17 Essential Terms Every Photoshop Beginner Needs to Know

James Frew 30-06-2017

Technology is a wonderful thing. It has opened many creative activities that were previously only for a privileged few. One thing that isn’t so great is the amount of terminology that comes with it.


Photoshop is one of the most well-respected photography editing tools for a reason: it’s brilliant. It does, however, come with a steep learning curve, especially with terminology. Don’t worry though, we’re here to help you sort your blend modes from your layer masks and RAW files.

1. Blending Mode

Setting a blending mode controls how the image you are working on is affected by the paint or editing tool. The base color is the color in the original image. The color that you want to apply to your image is the blend color. Once a blend mode has been selected and the edit applied, this the known as the result color.

photoshop blending mode

2. Brush Tool

One of Photoshop’s most beloved features it the ability to treat a photo as if it were a piece of artwork. The Brush tool is the closest digital equivalent to using a paintbrush. One of its major advantages over its physical siblings is the ability to change the tip shape, diameter, and hardness almost instantaneously.

3. Clone Stamp Tool

The Clone Stamp tool 4 Ways to Use the Photoshop Clone Stamp Tool Here are some of the best ways to use the Photoshop Clone Stamp tool to fix your photos in post production. Read More allows you to paint one part of your photo over another. This is most commonly used for duplicating or removing objects. It is very similar to the Healing Tool except that it copies the color and texture, rather than blending them.


4. Curves

The Curves command is probably one of the best ways to make tonal adjustments to your images. The Curves graph is based on the Histogram, and allows you to brighten, darken, add contrast, and even adjust colors all from one panel.

5. Dodge and Burn Tools

The Dodge and Burn tools are based on a traditional darkroom technique that photographers would use to regulate exposure on certain parts of the image. The Dodge tool allows you to lighten an area, while the Burn tool darkens. By specifying the exposure for mid-tones, shadows, or highlights you are then able to airbrush to apply the change or drag and select an area.

6. Eyedropper Tool

Photoshop uses foreground color to paint and fill areas, and background color to make gradient fills. The default foreground color is black, while the default background is white. You can change these to a color of your choosing using the Eyedropper tool. Select the Eyedropper, click on a color in the image and the automatic foreground color will be changed. If you Alt + Click in Windows, or Option + Click on Mac, then you can select the new background color.

7. Feather

Feathering is the term that Adobe uses for creating soft edges. Using feathering you can either adjust harsh edges, blend images, or make a specific object standout.


8. Histogram

A histogram is a graph which represents the tonal values in your photo or image. By interpreting the graph you can determine the amount of shadows, midtones, and highlights. The histogram doesn’t tell you where these tones are in the image as all it does it count the total number of pixels for each tone. Using the histogram you can quickly assess whether your image is properly exposed 5 Easy Ways to Lighten Dark Underexposed Photos in Photoshop We all shoot underexposed photos from time to time. If you're shooting in low-light or high-contrast conditions it can be unavoidable. Fortunately, it's easy to fix in Photoshop. Read More and has the appropriate level of contrast.

9. History Panel

One of the most important features of an image editor is the ability to undo what you just did. Whether you made a mistake or just wanted to try a different approach or technique, the history panel provides a chronological list of the edits you have made. Having an opportunity to undo edits you just made makes you more likely to experiment. It also saves hours of heartache if something goes wrong. The default number of states that you can make appear in the history panel is 20, although you can easily change that in the Photoshop menu.

10. Layers

When you open an image in Photoshop it is assigned as a background layer. You can then stack multiple transparent layers 3 Photoshop Layer Management Tips for Beginners Proper layer workflow is one of the most effective secrets to Photoshop productivity. Here are three core tips that you should be using no matter who you are or what you do. Read More on top of the background layer. This allows you to make changes to the image without actually editing the image itself. You could use it to composite two images together, add text, or even add effects.

11. Layer Masks

Layers allow you to stack multiple effects, images, and adjustments on top of the original background layer. If you wanted to change the transparency of a layer you could easily do that using the Opacity option. However, that adjusts the transparency for the entire layer. If you wanted to composite two images you can use a layer mask which effectively allows you to hide portions of a layer.


12. Magic Wand Tool

The Magic Wand tool is a huge time saver when you want to remove a consistently colored area like a background. The Magic Wand automatically selects an area of the same color without you having to trace the outline. You can even specify the color range — known as tolerance — relative to the color that you selected.

13. Metadata

Metadata is best described as information about information Avoiding Internet Surveillance: The Complete Guide Internet surveillance continues to be a hot topic so we've produced this comprehensive resource on why it's such a big deal, who's behind it, whether you can completely avoid it, and more. Read More . In the case of digital images, the metadata is not the image itself, but rather the information about it. This includes things like geolocation, date and time, exposure, camera model, and ISO. As the metadata can often reveal far more than you may realize, it’s a good idea to remove any before uploading to the internet What Is EXIF Data? 3 Ways to Remove Metadata From Photos Most cameras embed hidden information ("metadata") in photographs taken. For privacy's sake, here's how to remove that metadata. Read More .

14. Patch Tool

The Patch tool is one of the easiest ways to remove areas of your image 3 Techniques for Using Eye Manipulation Effects in Photoshop One of the most difficult aspects of a picture, both to capture in a photograph and to correct little blemishes, are the eyes. Below are three relatively simple ways to touch up the eyes of... Read More without leaving a gaping hole. Using the Patch tool you simply select the area you want to remove. Then by dragging the selection over to a part of the image you want to replace it with. Photoshop then removes the original area and using high-quality feathering, seamlessly blends the new texture in.

15. PSD File

While image files come in a variety of formats, there very few formats for saving a work-in-progress image edit. Adobe realized this might be a problem as you may not want to overwrite the original with an unfinished edit. To solve this particular problem they created the Photoshop Document (PSD). Just as Microsoft’s file formats became the standard for all office documents, Adobe managed the same with the PSD. Fortunately, you don’t actually have to use Photoshop to open a PSD The 7 Best Ways to Open a PSD File Without Photoshop What is a PSD file, you ask? A PSD file is Adobe's image file format. We'll show you how to open a PSD file without Photoshop. Read More if you do happen to get sent one.


16. RAW

One common theme in nearly every photography article and guidebook is that you should be shooting your pictures in RAW RAW Files: Why You Should Be Using Them for Your Photos Almost every article featuring advice for people just learning photography stresses one thing: shoot RAW images. Here's why that's good advice. Read More . Despite most photos eventually appearing as JPEGs How To Save High-Quality Images in Photoshop, Explained How difficult can saving an image be? Turns out, it's not so intuitive. Photoshop allows for a slew of file formats and parameters, each with their own benefits. Read More , shooting in the format means you lose most of the photos digital information. RAW contains the uncompressed, largely unedited image data that comes directly from your camera’s sensors. By shooting in RAW you don’t limit your options when it comes to image editing.

17. Saturation

The saturation refers to the intensity of the color in an image. A saturated image is one that has overly bright colors, whereas an unsaturated image is one where the colors are too dark. In Photoshop you can use the Hue/Saturation adjustments to change the saturation to a percentage of the original.

How many of these Photoshop terms did you already know? Any that you found surprising? Are there any you think we missed? Let us know in the comments below!

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  1. Michael
    January 19, 2020 at 7:08 am

    Excellent article, James. Many thanks!
    I'm a technical English teacher at technical colleges in Jerusalem, Israel.