option is that using it also causes unnecessary anchor points. Although a value of 10 pixels corrects this problem by making the option less sensitive, your path may not be as accurate if you back off on the sensitivity.

Magnetic option in the Freeform Pen

When selected, the Magnetic option makes the Freeform Pen act much like the Magnetic Lasso tool. Click anywhere on the edge of the element you want to select. Release your mouse button and then move the cursor around the edge. The tool snaps to the edge of your element, creating anchor points and segments. You can:

  • Manually control the magnetism. If the Freeform Pen tool starts to veer off course, you can force an anchor point down manually by clicking. To delete the most recent anchor point, press Backspace (delete on the Mac).

  • Create straight segments. To create straight segments, Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac) to temporarily get the regular Pen. Alt-drag (Option-drag on the Mac) to temporarily access the regular Freeform Pen. To return to the Magnetic Freeform Pen tool, release Alt (Option on the Mac), click again, and continue moving the cursor.

To close a path by using the magnetic Freeform Pen, double-click or return to your starting anchor point.

The Width, Contrast, and Frequency settings are specifically for the Magnetic option and work just like the Magnetic Lasso options. Width specifies how close to the edge (1–256) the tool must be before it detects an edge. Contrast (1–100) specifies how much contrast must be between pixels for the tool to see the edge. Frequency (0–100) specifies the rate at which the tool lays down anchor points.

The Pen Pressure option is available only if you’re using a pressure-sensitive drawing tablet. It allows you to adjust how sensitive the tool is based on how hard you press down with the stylus.