Want to take your photo editing skills to the next level? We take a look at 20 essential tips that will have you working faster and smarter with Photoshop in no time. We cover everything you need to know – how to import and organise your photo; getting more from raw files; adding impact to your images; and the secrets of retouching creatively. Whether this is your first foray into photo editing or you need to fine-tune your techniques, this is your essential guide.
Photo Editing: how to import and organise images
Okay, you want to spend your time improving your images, not organising your hard disk, but following these four tips will take you just a few minutes but potentially save you hours of wasted effort and frustration later on. You might already be using Bridge, the file-management utility that comes with Photoshop, to preview and organise your photos, but our tips will show you four sure-fire ways to get even more out of it and make your life easier. We’re using Photoshop CS4 on a PC here, but the same techniques will also work in Elements’ Organizer, in other versions of Photoshop, and on a Mac (substitute the Command key for Ctrl).
Tip 1 Get organised instantly
Ever lost a digital photo? Ever tried to recover a corrupted or accidentally deleted image? Ever wasted time just trying to find the shot you wanted? The solution is easy – and almost entirely automated. When you’re ready to import your photos from your camera or memory card, go to Get Photos from Camera in Bridge or Elements’ Organizer. This launches Adobe Photo Downloader.
Enable both Convert to DNG and Save Copies To, set the locations and options for both, and click Get Photos. All your original images will be filed in your selected back-up location; copies will be converted to DNG files and saved to a folder you specify (or, if you wish, to a new sub-folder labelled with the shoot date, the import date or a custom name of your choice).
Tip 2 Use tags for faster finds
How good is your memory? If you’re organised, you’ll probably import photos into folders marked with the date of each shoot or possibly the name of the occasion (such as ‘Egypt Trip’ or ‘Ali’s Wedding’), but are you going to remember every location six months later (‘Was that Aswan or Luxor?’)? Are you going to recognise who’s who in every shot? What if you want to find ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures of Ali? You need an easy, reliable method for labelling your images, and Bridge gives you exactly that in the form of Keywords.
After importing your images into Bridge or Elements’ Organizer, take a few moments to tag them with relevant keywords. Simply click once on an image thumbnail to highlight it (then optionally Ctrl-click on others to highlight them in addition, or Shift-click to highlight a range of adjacent images), go to the Keywords palette, and click the words that apply to the selected image(s).
Want a new tag? Just right-click in the Keywords palette and select New Keyword or New Sub Keyword to add one. Now you’ll be able to find the shots you want days or months later simply by right-clicking in the Keywords palette and choosing Find.
Tip 3 Speed up searches
Shooting digital eliminates the costs of processing film, but you might now have several memory cards full of hundreds of shots to assess. To save you having to wade through all those images repeatedly, use Bridge’s star rating system in addition to keywords.
On your first look through, start by giving any acceptable photo an initial two stars by simply hitting Ctrl-2. Then filter by rating, take a closer look, and increase the rating of the best shots by simply tapping Ctrl-> (the key with the full stop or period on it).
If you wish, you can reduce any image’s rating by hitting Ctrl-< (the key with the comma on it). You can now filter by rating at any time in the future to view only the best of your photos.
Tip 4 Automatic ACR processing
Adobe’s Camera Raw (ACR) editor makes it easy to bring out the best in every shot or add a personal style, such as ‘high contrast, low saturation’. If you’ve hit upon a particular formula you like, save it as a setting in ACR (in the Palette menu at the top-right of each tab).
You can then apply this setting to any other image without even opening it in ACR: simply right-click on the shot (or multiple shots) in Bridge and select Develop Settings from the menu that pops open (You can also apply the Camera Raw Defaults or your last-used ACR settings).
What’s more, you can adjust any effects at any time by opening the processed image in ACR, or remove them without affecting the original file.
Photo Editing: get more from raw files
The Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) editor is a fantastic option for perfecting the exposure and white balance of your images, and newer versions of the editor also include some superb tools for further adjustments and effects, from removing lens artifacts to split colour toning.
It’s designed for raw files, of course, which contain the full tonal and colour information captured by the camera sensor; but you can also use it on your JPEGs: go to File>Open As, navigate to your image, and choose Camera Raw in the Open As menu; or in Bridge, right-click and then choose Open in Camera Raw from the menu.
Tip 5 Get it white
Correcting white balance is one of the primary functions of ACR. The presets in the White Balance menu each have the same effect as selecting that setting in-camera, so pick the one that best represents the lighting conditions when you took the shot, then fine-tune with the Temperature slider if necessary.
Even simpler is the White Balance Tool: click with it on a spot in your image that should be a colour-neutral grey – light greys or diffuse whites work best. As a check, use the Colour Sampler Tool to place a few markers in any spots that you think should be a colour-neutral grey: once you’ve corrected the white balance, these spots should have ‘equal’ R, G and B values (such as R120, G120, B120 or R30, G30, B30).
Tip 6 Rescue highlight detail
Digital cameras are much more sensitive to highlight information than film was and often capture detail even in areas that seem burnt-out. You can often pull back detail from blown highlights using the Recovery slider. First enable the highlight clipping display by pressing O (for ‘overexposed’): clipped highlights will show up in the image as red, but they might be clipped in only one or two channels, with detail you can rescue in the remaining channel(s).
Make any larger-scale exposure correction with the Exposure slider, then nudge the Recovery slider to the right and watch for any remaining red overlay to disappear. Take it gently – Recovery adjustments can darken other, correctly-exposed highlight tones, dulling the image down and causing it to look flat, so you might just need to live with some highlight clipping.
Tip 7 Fix tricky exposures
In bright conditions, capturing a perfect exposure can be all but impossible: expose for the sky, and the ground will end up deep in shadow; expose for the foreground, and the sky will be blown out.
If you’ve not got a graduated ND lens filter with you, one solution is to try ACR’s targeted sliders back in the digital darkroom: Exposure and Recovery to adjust highlights and brighter midtones, then the Blacks and Fill Light sliders for the shadows.
The latter two sliders are relatively blunt instruments, though, and ACR’s Tone Curve (available if you’re running ACR under Photoshop) is a much more precise way of adjusting parts of the tonal range selectively (for more on this technique, see How to fix bleached out skies in Photoshop).
Tip 8 Give your shots an edge
Vignetting is very common when using wide-angle lenses, particularly at extreme settings – at the widest angles of view. Although vignetting is often regarded as a flaw, it’s also sometimes added as a popular creative effect to ‘frame’ an image and draw attention where it’s wanted in wedding portraits, for example (see our free wedding photography cheat sheet), but can be just as tricky to control in-camera as it is difficult to avoid when you’re out shooting a sweeping landscape.
The digital darkroom gives you much more control, so whether you want to remove the effect or add it, try the sliders under ACR’s Lens Corrections tab – the Post Crop variant gives you extra control over the vignette shape and extent.
Photo Editing: add impact to your images
Whether you want to adjust colours or tones in your image or convert it to black and white, we’ll show you how to do so with more precision and more flexibility. Key to this is using Adjustment Layers, which enable you to apply a wide range of adjustments and effects to an image without irretrievably altering its pixel content, which means you can hide or remove the effect at any time.
Click the black and white ‘half-moon’ button in the Layers Palette to view the list of edits you can apply as Adjustment Layers (learn more about mono conversion with The black and white landscape).
Tip 9 Removable adjustments
Many edits or commands applied from the Image>Adjustments sub-menu – will alter the pixel content of your image permanently. If you change your mind, the only way to undo them is to step back in the History. The ‘non-destructive’ alternative is to use Adjustment Layers, which enable you to apply Levels, Hue/Saturation and many other edits on separate Layers.
Just as a red Cellophane overlay will make a photo print appear red without actually recolouring it, Adjustment Layers ‘lie on top’ of an image and change its appearance without altering it permanently – which means you can discard the adjustment at any time, hide it temporarily, or even revisit it to tweak its settings.
If you want to try out alternative effects, you can group Adjustment Layers and hide or show whole groups at a time to help you decide between them.
Tip 10 Mono with impact
A great black and white image isn’t just a colour shot with the colour removed. Each of the colour channels within the photo contains a slightly different version of the image – there might be more contrast in the red channel, for example, or a greater tonal range in the green.
The secret to a great mono conversion is to make the most of this tonal richness by mixing the info from the various channels to suit the image or the result you have in mind. Photoshop’s Channel Mixer was the traditional tool for this, but there’s now the option of a Black & White adjustment Layer.
You can use the sliders to add or subtract information from each channel or pairs of channels, apply a selection of presets and then fine-tune them, or click in your image to pinpoint the exact tones you want to adjust, then drag left or right to lighten or darken them.
Tip 11 Master tone control
The Curves dialog within Photoshop is almost identical to the version in Adobe Camera Raw but has one distinct advantage. In the top left corner of the Curves dialog you will see a small hand and arrow icon, On-Image adjustment tool.
Once clicked you can drag the cursor over the image and instantly see where the tones in the image relate to the curve – click and drag the mouse up or down those tones will lighten or darken. You can place up to 14 of these control points on the curve, but two or three is usually enough.
Tip 12 Canny colour control
Photoshop gives you extensive control over the colours in an image. Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment Layer and you can alter the saturation or intensity of all the colours or a selected range of colours, make them lighter or darker, or even make the blues a touch more green.
The problem is, though, if you want to give washed-out reds more punch, it’s hard not to push more intense reds too far, even if you try to restrict the effect by using selections.
A great alternative is the Vibrance slider. It applies ‘non-linear’ adjustments, which means less-saturated pixels get more of a boost than already intense ones, and vice-versa when you’re reducing saturation.
This enables you to boost or subdue colours with less risk of clipping or posterisation – and it boasts skin tone protection to prevent you turning portrait subjects ‘sunburnt’ or deathly pale.
Photo Editing: how to retouch photos creatively
Retouching is the first thing that leaps to many people’s minds when they hear the word ‘Photoshop’, but as so often, there’s more than one way to re-skin a virtual cat.
The handest tip to remember is always to retouch on a separate Layer: either make a selection around the area you want to work on and float it to a new Layer by pressing Ctrl-J, or simply add a new blank Layer and enable your retouching tools’ Sample All Layers or Current & Below option.
Your retouching will take place on a Layer of its own, which you can hide, blend or mask as required – use these expert techniques to make them more precise and subtle.
Tip 13 Make more of masks
The principles of masks are that black areas of a mask conceal corresponding areas of the image content of that Layer, and white areas reveal them.
For more subtle effects, bear in mind that grey areas of the mask partially conceal the image content or adjustment – the darker the grey, the more they conceal it.
Want to check how your image looks with and without the mask? Hold down Shift and click the mask thumbnail to toggle it off temporarily; Shift-click it again to reactivate it.
Alt-click on the mask thumbnail to view the mask itself instead of the image in the main window – great for working on detail or fine-tuning, particularly touching-up grey partially-masked areas.
Tip 14 Self blends
In summertime landscape photos, the distant background often looks hazy and ‘washed out’. Here’s a simple but highly controllable alternative to separate exposure and contrast adjustments. Duplicate the Background Layer and change the blending mode of the new Layer to Overlay – this adds contrast and boosts the colours.The effect can be a little extreme, though, so reduce the Layer opacity as necessary.
Alternatively, add a Levels adjustment Layer, OK the dialog without touching any settings, and change the Layer Blending mode to Multiply to darken the image, or Screen to lighten it.
Adjust opacity to fine-tune – if you’re used to thinking in photographic terms and want to be very precise, an opacity of exactly 38% has the same effect as adjusting exposure by a full f-stop; 19% is equivalent to a half-stop adjustment, about 13% one-third of a stop, 76% two stops (as here), and so on. Localise the effect by painting on the Layer mask.
Tip 15 Preserve detail
The key to success in retouching is often knowing when to clone and when to heal. Both sets of tools lay down pixels sampled from elsewhere, but the healing tools then additionally blend these pixels into their new surroundings, and this invariably has the effect of blurring or distorting detail, so if preserving detail is important then the Clone Stamp is your best bet.
The Spot Healing Brush is usually the fastest option for removing dust spots and similar blemishes from areas of relatively uniform colour and tone such as clear blue skies, but even with this tool, clicking instead of brushing will often help preserve subtle tones and detail.
Bear in mind that not only Layers but also brush-based tools can be set to different blending modes, altering their behaviour: set the Clone Stamp to Lighten mode, for example, and it will replace only pixels that are darker than the colours you’ve sampled.
This is fantastic for cloning away distractions behind a blonde-haired portrait subject: sample areas darker than the hair and the tool won’t affect it.
Tip 16 Smarter dodging and burning
Photoshop’s Dodge and Burn Tools can be invaluable for those localised contrast tweaks that give an image more punch and depth, but before you get stuck in with either tool, make sure you set the Exposure to no more than 5 per cent – any more and you’ll quickly see a marked loss in image quality.
Work carefully – the effects of these tools are cumulative, so avoid going over the same area repeatedly. For gentle changes, avoid working in the midtones: if you’re using the Dodge Tool, set Range to Highlights so you lighten only light tones; if using the Burn Tool, set Range to Shadows so you darken primarily dark tones.
Alternatively, try using the Brush Tool set to Soft Light mode and a low Opacity (say 10 per cent): paint with a large, soft brush using any colour lighter than 50 per cent grey to lighten (dodge) areas, and any colour darker than 50 per cent grey to darken (burn).
Photo Editing: get a perfect finish
Have you ever taken some time, and possibly quite a bit of trouble, to get a photograph spot-on, only to then face having to adjust another dozen or more from the same shoot? If you’re using Adobe Camera Raw, you can open multiple images in Filmstrip mode and then click Synchronize to copy any or all of the adjustments you’ve made on one image and apply them to the others.
In Photoshop it’s possible to drag adjustment Layers from one image onto another. Alternatively, you can record a sequence of edits as an Action and then apply them to other images, one by one or all together using the File>Automate>Batch commands.
Tip 17 Automated edits
Photoshop offers automation options to save you time, avoid tedious repetition or ensure consistent adjustments to multiple images: you can record a sequence of edits and commands as an Action. Simply click the Create New Action button in the Actions palette, give the Action a name (or double-click it afterwards to do this), hit Record, work through the edits, and click Stop when done.
You can then ‘play’ the Action at any time to apply the edits to any image (but do be wary – don’t record a Save As, for instance, or you’ll save over the same file every time you run the Action). You can assign a keystroke shortcut to play your Action, either when you create it or afterwards by selecting Action Options in the Actions palette menu.
Tip 18 Pin-sharp pictures
Digital photos often turn out a bit less sharp than you expect – particularly raw files. You might not notice this on-screen, though, unless you zoom in to 100 per cent (or more) and check specifically – most images will probably look a little soft.
Photo-editing can have a further softening effect, so it’s good practice to apply some sharpening as the final step in the editing process. All sharpening risks exacerbating (or even introducing) image noise, but Unsharp Mask’s Threshold control can help offset this, making this filter still a great first option.
Smart Sharpen lacks a Threshold control; but conversely, if you click the Advanced button, it does enable you to ‘fade’ or pull back the sharpening effect in Shadow areas, where noise is likely to be lurking, or apply different settings in the Highlights to make them ‘pop’.
Tip 19 Save those trees!
As well as new tools and features, CS4 introduced some pretty fundamental changes to Photoshop, such as a completely new way of adjusting tone or other characteristics of an image by clicking and dragging left and right (to learn more about the new CS6 package, see Photoshop CS6: 20 things you need to know).
Oddly, though, as if to offset these new gains, some of those extras that we’ve been used to for years in Photoshop have now been omitted from the standard install. Some will go unmissed, but others are pretty useful and well worth taking the trouble to restore.
Among the latter group is Picture Package. To get this back you’ll need to dip into the Goodies folder on your Photoshop install disc or locate the files in the Adobe Downloads website. Once installed, Picture Package enables you to arrange multiple images (or a single image repeated) on one sheet of paper.
This is not only a smart way of getting the most economical use out of a sheet of expensive photo paper; it’s also great if you want to print the same photo in a variety of different sizes – with a family portrait, say, you might want a large print to frame, a small one for your wallet, plus mid-size copies you can send to far-flung relatives.
Tip 20 Go online
These days you’re more likely to want to share your photos electronically than on paper. Photoshop can help you create a complete photo gallery site of your own from scratch.
Start by putting copies of all the images you want to include in a folder or selecting them all in Bridge, then go to File>Automate>Web Photo Gallery (or Tools>Photoshop>Web Photo Gallery in Bridge).
Choose a basic layout for your site from the Styles pop-up menu, and your choice will be previewed at the right of the dialog (though only at thumbnail size). Select a location for your site files, then work your way through the Options panels one by one; finally, click OK to have Photoshop create your site for you.
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