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4 Photoshop Tools Every Photographer Should Know


When it comes to photo-editing programs, one of the most popular among both amateur and professional photographers alike is Adobe Photoshop. While it can appear more complex than Lightroom, and certainly takes more time to learn all of its tricks, Photoshop offers four post-processing tools that come in handy for retouching images. These tools are pretty easy to locate and implement, and in this article I’ll show you how they work, specifically while retouching the image of the Space Needle in Seattle (below). I have the privilege of having this view from my home office, but the problem is that if I take a photo using anything but a telephoto lens, I get telephone pole remnants and wires in my otherwise pretty cityscape image.

Here are the four Photoshop tools I use to retouch my Space Needle images. There are of course other ways to retouch this image to achieve the same or even better results, but these are quick and easy methods that also highlight essential Photoshop skills.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

Before we do anything to modify Photoshop images, the first thing to note is that within Photoshop, you can cause permanent changes to the pixels and details of your photos if you’re not careful. This is why you always want to make sure you are performing nondestructive editing so that you don’t overwrite the original image data.

There are several ways to do this in PhotoShop. For the tools I’m about to show you, the best technique for nondestructive editing will be to work within an adjustment layer or retouch on a separate layer. You can create a new layer by clicking on the New Layer icon on the bottom of the Layers panel. Repeat this every time before you employ a new editing process on your image and be sure to double click on the layer and rename it to help you remember what editing process you did on that layer.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

1. Spot Healing Brush

First of all, let’s tackle those thin, yet annoying, power lines in the upper left corner of the image. To start, we’ll use the Spot Healing Brush. One of three image healing tools that Photoshop offers, this brush creates a seamless repair to your image by replacing unwanted textures of the image with good textures from another area.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

To use it, head over to the Tools panel and select the Spot Healing Brush. It will be grouped together with other healing and patching tools. Be sure the Sample All Layers option is checked on the upper Options bar, as well as Content Aware (Photoshop versions CS5 or later) or Proximity Match (Photoshop CS4 or earlier). Next, zoom into the image’s problem area and click (or click and drag) on the areas you want to replace or heal. To adjust the size of the brush, press the left ([) and right (]) bracket keys on your keyboard. If you make a mistake, just hit Ctrl+Z (on Windows) or Command+Z (on Mac) to undo. In this example, I clicked and dragged the Spot Healing Brush across those thin power lines to erase them.

In this example, I clicked and dragged the Spot Healing Brush across those thin power lines to erase them, which is the quickest way of using it. However, be careful when attempting to spot heal in large chunks particularly near high-contrast edges, since some areas can appear improperly blended. For the sake of accuracy, a more effective approach could be using the spot healing brush to heal smaller chunks of the image, rather than attempting to heal the entire area in one go.

Other important settings to be mindful of are the Size and Hardness of the brush, which can be adjusted per the settings panel pictured below. Since the Healing Brush automatically blends pixels, it’s best to choose a higher Hardness value for best results.

Cloning Tool Settings

2. Clone Stamp Tool

Another alternative way to getting rid of the power lines is to use another Photoshop essential: the Clone Stamp tool, which is used for pixel-to-pixel cloning. Like the Spot Healing Brush, this tool can be used to replace unwanted areas of an image, but unlike the Healing Brush, it won’t do automatic content-aware blending. The Clone Stamping is best used to duplicate an item or pattern, remove a brand logo, or remove power lines, which is what I’m going to do in this example.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

To use the Clone Stamp tool, first create a new layer and then select the Clone Stamp tool from the tool bar. This tool works similarly to the Spot Healing Brush, but before you begin clicking away, position your cursor over the area you want to clone from and Alt-click (on Windows) or Option-click (on Mac) to define and sample the source of the clone. Be sure to re-sample and re-define as many clone sources as needed to provide a seamless cloning result.

Be sure to re-sample and re-define as many clone sources as needed to provide a seamless cloning result. To make sure the result appears realistic, it is important to zoom in and make sure the same pattern is not being cloned over and over again. Per the same settings as the Spot Healing Brush, be mindful of the Size and Hardness settings that you choose as these will determine how accurately the Cloning Tool samples and clones layers. When cloning an area with lots of patterns and details, it’s sometimes best to work with a low Hardness value and low cloning opacity for smoother results.

3. Magic Wand

Next, let’s get rid of the remnant of a telephone pole in the right hand side of the image. The easiest way to eliminate it would be a simple crop, but another way is to select and replace it using the Magic Wand Tool. This is one of Photoshop’s oldest selection tools and it causes many a photographer joy or suffering. The Magic Wand is incredibly easy to use, requiring just a click of its icon in the tool bar, followed by clicking on the area of the image that you want to select. Here’s where things can get complicated. The Magic Wand selects pixels based on tone and color, which means it has the tendency to select more areas of the image than you initially want. The simplest way to fix this is to play around with Tolerance in the Options bar. If the Magic Wand is selecting too much of an area, simply input a smaller value of Tolerance and then reselect the area.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

4. Content-Aware Fill

After the proper area of the telephone pole is selected, it’s time to fill in that area. Hit Shift+Delete on the keyboard, and the below pop-up box will appear. Make sure Content-Aware is selected, then press OK; Photoshop will then sample pixels in the surrounding area and fill in the selected area accordingly. The results may not be perfect, and this is where the aforementioned Spot Healing Brush and Clone Stamp tools can come in handy to make the filled in area more seamless.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

The final retouched image can be seen below. Using the Spot Healing Brush, Clone Stamp, Quick Selection and Content-Aware fill, the telephone lines in the upper left corner have been removed, as well as the remnant of the pole on the right-hand side.

5 basic photoshop tools for photographers

In this brief tutorial, I’ve introduced several very important tools that all photographers should be familiar with, but it’s also important to note that I haven’t explained every possible use of them. There are many other practical and creative ways to use these tools, and I encourage you to do further research to learn more about them. But for the sake of doing quick edits and getting familiar with the tools, these are approachable ways to get started.

Read more from our Post Production category

Suzi Pratt is an internationally published freelance event, concert, and architectural photographer based in Seattle. Her photos appear regularly in Eater and Getty Images. When she isn't shooting photos, Suzi can be found designing websites and marketing strategies for creative clients and working on her blog.

  • Pro Photographer

    Although I know photoshop inside out, the article here is great for beginners and is well written and every took is explained perfectly.

    The example images sh w what can be achieved with a little work that isn’t oveely taxing on the newcomers brains!

    I would have personally explained the patch tool as well for the power lines, just as another option.

  • Been using my rudimentary PS skills for close to 15 years and the magic wand has always been my weakness. Finally a good explanation that I can understand.

  • Bici

    The one should hit Shift+Backspace and not Shift+Delete to get the dialogue box for Content-Aware Fill

  • Pro Photographer

    No. It is Shift-Delete. Suzi is right.

  • Keith Whitaker

    Nice tutorial Klaus. Glad to see other people using non-destructive editing. I’ve been teaching this to my students for years. Now if I could only get people I’ve worked with the use this method. :^

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  • Carmen Anderson

    seriously, I find it too hard to learn… I would need one on one practical instruction, to learn in action… watching vids or reading is too hard for me… I have tried to figure it out on my own, but I find PS so unfriendly to a newbie user, that I have almost given up on it……….. thank you for your brilliant tutorials… it is not you, it is me……. kinetic learning, I think they call it…. I need to go on an intensive course lol

  • Gianandrea Uggetti

    You’ll hate it soon enough 😀

  • Actually Bici is right lol, go try it. Might be different on Mac but PC it is Shift+Backspace.

  • sathish
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