Pen versus Lasso Tools

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Today’s Question: What are your thoughts concerning the use of the Freeform Pen Tool (with the Magnetic option) vs. the Magnetic Lasso Tool [in Photoshop]?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In theory I prefer the additional flexibility provided by the Pen tools in Photoshop, but in actual practice I generally find the Lasso and Magnetic Lasso tools are all I really need in the context of photographic images.

More Detail: In essence, there are two sets of features to consider here. One is the magnetic feature, and the other is the method of drawing shapes.

In terms of the magnetic feature, I consider the two tool options to be equal to each other. In other words, you can expect the same basic results with the Magnetic Lasso tool compared to the Freeform Pen tool with the Magnetic option enabled.

Therefore, the key difference for our purposes relates to how you actually create a shape with these tools. The Lasso tools allow you to “manually” draw any shape you’d like, while the Pen tools allow you to define shapes based on vector paths. In other words, with one of the Pen tools you can create a shape based on anchor points, defining (or refining) lines and curves between those anchor points.

So, with either the Magnetic Lasso tool or the Freeform Pen tool you can define a shape based on contrast edges within a photo. In other words, you can create a shape that follows an object within the photo in a relatively automated way.

The key difference is that when you’re finished defining a shape with the Freeform Pen tool, you have a set of anchor points that can be refined just as you might change shapes when creating a path using the other variations on the Pen tool. That provides a degree of additional flexibility, to be sure.

However, I find that for most photographic images a vector shape doesn’t provide a tremendous advantage. The shapes I need to define within a photographic image are generally a bit more complicated than can be easily defined with vectors, and thus I need to use a raster-based shape.

So, again, the Freeform Pen tool provides an advantage over the Magnetic Lasso tool, but that advantage is something I find I generally am not able to really take advantage of in the context of a photographic image.