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Popular Tools in Photoshop: the Marquee Tools


How to use the Marquee Tools in Photoshop – overview of the tool options and how to use the marquee tools to create complex graphic shape combinations.

Photoshop’s Marquee Tools offer quick ways of using popular geometric shapes to select parts of images to copy, cut, or create with.

The tools are easy to use and on the surface appear to be pretty limited, but there are a few “secrets” that expose the sophisticated technology behind the tools that makes them easy and intuitive to work with.

The Marquee Tools are located just under the Move Tool in the Vertical Tool Bar – second from the top.

There are four tools included in the Marquee Tool Box: the Rectangular Marquee, the Elliptical Marquee, the Single Row Marquee, and the Single Column Marquee.

Within the Rectangular Marquee and the Elliptical Marquee lie the ability to select rectangles, squares, ovals, and circles in a variety of ways.

Because they work exactly the same, we’ll explore the Rectangle Marquee Tool – keep in mind that the Elliptical Marquee Tool has the same options and features.

Hope that helps some of you out that would like to return to this guide later or print it out!

Overview: The Marquee Tool Options

When the Marquee Tool is selected, the Options Bar display choices that can be made to affect how the Marquee Tool makes selections.

The Option on the upper left contains Presets for the Tool. There are no default Presets, but if you make some, you will find them here.

Just to the right of the Presets menu, there are four choices for making selections.

Basic Selection

The default setting (the icon on the left) allows for the basic selection. When it is the active choice, a single selection may be created.

If a second selection is made, the first one deselects.

Add To Selection

In order to Add To a current selection, the icon just right of the default setting may be chosen (or the Keyboard Shortcut, the Shift Key, may be used instead).

This choice allows the user to add more selections to the original one.

Subtract From Selection

The next option allows the user to subtract from the original selection.

The Keyboard Shortcut for this choice is the Option (Alt) Key.

Reduce Multiple Selections

The final option reduces multiple selections into just the locations where a new selection intersects the existing ones.

The Keyboard Shortcut for this choice is Option (Alt) Shift.


Some users like to preset how soft the edge of a new selection will be.

Without Feathering, the edges of selections are sharp – like they were cut out with scissors.

Feathering creates a falloff of pixels in various opacities that make the edge look much softer.

Enter the amount of desired feathering here prior to making the selection. The setting that you choose will remain until you change it.

If you consistently make a lot of selections that require the same edge, this is a good option for you.

If you forget to preset the feathering, don’t worry; you can feather it after the selection has been made by accessing Select / Modify / Feather from the Main Menu Bar.

Within this menu are also options to turn your selection into a border, to smooth the edges, or to expand or contract the selection (make it bigger or smaller).

When you choose Feather, a small window appears in which you can enter the amount of feathering you desire.

This is not a preset; it is a choice that can be made AFTER the selection has been created.

The option to Feather after a selection has been made is popular with artists who use selections in a variety of ways, requiring different amounts of edge softening.

It’s also a good option for those users who tend to forget to look at what the Option Bar’s preset option contains prior to making a selection.

It can be frustrating to make a detailed selection only to find out too late that the pre-feather option is set to 150 pixels, because the last time you used it, you made a vignette!


The Marquee Tools can be set to select in particular proportions using settings from the next option in the Option Bar, Style.

In Normal Style, the Marquee Tool follows the user’s hand, non-constrained to height and width proportion.

When Fixed Ratio is selected, Width and Height fields become active in which numerical information, like 1:2, may be entered.

This choice constrains the selection to a height that’s twice the width. Selecting Fixed Size allows the user to enter width and height restrictions based upon specific numbers of pixels per inch.

There is even a “switch” icon that allows you to reverse the width and height with just a click of a button.

Refine Edge

The last option in the Options Bar is a shortcut to Refine Edge.

Refine Edge presents after selection Feathering – in addition to other options like Smoothing, Contrast, Shifting the Edge one way or the other, and the ability to remove unwanted edge discolorations.

How To Use The Marquee Tool

Now that we’ve explored the Options for the Marquee Tool, it’s time to see how to use it.

Once again, there are options for how you wish to select. The default option, Single Selection, requires a simple press and drag.

In this sample, a rectangular selection was created from top left to bottom right.

When a perfect square selection is needed, the same action, drawn while holding down the Shift Key confines the selection to a perfect square.

A Marquee selection may also be drawn from the center out just by holding down the Option (Alt) Key, positioning the cursor in the center of the object and drawing away and up or down.

Holding down both the Shift Key and the Option (Alt) Keys allow the user to select a perfect square from the center out.

Once the selection has been made, it may be moved into a better position just by pressing inside of the selection and dragging it to a new location.

Use the Arrow Keys on the Keyboard to delicately move the selection pixel by pixel.

If you click outside of the selection, it automatically deselects so you can try again.

If you click outside of the selection by accident, don’t worry, just go to the Main Menu Bar and choose Select / Reselect.

Marquee Selections are commonly used when artists want to choose a part of an image to use for something else, like taking a person from one image to another, or copying one circle to make many.

Here I’ve used the Rectangle Marquee Tool to select the white circle, copied and pasted it to a New Layer Edit / Copy, Edit / Paste (or Layer / New / Layer via copy OR the Keyboard Shortcut Command (Control) j), and then moved the copy into a new position using the Move Tool.

The New Layer with the circle could also have been dragged onto a different image file where it could be used as part of another picture.

The Marquee Tool Box also contains Single Row and Single Column choices.

When View / Rulers is selected in the Main Menu Bar and the Add To Selection is active for the Single Row and Single Column Selection Tools, it’s easy to tap in a quick grid.

In this example, I’ve created a grid and added a New Layer over the Background and Edit / Stroke the selection with Black at 4 pixels in width.

In addition, I added a drop shadow (Layer / Layer Style / Drop Shadow) and applied a gradient to a Layer Mask in order to fade the grid from top left to lower right.

In a smartly created document, separate layers are used for each compositional element.

Notice the layer stack for this image. Each circle is on a separate layer. Each circle has identical layer effects for Layer / Layer Style / Inner bevel and Drop Shadow.

The Layer Style was created on one of the circles, then with the Option (Alt) Key pressed, it was copied to the other circle layers just by dragging and dropping it into place in the Layers Window.

To add extra connectivity between the Drop Shadow and the circles, a New Layer was created under the circle layers and black paint was hand applied just at the lower right edges.

Each of the layers may be adjusted independently or selected together for an all over adjustment.

Here, all of the circle layers plus the layer that contains the hand painted drop shadows are selected, and Edit / Free transform is being used to resize them all at the same time.

To select multiple layers, click on the top layer, hold down the Shift Key, and click on the bottom layer.

When you need to select multiple layers that are not in order, use the Command (Control) key instead.

Just click on the ones you want while holding down the keyboard shortcut.

And in this example, the circle layers were merged with their individual hand painted drop shadows. Each circle was duplicated twice and Edit / Free transform was used to resize them.

The Move Tool was used to reposition the circles. The Background was selected and Edit / Fill was used to drop in a new color.

The grid layer was selected, Lock Transparency was chosen in the Layers Window and Edit / Fill was used to change the color of the grid from black to hot pink.

Closing Thoughts

Selections are a big part of what makes Photoshop such a powerful imaging medium.

Being able to choose specific parts of images to change or introduce elements of new creations opens a universe of creative freedom.

Also, the sophisticated technology for edge modification makes for believable constructed compositions.

When you know how to use all of the options, the Marquee Tools are perfect for both making quick, simple selections and creating complex, accurate graphic shape combinations.

Jane Conner-ziser is an award winning photographer, digital artist, premier educator and independent consultant. With over 25 years of experience, 19 of them in digital imaging and evolving technologies, the techniques Jane developed for facial retouching and enhancement and portrait painting from photographs are widely emulated by photographers and digital artists worldwide through her classes, online training and educational products. 


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