Photoshop is one of the essential tools for photographers. As part of the Creative Cloud plan, and available for an affordable monthly subscription, it’s as accessible as it’s ever been — even for non-pros.
But Photoshop can be pretty overwhelming when you first start using it. The default interface is so crammed with buttons, sliders, and other assorted tools, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
In this guide, I’ll take a look at some of the features you can dive straight into, even if you have little or no previous photo editing experience.
1. Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop
Where possible, you should always edit your photos non-destructively. This means that you can edit your image as much as you like, but can always undo any change, and always revert back to the original file if you need to.
Programs like Lightroom and Google Photos are non-destructive editors. Photoshop isn’t.
The way to do non-destructive editing in Photoshop is to use layers. Layers are like a series of transparent sheets stacked on top of your image. You can draw on these sheets, or reorder them, but because they’re transparent you can see the layers below them, too. Check out our guide for a more in-depth explanation.
Ideally, every single edit — or group of similar edits — should be saved on its own individual layer. This enables you to adjust the edits later, make them more or less visible, or remove them entirely by hiding or deleting the layer.
Things like text, or objects pasted from another image, will go on their own layer automatically. If you’re using something like the paint brush tool you’ll need to create a new layer manually (click the New Layer button in the Layers panel to do that). For a couple of other common tools you need a few tricks to use them with layers:
- Spot Healing Brush. To use the Spot Healing Brush from step 5, along with a few other tools including the Magic Wand and the Blur tool, you must manually create a new layer. Pick your tool from the toolbar and make sure Sample All Layers is ticked in the options bar. Now make your edits on the new empty layer.
- Healing Brush or Clone Stamp. To use the healing brush or clone stamp on their own layer, create a new layer manually. Pick the tool, and in the options bar at the top of the screen set Sample to Current & Below. Make your edits in the empty layer.
- Dodge and burn with layers. The dodge and burn tools are used to add local contrast to parts of your image. To use them on their own layer go to Layer > New > Layer, then in the dialog box that opens set Mode to Overlay. Tick the box labeled Fill with Overlay-neutral color. Now use dodge and burn on that layer.
You can also make adjustments to things like contrast, saturation, and exposure on a separate layer. Photoshop has its own special tool for this, which we’ll see next.
2. Discover Adjustment Layers
Adjustment Layers allow you to make changes to your image’s tone and color in a non-destructive way. You can stack as many adjustment layers onto your image as you need.
Click the Adjustment Layers icon in the Layers panel and choose the type of edit you want to make. A Properties box will open corresponding to the tool you’ve selected, and you just need to move the sliders to make your changes.
The benefits to adjustment layers are that they can be edited at any time. Just double click the layer to do this. You can also use the Opacity slider to fine-tune the effect of the layer — lower the opacity to reduce the impact of the changes — or hide or delete any if you don’t need them.
3. Instant Automatic Fixes
Photoshop offers various automatic options for processing photos.
The most basic can be found in the Image menu: Auto Tone, Auto Contrast, and Auto Color. After you’ve applied one you can fine-tune it a little by going to the Edit menu, where you’ll see a Fade option (such as Fade Auto Tone). It’s set to 100% by default, so reduce it if you want to lessen the effect of the color or tonal change.
Many of the other adjustment options have Auto settings as well. Create an adjustment layer for Levels, for example, then click the Auto button. You can use this as a starting point, before manually tweaking the sliders yourself. To fade the effect use the Opacity slider in the Layers panel.
4. Make Your Photos Pop With Levels
It’s quite common for your photos to look a bit flat when you open them in Photoshop. In most cases simply adding some contrast will help them to pop.
The Brightness/Contrast feature might seem the obvious way to do this. But you can get better results by using either the Levels or Curves tools.
Curves is a little more advanced, whereas you can dive straight into Levels and get great results.
To open the Levels tool hit Cmd+L on Mac, or Ctrl+L on Windows. Or — our preferred method — open it on an adjustment layer by clicking the adjustment layers icon in the Layers panel and selecting Levels.
What you’ll see now is a histogram. The histogram is a graph that shows the tonal range of your image. The x-axis indicates brightness, from 100% black on the left edge to 100% white on the right, and all the shades of gray in between. The y-axis shows the number of pixels for each of the tones.
You can use the histogram to judge the exposure of your image. If the pixels are weighted to the left of the graph then the image may be underexposed. If they’re weighted to the right it may be overexposed.
When the pixels are clumped together in the middle, it shows the image lacks contrast, which is why it looks flat.
As a rule of thumb, you want your photos to cover the entire tonal range, from black to white. You can do this by dragging the tabs below the histogram.
The left tab adjusts the shadows in the image, and the right tab the highlights. Grab both in turn and drag them inwards until they’re in line with the first clump of pixels in the histogram.
You’ll see the shadows get darker and the highlights get lighter respectively, and then you can adjust it to taste. The middle tab adjusts the midtones — drag it to the left to brighten your image.
5. Clean Up Shots With the Spot Healing Brush
No matter how much care you take over your photography, there’s always likely to be something in the shot that you wish wasn’t there. It might be a spec of dust on your camera’s sensor, a skin blemish, or a power line blighting a beautiful landscape.
Fortunately, you can remove simple things like this very easily in Photoshop using the Spot Healing Brush.
Select the Spot Healing Brush from the toolbar, or press J on your keyboard. Adjust the size of the brush using the square brackets keys — set it to about the same size as the object you’re removing.
Check that the Content-aware is selected in the options bar at the top. Now click on the spot you’re removing, or draw over it if it’s a larger object. It should now disappear. If any edges are left behind from the removed object, run the brush over those edges to get rid of them.
The Spot Healing Brush works best on small areas. It can be used to fix larger problems, but there are other tools for those areas.
6. Remove Objects: Healing Brush or Content-Aware Fill
How easy it is to remove an object from an image depends on the image itself. Removing something from a plain or non-uniform textured background is something that all Photoshop beginners can do. You have a choice of tools with which to do it.
Spot Healing Brush Tool. Paints over an object using texture and tone sampled from the surrounding pixels. Best used for smaller fixes.
Healing Brush Tool. Paints over an object with a texture sampled from a different part of the same image, while blending the color and tone with its new surrounding.
Hold the Alt key then click to select the part of the image you want to sample from. Next, paint over the object you want to remove. The brush gives you a preview of what you will be painting, enabling you to match any patterns easily.
Patch Tool. Replaces an object by copying a texture selected from another part of the image, and blends the color and tone.
Cut around the object you want to remove, then click and hold in the selected area and drag your mouse to the part of the image you want to sample. The selected area shows a real-time preview of what the final result will look like.
Clone Stamp Tool. Works just like the Healing Brush Tool, but it copies the color as well as texture. Users often apply it for more advanced edits where they need to recreate parts of a background.
You might need to experiment with each tool to see which is best for the job you’re doing, and sometimes you might need more than one tool.
7. Make Your Shots Black and White
There are many ways to convert color photos to black and white in Photoshop. Some are very advanced, but there’s at least one simple method that can produce great results for newcomers.
We’ll use an adjustment layer again, so click the icon in the Layers panel and select Black & White.
Straight away you get a greyscale version of your photo. But it needn’t stop there. You can experiment with the Presets, which replicate the effect of using colored filters on your camera.
Next, you can play around with the sliders. Each slider corresponds to a color in the original image. Reducing it makes areas containing that color darker, and increasing it makes them lighter. So, if you wanted a striking dark sky, you might reduce the Blue and Cyan sliders, for example.
Additionally, try out the Tint option. Tick the box and Photoshop will place a colored overlay on your image. By default, Photoshop make it sepia, but you can click through and create colors of your own.
8. Crop Your Photos
There are numerous reasons why you might need to crop your photos. To prepare it for printing, tighten up the composition, or even to straighten the horizon. The crop tool in Photoshop is fairly self-explanatory. To crop freely, grab one of the handlebars at the corners or edges of the image and drag inwards.
To crop to a specific format, click Ratio in the options bar. Choose Original Ratio, Square etc. to keep a fixed ratio, or choose W x H x Resolution to specify your own.
Whenever you’re cropping, make sure the Delete Cropped Pixels box is not checked. This enables you to crop non-destructively. You’ll only see the image as you’ve cropped it, but the extra pixels will not be discarded. If you want to change the crop later, you can.
The crop tool also enables you to straighten up the horizon in your shots. Click the Straighten button in the options bar and draw a straight line along the horizon in your image. Straighten works by rotating the image and cropping out the corners, so make sure the Delete Cropped Pixels button isn’t checked if you think you might ever need to undo it.
9. Add a Frame
One popular way to put the finishing touch to an image is to add a frame. This is very simple to do in Photoshop.
Go to Image > Canvas Size. Under Canvas Extension Color select White (or whatever color you want — this will be the color of your frame). Then in the New Size section change the units to Pixels and enter the amount a size for how thick you want the frame to be. Enter the same value in both the Width and Height boxes.
You’ll need to experiment until you find a result you’re happy with. A good starting point is around 2-3% of the width of your image.
10. Save in the Right File Format
Finally, a word on file formats.
Standard image file types like JPEG, TIFF, or PNG do not support Photoshop layers. As soon as you save a file in any of these formats, the app will flatten your image into a single layer.
To preserve the layers, and to enable you to continue editing the layers, either now or in future, you must save your image in the PSD format.
However, if you want to use your edited image on the web, or to print it, then you will need to save another copy in a standard image format such as JPEG or TIFF.
In short, the PSD file is the working copy, and the JPEG is the finished version.
For all its complexities, it’s pretty easy to get impressive results from Photoshop as soon as you start using it. And then, as you become more confident and more ambitious, you’ll find it opens up a whole load of new features to help you along the way.
What are your favorite features in Photoshop? Are there any you’d like us to explain? Let us know in the comments.
Image Credit: structuresxx via Shutterstock.com