The Move Tool has align and distribute functions in its tool options. These are useful for aligning and distributing the position of content on multiple layers in relation to each other or in relation to a selection.

Aligning Layer Content

Align and distribute only work on pixels with an opacity greater than 50%. If an object like the gradient circle from the last lecture was used, Photoshop would only consider the center areas of the circle in deciding where to position the object. There are 12 buttons in the Tool Options bar for aligning and distributing. We’ll start with the align function which uses the six buttons on the left.

If you’ve had experience with a word-processing application, you’ve probably aligned text so it’s left-aligned, center-aligned or right-aligned in relation to the margin. Photoshop alignment works in much the same way. In order to use the alignment function, the objects you want to align must be on separate layers and a minimum of two layers must be linked or selected. If the active layer isn’t linked to any other layers and no other layers are selected, the align options will be greyed out

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The icon on each button is a visual representation of what the button will do. Admittedly, the icons can be confusing until you get used to them. If you have tool tips enabled, holding your mouse over a button will display its function. The first set of three buttons is for vertical alignment. The second set is for horizontal alignment.

The steps for aligning are:

  1. Make sure the active layer is linked to other layers that contain the content you want to align. Alternately, select two or more layers at the same time. To select contiguous layers, select two or more while holding down the Shift key. To select non-contiguous layers, hold down the Ctrl(Cmd) key as you’re clicking layers to add them to the selection.
  2. Select the Move tool.
  3. Click on one of the alignment buttons.

The table below shows three objects on separate layers that are linked. The top image shows how they were positioned to begin with. Each of the following six images shows how they would align in relation to their starting positions. The red lines were drawn in to show the edges or centres that serve as the alignment point.

Alignment Options
Original Layer Positions
Vertical
Top Edges Vertical Centres Bottom Edges
Horizontal
Left Edges Horizontal Centres Right Edges

The Active Layer is the Boss

The active layer’s contents will affect the outcome of aligning. For example, in the Left Edges example above, the pink rectangle was on the active layer. When the alignment was applied, the other two objects aligned to the left edge of the pink rectangle. Switching now to the table below, the first of the three images shows the same thing. The second and third images show what happens if the active layer contains the green object or the blue object.

Aligning to the Active Layer
Original Layer Positions
Left Alignment
(The red arrow points to the active layer.)

Aligning to a Selection

The other option for aligning is aligning to a selection border. If a selection has been made in the image, clicking on an alignment button will align the objects to the selection, rather than to the object on the active layer. In this example, Align Left Edges was used. The result was that the left edge of each coloured object was aligned to the left edge of the selection. When aligning to a selection, you can align a single layer.

Menu Commands for Aligning

 

All of the Alignment options are available in the Layer > Align submenu. The Move tool doesn’t have to be selected when using the menu commands.

Distributing Layer Content

The distribute function inserts an equal amount of space between the designated edges or centres of objects on three or more layers. Objects on the middle layer(s) are moved in order to accomplish this. Like aligning, objects must be on separate, linked (or selected) layers. The distribute buttons are the six on the right side of the Tool Options bar.

The procedure for distributing is exactly the same as it is for aligning. However, it doesn’t matter which layer is the active layer when distributing. The results will be the same. The presence of a selection marquee doesn’t affect the results.

Distribute Options
Original Layer Positions
Vertical
Top Edges Vertical Centres Bottom Edges
Horizontal
Left Edges Horizontal Centres Right Edges

In the examples above, the red, two-headed arrows show how the amount of spacing is equal between the alignment points of each pair of objects. The pink and blue objects remain in their fixed positions. The green object in the middle is shifted around to create the proper alignment.

How to Align and Distributing Layer Content

How to Align and Distributing Layer Content

A useful example of the distribute function is when setting up text on separate layers to create a graphical menu for a web page. Once you create the text layers, you’ll want to align them. You’ll also want to have an equal amount of vertical spacing between each menu item. The example to the right shows a vertical menu that has been left-aligned (1) and then distributed (2).

If you were to measure the distance between the vertical centres of each pair of text items, they would be identical. Keep in mind that only the middle item(s) will be shifted to assign equal spacing between all items. In the text example, the top and bottom text didn’t move during distribution. If you want less overall space between items, you’ll have to move the top and bottom text closer together before applying the distribute function.

Menu Commands for Distributing

All of the distribute options are available in the Layer > Distribute submenu. The Move tool doesn’t have to be selected when using the menu commands.

Aligning and Distributing Layer Content Summary

  • The Move tool has align and distribute functions that are accessed through 12 buttons in the Tool Options bar.
  • Objects can be aligned in relation to each other or in relation to a selection marquee. Objects are only distributed in relation to each other.
  • Only pixels with an opacity value greater than 50% will be considered for the purposes of aligning and distributing.
  • Objects must be on separate layers that are either linked or selected in order to use these functions.
  • There must be at least two linked or selected layers to use the align function. When aligning to a selection border, a single layer can be used.
  • There must be at least three linked or selected layers to allow distributing.
  • When aligning, objects will be aligned to the object on the active layer unless you’re aligning to a selection. It makes no difference which layer is active when distributing as long as it’s one of the linked or selected layers.
  • If you use menu commands to align or distribute, the Move tool doesn’t need to be active.