I've beeen experimenting with custom shapes for the last couple of days, and thought I'd share some of the tips and techniques I found.
First of all, what are custom shapes?
Well, they're vector objects. That means that they are not built out of millions of individual pixels (like images are), but rather they're a series of mathematical statements that describe how to draw a line from point to point to create the vector shape. This means that custom shapes are "resolution independent", and that they can be grossly shrunk or enlarged and still retain razor sharp edges, curves and corners.
What are custom shapes good for?
Pretty much anything where you want to use a good, sharp object. In particular, using a custom shape as a clipping mask for an image that's been placed as a Smart Object is an outstanding technique, and really shows off the power that PSE is capable of.
PSE comes with a lot of ready-to-use custom shapes for its Custom Shape tool, and there are probably hundreds of thousands available on the Web -- just search for "photoshop shapes". Typically, those shapes will be supplied as Adobe CSH (Custom SHape) files, and simply copying the CSH files into the
"C:\Program Files (x86)\Adobe\Photoshop Elements 10\Presets\Custom Shapes"
directory will make them available for use with the Custom Shape tool.
Sooner or later, though, you'll get the itch to create your own custom shapes. Out of the box, PSE does not have the capability to let you create custom shapes and add them to the CSH files like the "big" Photoshop does, so we'll need to use a workaround: store your custom shapes as layers in a PSD file, and when you want to use them simply copy them into your image.
N.B.: To create custom shapes you'll have to use the reasonably priced Elements+ add-in:
So, the procedure goes like this:
You can repeat the process for as many custom shapes as you want, and they will each become a layer in the "CustomShapes01.psd" file.
To use your custom shape, open the "CustomShapes01.psd" file and your target image and do the drag and drop with the Move tool to copy the custom shape onto your target image.
I mentioned that using a custom shape as a clipping mask for an image placed as a Smart Object is a very powerful technique. It's powerful because the custom shape can be altered at any time and still keep its sharpness, and because the Smart Object can also be resized without becoming pixellated. Of course, that custom shape layer can have any number of layer styles applied to it and those layer styles will "follow" the shape if the shape is moved, resized or rotated.
Here are three examples of using the custom shapes as clipping masks for Smart Objects:
In this example, each custom shape is used as a clipping mask for an image Smart Object, as usual:
Here, one custom shape was used as a clipping mask for an image Smart Object and they were linked.
Then the shape and image were duplicated and moved, rotated and resized. Because of the linking, the Smart Object automatically kept its orientation and size relative to the custom shape throughout:
If you want to use custom shapes as a "combined" clipping mask, the procedure is a little more complicated because you need to get all your custom shapes on one shape layer.
So, after copying your shapes into the target image (as separate shape layers), use the Shape Selection tool to select one of the shapes. Using Edit...Cut will cut that shape layer to the Clipboard, and you can select one of the other shape layers and use Edit...Paste to paste the custom shape into that shape layer. Repeat as necessary, and you will get all of your custom shapes on one shape layer. Then use that single shape layer as your clipping mask:
The neat thing is that the individual shapes can be selected with the Shape Selection tool and independently moved, resized or rotated as necessary.
I forgot to mention one point about copying shape layers into one shape layer: when you initially use the Shape Selection tool to select a shape for cutting, make sure the option for the Shape Selection tool is set to "Add to Selection".
The problem with Elements+ is that it has so many features you soon forget what it can give you !
Truer words were never spoken!