10 Must-Know Photoshop Skills for Beginner Photographers

Andy Betts Updated 29-04-2020

Photoshop is one of the most essential tools for photographers of all levels of ability. However, it can be pretty overwhelming when you first start using it.


Photoshop is so crammed with buttons, sliders, and other assorted tools, that it’s hard to know where to begin.

So, in this guide, we’ll walk you through some of the most useful photo-editing features in Photoshop. You’ll be able to use them right away, even if you’re a beginner who’s new to the app.

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 you make.

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, and you edit each one separately without touching the original picture.


Using Layers

Ideally, you should make every single edit—or group of similar edits—on a separate 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.

Photoshop layers

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).

Photoshop non-destructive editing


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 (which we’ll look at in detail later), 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 you’ve ticked Sample All Layers 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 deal with 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.

To get started, click the Adjustment Layers icon in the Layers panel and choose the type of edit you want to make.


Photoshop adjustment layers

A Properties box will open corresponding to the tool you’ve selected, and you just need to move the sliders to make your changes.

Photoshop properties panel

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 Photo Fixes

Photoshop offers various automatic options for simple tweaks like removing shadows from your 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 percent by default, so reduce it if you want to lessen the effect of the color or tonal change.

Photoshop auto fade

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.

Photoshop levels tool

Or, better still, open it on an adjustment layer by clicking the adjustment layers icon in the Layers panel and selecting Levels.

The Histogram

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 percent black on the left edge to 100 percent 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.

Photoshop histogram

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.

Photoshop levels adjustment

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.

Dealing with a set of blurry pictures? No problem—you can sharpen photos using Photoshop.

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 speck 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.

Photoshop spot healing

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 Unwanted Objects From Your Photos

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

Photoshop spot heal remove

This brush paints over an object using texture and tone automatically sampled from the surrounding pixels. As we’ve already seen, it’s best used for smaller fixes, like dust and other specs.

Healing Brush Tool

Photoshop healing brush remove

The 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

Photoshop patch tool remove

This replaces an object by copying a texture selected from another part of the image, and blends the color and tone.

To try it out, select the object you want to remove by drawing round it, 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 realtime preview of what the final result will look like.

Clone Stamp Tool

Photoshop clone stamp tool

This works just like the Healing Brush Tool, but it copies the color as well as texture. Users often apply it for more advanced edits, like when they need to recreate parts of a photo that are missing. Discover more ways to use the Photoshop 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 .

You might need to experiment with each tool to see which is best for the job you’re doing. 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.

Photoshop black and white photos

Straight away you get a grayscale 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 makes 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.

Photoshop straighten button

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 Delete Cropped Pixels isn’t checked if you think you might ever need to undo it.

For more interesting effects, you can also crop images using shapes in Photoshop How to Crop Images Using Shapes in Photoshop Ever wanted to crop an image using a shape, such as a circle or a free-drawn polygon? Here's how to do that in Adobe Photoshop. Read More .

9. Add a Photo Frame in Photoshop

One popular way to put the finishing touch to an image is to add a frame. This is very simple to do in Photoshop.

add a Photoshop frame

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.

Photoshop frame

You’ll need to experiment until you find a result you’re happy with. A good starting point is around 2-3 percent of the width of your image.

10. Save Your Photos in the Right File Format

Finally, what’s the best way to save your photos?

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.

save an image as a PSD

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.

Your Photoshop Journey Has Begun!

For all of its complexities, it’s pretty easy to get impressive results from Photoshop as soon as you start using it. Then, as you become more confident and more ambitious, you’ll find that Photoshop opens up a whole load of new features to help you along the way.

Your Photoshop journey has now begun, and your next step should be to learn how to change the background of a photo in Photoshop How to Change the Background of a Photo in Photoshop Want to change the background of a photo in Photoshop? Adobe has made it quite easy to edit the background of a photo. Read More .

Image Credit: structuresxx/Shutterstock

Related topics: Adobe Photoshop, Image Editing Tips, Image Editor, Photography.

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  1. Marcis Berzins
    September 23, 2019 at 9:16 am

    Very valuable, thank you!

  2. Julia
    November 12, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    That is great content about Photoshop. To be honest this tips might be much more helpful for the beginners.

  3. Koren Schmedith
    April 4, 2017 at 6:31 am

    The tools and the techniques you showed are really effective for Photo Editing. These tools will enhance the beauty and quality of an image. Thanks for sharing the tips.