Many years ago I taught a student who had decided to come up with her own names for Photoshop tools – somehow that helped her remember what the tools did. One of her more interesting ideas was calling the Option key (PC: Alt key) the “make better” key. When asked why she simply said, “every time I hold down Option it makes things better”. Although the name might be odd, she was dead on with her evaluation of the importance of the Option key (PC: Alt key) [For the sake of the remainder of this article, let’s just called it Option/Alt.]
Just to clarify, using the Option/Alt key is not going to magically improve your photo: that’s not what she meant by “make better”. The role of the Option/Alt is to improve or add to the performance of a tool or function. Here are some of the more important examples:
Cancel to Revert
In just about every dialog that has a Cancel button, holding down Option/Alt will change the Cancel button to the Revert button. By clicking Revert you can simply start over again in the dialog, rather than clicking Cancel to close the dialog and then reopening the same dialog.
Drag to make a copy
If you have an object selected on a layer and need to make another copy of that object, don’t copy and paste – that would create a new layer. Instead, use the Move tool: hold down Option/Alt and drag to create a copy on the same layer.
If you want the object on a separate layer, make sure the object is deselected and then Option/Alt-drag with the Move tool.
Most drawing and selection tools work from corner-to-corner, meaning you drag diagonally to create a shape or selection. Sometimes it’s easier to create the shape or selection from the center outwards and you do this by holding down – you guessed it, Option/Alt. This works with Free Transform too!
Hide all layers except one
This is a great time saver: you have a multi-layered document and want to see what the original image looked like before you added all the layers. Hold down Option/Alt and click on the eye icon beside the Background layer and all the other layers will be hidden. Click again with Option/Alt held down to show all the layers again. (This works with any layer, not just the Background layer)
When you’re using the Brush tool and want to switch to the Eyedropper long enough to pick a color, just hold down Option/Alt . As long as you hold down the key the Eyedropper will be active. Pick a color and then let go of Option/Alt to return to the Brush tool. (This also works with the Gradient tool and Paint Bucket tool)
Pick the Background color
Use the Eyedropper to click on a color in your image and that becomes your Foreground color. To choose a Background color, hold down Option/Alt as you click on a color and it will become your Background color.
Clicking on the Add layer mask button in the Layers palette will add a layer mask in “reveal all” mode, meaning the mask is filled with white, which reveals the entire layer. Adding a layer mask in “hide all” mode means the mask is created filled with black, which will hide the entire layer. Do this by holding down Option/Alt as you click on the Add layer mask button. (When you only want to reveal a small area of a layer this is often the quickest way: add a mask in hide all mode and then paint with white over the areas you want to show).
View the Layer Mask
To be able to paste onto a Layer Mask, you have to view the mask first. To view the contents of the mask, hold down Option/Alt and click on the Mask thumbnail.
One of the first shortcuts many people learn is Command-Z (PC: Ctrl-Z) to Undo the last operation you did. To perform multiple undos in Photoshop you use a command called Step Backwards, for which the shortcut is Command-Option-Z (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Z).
Threshold mode in Levels
As you drag the highlight or shadow input sliders in Levels, you can change the display by holding down Option/Alt as you drag. The image changes into Threshold mode, showing a posterized version of the image. Use this mode to more easily see which areas are being affected as you drag the sliders.
And there are more cases where using Option/Alt adds functionality to a function or tool. Try it yourself: hold down Option/Alt with a tool, function or dialog and see what happens. You’ll be surprised how often the Option/Alt key really is the “make better” key.