In the days before digital imaging, if you truly wanted to elevate your photography to the level of art, you learned how to process your images in the darkroom. You learned dodging, burning, masking, sandwiching negatives, flashing and fogging – all designed to get the most out of your images, and deliver your artistic vision to your viewers.
With the advent of digital imaging, photographers have a new way to bring their artistic vision to life, known as the digital darkroom. While there are several different applications available for photographers, one has become synonymous with photo editing, and that is Adobe Photoshop.
Many of the tools in Photoshop can trace their origins to the wet darkroom of yesteryear. If you’re new to Photoshop, it can seem overwhelming the first time you open an image in the program. I’ve created this list of six must-know Photoshop tools to help you get started editing your images. These aren’t by any means the only tools needed, and there are of course tools within the tools to figure out, but this list should give you some idea of where to start. The great thing about most tools in Photoshop is that there are a lot of sliders, meaning you can experiment and see what each tool does, then undo it if you don’t like it.
1 – Adobe Camera Raw
It is my personal belief that if you aren’t photographing RAW images, you are doing yourself a disservice as a photographer. When you allow your camera to process your image into a JPEG, you are throwing out potentially critical information from your image. You are trusting your camera to make creative decisions for you about the color, contrast, tone, and more, with regards to your image.
To get the most out of your image, you’ll want to set your camera to capture the image as a RAW file. A RAW file contains unprocessed, uncompressed, grayscale data from your camera’s image sensor, as well as metadata about how the image was captured. Adobe Camera RAW is the plugin for Adobe PhotoShop that can take this information and process a color image.
When you open a RAW image in Adobe Camera RAW, you’ll be presented with a toolbar across the top, and a tool palette on the right side. The tool palette is divided into 10 tabs: Basic, Tone Curve, Detail, HSL/Grayscale, Split Toning, Lens Corrections, Effects, Camera Calibration, Presets, and Snapshots. The tabs I use most in my workflow are Basic, Lens Corrections, Effects, and Camera Calibration.
The beauty of a RAW file is that you can change the settings using the sliders, and other tools, as often as you like. If you don’t like what you’ve done, or you want to try something different, you can always revert the image back to the original settings, and the file is the same as it was when you downloaded it from your camera. Don’t be afraid to play with the sliders and see what they do. You can’t ruin the RAW file, so you might as well see what everything does. For more on using Adobe Camera Raw, check out Understanding the Basic Sliders In Adobe Camera Raw.
2 – Layers and Layer Masks
I consider this number 2a and 2b. If you’re going to learn layers, you’re going to have to learn layer masks as well. In Photoshop, one of the first things you’ll notice when you open an image is the Layers Palette on the right side of the screen. Initially, it will likely only have one layer called “Background” which contains your image. You can add new layers as needed. You can also add empty layers which will allow you paint, draw, or copy portions of the image below onto them, and you can use layers to create a composite from multiple images. Layers can be adjusted to different opacities using the opacity slider at the top of the palette, so they can be made partially translucent which allows the layers underneath to show through.
In addition, you can create layer masks, which allow you show or hide portions of a layer, and allow you to see the layer or layers beneath. You do this simply by painting with black on the layer mask to hide that part of the layer, or painting white to show that part of the layer.
Layers give you room for quite a bit of creativity, allowing you to edit areas of an image non-destructively. If you don’t like what you did, simply delete the layer and start over. You can sandwich together two separate images, much the way you’d sandwich negatives in a wet darkroom, and create photo composites. For more on using layers, read A Beginner’s Introduction to Using Layers.
3 – Blend Modes
As mentioned above, the Opacity Slider allows you to blend the active layer with the layers beneath. The Blend Modes, found in a drop-down menu to the left of the Opacity Slider, work in a similar fashion, but use different mathematical calculations to change the appearance of the layer being blended for different things. For instance, if you simply duplicate the image on a new layer and set the Blend Mode to: Multiply it will darken the image by about a stop, and Screen Blend Mode will lighten the image by a stop. If you create a layer on top of your image with black text inside a white box, using Multiply will eliminate the white box, and allow the layer below to show through. Screen will do the opposite (see image above).
As of Adobe Photoshop CC 2015, there are 27 Blend Modes. The two modes I noted above are ones I use often, usually adjusting the opacity slider as well to get to my final look. Knowing what each mode does will help in choosing which one to use for your particular purpose. Darren Rowse put together a great tutorial, An Introduction To Blend Modes In Photoshop to give you a more in depth look at Blend Modes. You can also check out The First 3 Blend Modes You Need to Understand.
4 – Adjustment Layers
Photoshop Adjustment Layers are a great way make changes to an image, without actually changing the original file. It’s an easy way to try things, such as adjusting contrast or saturation, so that you can go back and change it again later – as long as you’ve kept the layers in tact by saving as a PSD or a TIFF file, formats that both support layers.
There are 19 different adjustment layers, which can be combined to create different effects on your image. Some basic uses are color adjustment, contrast adjustment, saturation, and black and white conversion. In addition, you can use Layer Masks to apply the effects in specific areas only, rather than the entire image, if you so choose. You can also adjust the Opacity of an adjustment layer to reduce the effect of the adjustment on your image.
Adjustment layers provide a ton of flexibility when editing an image, without forcing you into a change that can’t be undone easily. For more on Adjustment Layers, check out Photoshop: Applying Fixes using Adjustment Layers and Masks and Burning and Dodging with Adjustment Layers and Layer Masks.
5 – The Spot Healing Brush
The Spot Healing Brush is one of the primary retouching tools in Photoshop, allowing you to remove blemishes and errors, or other parts of your photos. In the digital age, the bane of all photographers’ existence is dust on the imaging sensor, and the Spot Healing Brush provides a quick and easy way of removing those fromyour images. The Spot Healing brush works similarly to the Cloning Stamp tool, in that it samples from one area of the image to correct other areas.
The Spot Healing Brush automatically detects the content or texture of the surrounding area, and attempts to replicate it wherever you click in the image. There are several options to work with which appear at the top of the screen. These include brush size and hardness, Blending Mode, and the type of fix you want to use, such as Content Aware, Create Texture, or Proximity Match. Each image will have different needs, depending on the content, so it’s best to experiment with the various settings if you find you’re not happy with the results you’re getting.
The Clone Stamp Tool
As I mentioned above, the Clone Stamp Tool and the Spot Healing Brush are similar in that they are both used for retouching images, and both use sampled areas of the existing image. The Clone Stamp, however, allows you to select the area from which to sample by holding the Command key and clicking (on Mac) or CTRL and click (on Windows), and creates an exact copy of the area you sample. Then you simply click on the area you want clone out and a copy of the area you sampled appears.
Again you have some options at the top of your screen, including Blend Modes, Opacity, and whether or not to sample a specific layer, or use all layers. You can also change the edge hardness and size of the stamp. The clone stamp works well when you have a well-defined edge to maintain, such as the wall of a building. The Healing Brush tries to blend edges, which can cause a blurred mess when you really need a clean edge. For more on using the Clone Stamp, head over to 12 Tips for Mastering the Clone Stamp Tool in Photoshop
These six tools in Photoshop are my go-to tools for editing my images. I would estimate that about 90% of my image editing is done using these tools. What are some of your tried and true Photoshop tools?