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.
But with the advent of digital imaging, photographers have a new way to bring their artistic vision to life: the digital darkroom. Adobe Photoshop, in particular, is an extremely powerful program for processing images; that’s why it’s used by photographers of all stripes, including world-class professionals.
Photoshop is highly capable, but it’s not exactly beginner-friendly. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you first open an image in the program, and even once you’ve familiarized yourself with the Photoshop layout, you may miss quite a few key tools that have the potential to revolutionize your editing workflow.
Below, I share a list of six must-know Photoshop tools to help you get started editing your images. They aren’t the only tools you need, but the list should give you some idea of where to start. So if you’re ready to really commit to post-processing, then let’s dive right in, starting with:
1. Adobe Camera Raw
It is my personal belief that if you aren’t shooting in RAW, you’re doing yourself a disservice as a photographer. When you allow your camera to convert your image into a JPEG at the moment of capture, you’re throwing out potentially critical data. You are trusting your camera to make creative decisions about the color, contrast, tone, and more, when you might later change your mind completely.
To get the most out of your image, you’ll need to instead 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.
And then, once you open the RAW photo in Photoshop, the program will automatically launch Adobe Camera Raw, a sort of plugin that you can use to effectively process the image data.
When you open a RAW image in Adobe Camera Raw, you’ll be presented with a tool palette on the right-hand side. It’ll be divided into nine tabs: Basic, Curve, Detail, Color Mixer, Color Grading, Optics, Geometry, Effects, and Calibration. The tabs I use most in my workflow are Basic, Optics, Effects, and Calibration, but you’re free to experiment with literally any tab, slider, or tool.
The beauty of using a processor like Adobe Camera Raw file is that you can apply various effects 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 will be the same as it was when you downloaded it from your camera.
So 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 have fun!
By the way, after you’ve processed your RAW file using ACR and taken it into the main Photoshop interface, you can always regain access to the RAW processor’s tools by selecting Filter>Camera Raw Filter.
2. Layers and Layer Masks
Technically, these are two separate tools, but 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, containing your image.
But you can then add new layers as needed. You have a wide variety of options, including adjustment layers (which I discuss in detail later on in this article) and image layers. You can also add empty layers, which allow you to paint, draw, or copy portions of the image below onto them, and you can also 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 (allowing the layers underneath to show through).
Once you understand the concept of layers, you can create layer masks; these show or hide portions of a layer and allow you to see the layer or layers beneath. You simply paint black on the layer mask to hide that portion of the layer or paint white to make sure that portion of the layer shines through.
Layers give you room for quite a bit of creativity and let you edit areas of an image non-destructively. If you don’t like a layer’s effect, you can simply delete the layer and start over. Additionally, you can sandwich together two separate images – much the way you’d sandwich negatives in a wet darkroom – to create photo composites.
3. Blend modes
As I 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 they use various mathematical calculations to change the appearance of the layer being blended.
For instance, if you simply duplicate an image and set the Blend Mode to Multiply, it will darken the image by about a stop; Screen blend mode, on the other hand, 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 the image above!).
Photoshop currently offers 27 blend modes. The two modes I noted above are ones I use often (I tend to also adjust the opacity slider to get to my final look). Knowing what each mode does will help you choose which one to use for your particular purpose, so either read up on the different options or spend a good hour or two experimenting!
4. Adjustment layers
I’ve already discussed the importance of layers, but adjustment layers are so powerful that they deserve a section of their own.
You see, adjustment layers are a great way to make standard edits – such as saturation boosts or tonal changes – without actually modifying the original file. They’re an easy way to make modifications that you can go back and change again later as needed (as long as you’ve kept the layers intact, that is, by saving the file as a PSD or TIFF).
There are 19 different adjustment layers, which can be combined to create different effects. Some basic layer uses include color adjustment, contrast adjustment, saturation, and black-and-white conversion. In addition, you can use layer masks to apply the effects to specific areas rather than to the entire. And you can adjust the opacity of an adjustment layer to reduce the intensity of the effect.
Adjustment layers provide a ton of flexibility without forcing you to make a change that can’t be easily undone easily!
5. The Spot Healing Brush tool
The Spot Healing Brush is one of the primary retouching tools in Photoshop; it allows you to quickly and effectively remove blemishes and errors from your photos. In the digital age, the bane of all photographers’ existence is dust on the imaging sensor, and the Spot Healing Brush tool makes quick work of any dust-spot-related issues. Note that the Spot Healing Brush works similarly to the Clone 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 areas and attempts to replicate it wherever you click in the image. There are several ways to fine-tune the effect, all of which appear at the top of the screen. These include brush size and hardness, blend mode, and the type of fix you want to use (i.e., Content Aware, Create Texture, or Proximity Match). Each image will have different needs depending on the content, so if you’re not happy with the results you’re getting, it’s best to experiment with the various settings.
6. The Clone Stamp tool
The Clone Stamp tool and the Spot Healing Brush tool are both used for retouching images, and both work with the sampled areas of the existing image. Clone Stamp, however, allows you to select the area from which to sample by holding the Ctrl/Cmd key and clicking; it then creates an exact copy of the sampled area. Then you can simply click on the area you want to clone out and a copy of the area you sampled will appear.
You have various options for adjusting the effect, including blend modes, an opacity slider, and the layer(s) you’d like to sample. You can also change the edge hardness and size of the tool. The Clone Stamp tool is particularly effective when you have a well-defined edge to maintain, such as the wall of a building. (The Healing Brush tool tries to blend edges, which can cause a blurred mess.)
Essential Photoshop tools: final words
The six tools shared above are my go-to options for editing in Photoshop. In fact, I’d estimate that about 90% of my post-processing is done using those tools.
Yes, Photoshop offers dozens, even hundreds more options – but if you can master the tools I’ve shared, you’ll be off to a great start.
Now over to you:
What are your favorite Photoshop tools? Which of these tools do you plan to use first? Share your thoughts in the comments below!