Photoshop has a legend status amongst photographers for processing photos. It is powerful, and almost anything you could imagine is possible to do in Photoshop. However, the vast amount of features, tools, and panels, can be very intimidating when you open up Photoshop for the first time. In this free guide to Photoshop for photographers, you will get to know the tools and features in Photoshop that are relevant to you as a photographer, and not all the other stuff, that you don’t need.
While Photoshop offers a Lightroom-like interface with the Adobe Camera Raw, I wrote this tutorial to help you get comfortable with using Photoshop for processing your photos. Photoshop is capable of so much more special edits than for instance Lightroom. Even though you might do 95% of your image processing in Lightroom, for the last 10% finishing touches, you will probably need to use Photoshop. To do this without fumbling your way around, it is good to have a little confidence in using Photoshop.
First-time users can check this guide to Photoshop’s user interface and tools, before reading this guide.
Below you will get to know the different basic but essential photo editing features within Photoshop. Each tool have more features than what we can cover in this guide, but we need to get comfortable using a tool before we can master it, right?
Begin by opening a photo, by hitting CMD+O (Mac) / CTRL+O (Win). Select a photo that you are comfortable playing with (don’t use the original, if you intend to keep it).
Let’s get started with looking at the essential skills and tools you need to learn to get comfortable using Photoshop for photo editing.
To crop your photo in Photoshop, you should use the crop tool . Before you crop, you should consider, what the purpose is. Do you want to remove unwanted objects from the photo, get closer to the subject or change the proportions of the photo?
Use the options bar at the top to modify what you want the crop tool to do when cropping your photos. You can change the ratio to a preset format (like 1:1, 2:3) or enter the value in pixels (4000px x 2000px). If you don’t set a ratio you can crop freely to get the composition and format that you prefer.
With the crop tool selected you can simply drag a selection of what you want to keep. Left-click and drag the mouse cursor from the upper left corner down to what you want to be the bottom right corner, and release the mouse. The crop tool will darken everything outside the selection (which will get cropped away) to give you a preview of how your photo will look after Photoshop has cropped it. Hit Enter to commit the changes and crop the photo to the new dimensions.
You can also use the crop tool to straighten the horizon like you can in Lightroom. With the crop selection active, move the mouse to the area just outside one of the corners. The cursor will then change to a bent arrow. Click here and drag up/down to rotate the image. If you take a look at the crop options bar above, you will also see a ruler icon, next to where it says straighten. Click it and choose two points on the horizon line (or any other line) that should be horizontal to make Photoshop automatically level the image according to the points you selected. This work just the same as the rotate and crop feature in Lightroom.
You can use guides in Photoshop to help you judge whether your image is distorted Left-click on the top ruler and drag down to get a guide and drop it on top of the horizon line or any other line, that is supposed to be straight. With the guide in place, you can easily see if you have distortion issues in your image. If you notice that the horizon line curves up in the middle or down near the end, your lens has distorted the photo. Wide-angle lenses, in particular, are prone to do this. However, you can easily fix it with the transform tool.
To correct it activate the free transform tool hit CMD+T (Mac) or CTRL+T (Win). You can also use the menu Edit > Free Transform.
Note that you cannot transform a background layer. However, in the layers panel, you can unlock the background layer by clicking on the padlock icon, making the background into a normal layer.
When the free transformation tool is activated a bounding box will appear around the edges of your photo.
Hold CMD (Mac) / CTRL (Win) and drag one of the corners to make the horizon line straight near the edges of the frames. You might have to do this to several of the corners to level out the distortion.
When you are finished, press Enter to commit the changes made with the free transform tool.
Note that using the transform tool will result in a slight loss in sharpness each time you use them/commit the changes because it rearranges the pixels in your photo. So try not to use these tool too many times. Instead, make all the transformation adjustments in one go, and then commit once.
Use the healing brush tool to remove sensor dust spots on your photo. When you shoot with a small aperture like f/16 or smaller, small specks of dust that is sitting on your camera sensor will show up as small circles or spots on your images. They are especially noticeable in areas that have more or less the same color, like water or in the sky or clouds. Anyway, it is easy to remove them with the healing brush tool. You can press J on your keyboard as a shortcut. Change the brush size, so it will cover the sensor spots and zoom in to go through the image area by area and click on any sensor dust you find, to remove it.
You can use an Exposure adjustment layer to modify how bright or dark your photo exposure is. This tool has the same slider measured in stops, that you know from Lightroom. You will find the Exposure adjustment layer in the adjustments layers panel on the right side of your screen.
In Photoshop you can boost the contrast in several ways. You can use a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer or you can use a Curves adjustment layer for more control. The Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer offers you a very simple way to adjust the tonal range of a photo, just like you would do in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.
In the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer, you can also use the Brightness slider to brighten up your image, just like you would use the exposure slider. However, the values for the brightness, however, is not measured in stops, as in Lightroom. The values for the brightness slider is -150 to +150. I’m not so technical , that I can explain the difference between using the brightness and exposure adjustment.
With the Levels adjustment layer, you can adjust the intensity of shadows, mid-tones, and highlights.
Click on the Levels icon in the adjustments panel at the right side of your screen. This will open up the levels panel, which shows a silhouette of the histogram for your image. In it, you can see how much image data you have in the shadow areas, the mid tones, and the highlight areas.
If the histogram is flat to the far left or to the far right, this means that there is nothing completely black or completely white in your image. Lacking the extreme tones means that your image might look a little flat. However, we can change this with the levels adjustment layer. Underneath the histogram, you will find three Levels Input sliders. Drag the (left) black Levels Input slider towards the middle to around the point where you can see values in the histogram. Also, move the white Levels Input slider towards the middle and stop at the point where you can see highlight values in the histogram. If you check the before and after you can see that the intensity of the black and white areas increased giving you a greater tonal contrast within your image.
Before applying highlights and shadows adjustments, I suggest that you duplicate the photo layer since this tool doesn’t work like the adjustment layers, that we have used so far. Hit CMD + J (Mac) / CTRL + J (Win) to make a copy of the active layer. This makes you work on a copy of the original layer, which enables you to go back to before adjusting the highlights or shadows.
To adjust the highlights and shadows, go to Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights. In the dialogue, you will see a slider for the shadows and the highlights. Click on the more button to get more options. The extra options give you a possibility to fine tune, how you want to modify the shadows and highlights. You can adjust how much of the shadows you want to modify with the tonal width slider (called Tone in the dialogue). The smaller amount you set for the Shadow Tonal Width slider the more you restrict shadow changes to only affect the darkest shadow areas.
If you find that the adjustments brighten / darken the whole area, try to lower the Radius slider. Below you can see the effect of recovering the shadow areas using a Shadows/Highlights adjustment in Photoshop.
To add saturation you could use a hue/saturation adjustment layer. However, you could easily overdo the saturation with this tool.
Instead, I suggest that you use a vibrance adjustment layer instead. You can push the saturation slider in a vibrance adjustment layer, much further without overdoing it. You can also use the vibrance slider to boost the non-skin tones. This will push the blue and green colors more than the red colors, given a more natural saturation.
Adding a little bit of sharpening benefits most images. You can add a subtle pre-sharpening in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw before you open your image in Photoshop. However, if you want to add sharpening in Photoshop, there are several ways to do this. One of the methods is to go use Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen. Here you can select the sharpening amount and the radius. Keep the radius below between 0.8 and 1.0. Next, move the amount slider to the left and right to see where you get the best result. Keep an eye out for halos appearing at the edges of your subject. If they do, you have pushed the amount to far to the right. Back up a bit for the best result.
In the Smart Sharpen dialogue, you also have the option to reduce noise. Generally, removing noise goes well together with the sharpening process, because sharpening adds noise to your image. When removing noise in the same process, you can more easily balance the sharpness added and the noise amount to reduce.
Above we have covered some of the most basic and often used tools within Photoshop. As you probably noticed many of the tools are grouped together in the adjustment layers panel, while a few is hidden in the menus. One of the hardest things to get used to in Photoshop is that everything is tool oriented with a lot of options instead of just pushing a few sliders around. However, the number of options are also the strength of using Photoshop. If you know your way around, you can achieve anything. Hopefully, this guide will help you a small step on the way to mastering Photoshop.
If you are comfortable with the above features of Photoshop, why not extend your skills by reading part 2 of this guide to Photo editing in Photoshop.