Create Amazing Selections With the Affinity Photo Pen Tool

by Feb 16, 2023Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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Create Amazingly Accurate Selections With the Affinity Photo Pen Tool

One of the most accurate selection methods in Affinity Photo is the Pen Tool. Unfortunately, many people using Affinity Photo to edit their photography avoid using it. That’s probably because they find it difficult to control and not intuitive. So, in this tutorial, I will explain an easy way to use the Pen Tool to create amazingly accurate selections.

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If you don’t have the latest version of Affinity Photo you can download a trial from the Affinity Photo website.

Preparing to Make the Selection

Here is the starting image that we will be using. It’s of the Gherkin building in London and features some great curves.

The Gherkin building showing smooth curves, making it perfect for selecting with the Affinity Photo Pen Tool

Curves like this, together with straight edges, are perfect for selecting with the Pen Tool.

After opening the image in Affinity Photo, choose the Pen Tool in the Tools Palette on the left of the Photo Persona. It shows an icon that looks like the nib of a fountain pen. It’s also grouped with another tool called the Node Tool, so you may find that’s visible instead. If it is, click the small grey triangle to the bottom of the icon to display all the tools in the group. You can then select the Pen Tool as shown below.

The Pen Tool in the Affinity Photo Tools Palette

Having selected the Pen Tool, its options appear in the toolbar along the top of the Affinity Photo interface. There are a lot of options, but we only need to use one of these to create our selection.

Selecting the Pen Mode in the Pen Tool toolbar

In the toolbar you will find several icons relating to the different modes to use with the tool. We want to select the Pen Mode which is the first of these icons. You can see this indicated in the screenshot above.

Now we are ready to make the selection.

Drawing the Selection With the Pen Tool

To draw a selection, position the Pen Tool over the starting point. You can then click once to add a point or node at that position.

Now move your mouse pointer to where you want to add the next node or point. This is also where many people make their first mistake. What you should avoid is adding lots of points along the edge you are selecting. In fact, you want to add as few points as possible. The fewer points you add, the easier it will be to control the curve.

Two points added to the image using the Pen Tool

Here you can see that two points have been added to the image, along the edge of the building. Notice the Pen Tool adds a straight blue line connecting the two. Notice also that the edge of the building between these two points is one continuous curve. The upper point has been added where the next curve in the building begins.

Now let’s add a third point to the end of the next curve. You can see this in the screenshot below.

Three points added to the image using the Pen Tool

But there’s another mistake to avoid when doing this, especially when you’re a beginner using the Pen Tool.

The Beginner’s Mistake

If you’ve read tutorials, or watch videos about using the Affinity Photo Pen Tool, you will probably know that when you click to add a point, you can also drag with your mouse. This causes the line between the two points to bend and curve. At the same time, control arms appear which you can use to adjust the curve. Here’s an example.

Adding a Curve with the Pen Tool

When you’re first learning to use the Pen Tool, you should avoid doing this. The curve this creates can be very difficult to control if you don’t understand how it works. Instead, you should click once on a point to add the node. This will draw a straight line between that point and the previous point of your selection. Shortly you will see how to make this line bend to match the edge of the building.

Completing the Selection

We can now complete our selection by adding further points to the image.

Completing the selection with the Pen Tool

In this example, you can see that we’ve added six points, before clicking on the first point again to close or finish the selection.

Something else to notice is that two of these points were added outside the edges of the image. This is perfectly acceptable and better than trying to position a point in the exact corner of the image. By positioning the points outside of the edges of the image, we know that we will select all the image in those areas.

Positioning Nodes with the Node Tool

The next step in the process is to use the Node Tool. You will find this in the Photo Persona Tools Palette on the left of the interface. It’s grouped together with the Pen Tool.

After selecting the Node Tool, you will see its options displayed in the context sensitive toolbar at the top of the screen. We don’t want to use any of these options at this stage. Instead, we are going to use the Node Tool to reposition the points or nodes that we added with the Pen Tool.

To do this, magnify your image to at least 100%. You should then check the position of each of the nodes to ensure that it’s exactly on the edge or in the corner that you want to select. If it isn’t, click the point using the Node Tool, and whilst holding down your mouse button, drag it into position. Once in position you can release the mouse button.

Dragging a node into position using the Node Tool

Creating a Curve with the Node Tool

We can also use the Node Tool to create a curve from the straight line of a selection.

Earlier we said that when we add two points, the Pen Tool will draw a straight line between them. If we now position the Node Tool over this line, we can click and drag it.

Creating a Curve with the Node Tool

This causes the line to bend or curve so we can match it to the edge of the building. Using this method, it becomes easy to position the curve precisely on the edge you want to select.

When you drag the curve into position you will see control arms appear on the nodes at the ends of the curve. These are the same control arms that you create if you click and drag when adding points with the Pen Tool. But, having positioned the curve using the Node Tool, it becomes easy to adjust it by clicking and dragging the control arms.

If you find that you need to adjust a curve using the control arms, here are a few tips:

  1. Use the control arms at both end of the curve to refine the selection. This can help with accuracy.
  2. The direction you move the control arm sets the direction of the curve.
  3. The length of the control arm then sets the position of the bend in the curve. When you make the arm longer, it moves the bend away from the node. But if you shorten the control arm, it moves the bend nearer to the node.

Converting Curves to a Selection

When you have the curves accurately in position, you can convert them to a selection or mask.

To create a selection from the curves that you’ve drawn, reselect the Pen Tool in the Tools Palette. You will then see two buttons in the Pen Tools context sensitive toolbar at the top of the screen. These are Mask and Selection.

The Mask and Selection buttons in the Pen Tool's toolbar

Clicking either of these will convert the curves that you’ve drawn into either a Selection or Mask. For this example, we will click the Mask button.

When we click the Mask button, it converts the curves layer into a curves mask, attaching it to the image. You can see this if you check the Layers Studio Panel.

Converting the Curves drawn by the Pen Tool into a Mask

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When the mask is attached to the image, it allows the building to be seen but the sky is hidden. It’s then possible to add a new sky to the image to replace the original.

This basic approach is a great way to start using the Pen Tool in Affinity Photo. But there’s a lot more to the mask you created than you may realise. In the following short video, you can watch me select the building and replace the sky. It will also show you a few things that you may not have realised when following the tutorial.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.

In the video, I used a sky from the “Atmosphere” pack. You will find that and others in the Affinity Photo website shop.

Another way you can use to select the sky in an image like this, is using the Affinity Photo Selection Brush. The Selection Brush is extremely powerful, but like a lot of these tools many users have problems with it. This tutorial explains how to use the Selection Brush along with a hidden feature that makes it easier to use.

If you would like to learn more about using Affinity Photo, consider my two books. Those just starting with Affinity Photo should read “Essential Affinity Photo 2” whilst those with more experience should read “Affinity Photo How To”.

More Affinity Photo Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Affinity Photo Tutorials page.

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