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How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Do you struggle to know what to do with your images in post-processing? Do you know where to start with photo editing? Can you relate to this?

Image: Before and after photo editing.

Before and after photo editing.

I recently received a message for help from another photographer, “I’m so frustrated with Photoshop. I don’t know what to do or where to even start!?!?” So I asked, “What’s the plan? What are you trying to achieve?” His reply, “I’m not sure…”.

The uncomfortable truth is that we’ve all been there. Staring at Photoshop wondering which of its tools will achieve the look we’re so desperately trying to replicate. You try clicking on every button, using every tool and creating 1000 different layers to add complexity to your image under the illusion that this will instantly make it awesome.

Frustrated, you give up. And if you’re anything like me, you probably walk into the kitchen, open the pantry and look for answers inside a packet of cookies.

This overwhelming hurdle of frustration can cause you to stumble, fall out of love with editing and certainly begin to make everything feel too hard and unachievable. In this tutorial, I’ll show you a very simple technique that will have you soaring over this hurdle so you can continue on your journey to craft beautiful images.

Image: After some thoughtful and carefully planned out photo editing.

After some thoughtful and carefully planned out photo editing.

It’s all in the preparation

It doesn’t take long for the process of editing in Photoshop to feel chaotic.

It’s easy to take a look at your photo and instantly get to work by creating a layer on top of layer targeting all sorts of adjustments as you see them. Add a bit of contrast here, some brightness there, sharpen this up and blur that… It’s fast. It’s reactive.

Before you know it, you’ll have curves in places you didn’t know you had and more level adjustments than an ergonomic office chair.

You may find yourself stumbling your way through the edit, the process will probably feel a little clunky but you’ll be somewhat happy with the outcome until you click on the next photo. Where the whole process starts again and you don’t know what to do, where to start, and worst of all – you’ve run out of cookies.

What happens if we remove the chaos?

Creating beautiful images is a craft. And much like any craft, a lot of unsexy work goes into the preparation before the fun stuff starts happening.

  • Landscape photographers spend their time scouting locations, researching where the sun will set (or rise) and studying the weather before they venture out at 4 am to capture the magic.
  • Quality chefs spend hours sourcing and preparing their ingredients before they serve their masterpieces.
  • Painters clean, dust and prime their brushes and canvas before bringing their vision to life.
  • Authors spend hours creating a structure and a content plan before putting pen to paper.
  • Builders draw up blueprints and intricate floor plans before laying bricks and building houses.

Preparation is the key to delivering the best possible final version of your craft. Preparation sets up the foundations from which you can begin to form consistency and style, and it helps you focus and stay on track.

So, what does preparation look like?

Well, just like a builder doesn’t turn up to a site and randomly lay bricks to build a house, or a Michelin-star chef doesn’t turn up on a night of service and create a menu from what’s laying around in the cupboards. You, as a photographer and image editor, should try to avoid randomly plowing your way through Lightroom or Photoshop, aimlessly slapping on layers and adjustments without creating a plan that details what you are trying to achieve.

So, when you approach your image – you know what to edit, where to start and what you’re doing. There is no chaos – it’s systematic and as a result, you’re cool, collected, and methodical.

How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Pfffft! Who has time to plan!?

It’s easy to become frustrated with Lightroom and Photoshop. And it’s even easier to buy your way out of it with presets and actions. I get it, you want rapid results, you want to see instant progress, you don’t want to stop, think and plan – you just want to do.

The truth is, editing beautiful images is a craft. It’s something to take pride in. It’s the final step for you to infuse your images with your personality and style before you share your work with your clients and followers. Therefore, sometimes it’s a good idea to give the editing process a little more love and care than the press of a button.

Doing so can be the difference between your clients and friends thinking, “Oh that’s nice…” and saying “Oh my! That’s AMAZING! Can I order a copy!?”

So, if you want to know how to build something beautiful — something with craftsmanship, something you’re proud of, something that your audience will love – spend time on the preparation stage and create a plan for your edits. The reality is, it takes a little more effort than pressing a preset button. Here’s how you can make a simple plan.

Step #1 – Load Photoshop

Open your image in Photoshop. You can do this from within Photoshop by navigating to FILE > OPEN and selecting your image. Alternatively, you can load your image into Photoshop from within your Lightroom Library. Do this by right-clicking on your photo inside your Lightroom Library and navigate to EDIT IN > EDIT IN ADOBE PHOTOSHOP.

1 Open Image Photoshop - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Step #2 – Convert to Black and White

To establish what to edit and where to start with your image, it’s helpful to begin by temporarily removing the distraction of color. This strips back the information and makes it easier for your eyes to clearly see what is going on inside your image. Convert your image to black and white using the Adjustment Layer menu and navigating to Black and White.

BlackandWhite Adjustment Layer -How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Photoshop BlackandWhite Conversion - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Step #3 – What do you see?

Ensure that you can see the entire image on your screen. At this stage, you’re only taking a high-level look at your image to get an idea of what catches your eye. Navigate to VIEW > FIT ON SCREEN then hold down CMD (Mac) or CTRL (PC) + press the minus key (-) a couple times to zoom out of the image.

While looking at your image ask yourself these questions.

  • What story is the photo trying to tell?
  • Where do your eyes get drawn to first?
  • Where do your eyes go next?
  • What elements enhance the story?
  • Which elements weaken the story?

There’s no need to write an in-depth analysis here. Spend a few seconds on each question and listen to your instincts. What you are trying to do is look at your image from the viewer’s perspective and establish whether or not they are seeing what you want them to see.

Controlling the attention of your viewer’s eye is crucial to a good photo. It’s about leading them on an uninterrupted journey so they can soak up all the goodness of the story within your image.

Have you ever tried to read a book or watch a movie while someone is talking to you? It’s distracting, you disengage from the story and lose focus. The same applies to your eyes when you look at a photo. Eyes are easily distracted and the moment this happens you’ll lose your viewer’s attention and the story breaks down. Eliminating these distractions is key to creating stronger images.

Take a look at your image. As you do so, make a note of the areas, objects, and elements that your eyes are naturally drawn to and settle on. Typically, these areas will be the brightest parts of the image and areas with the most amount of contrast or sharpness. It’s your job to determine whether or not these areas enhance the story or distract the viewer’s attention and therefore weaken the story.

In the next step, we’ll take a look at this example image and establish the distractions so we can create a simple editing plan.

4 Thailand Boat Man Before - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Step #4 – Creating your plan

Create a new layer and rename it “Notes”. On this layer, you can use the brush tool to mark-up the areas of your image that you want to pay attention to based on your answers from step #3.

5 Photoshop Notes Layer - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

The example image is trying to tell the story of a Thai man taking his boat out on the water for a snorkel while trying to keep cool in the harsh midday sun. However, you may find that your eyes are distracted by the flapping black strap, the rope, and what appears to be a random metal pole protruding into the frame.

Mark any distractions and things to remove or hide

With your notes layer selected, use a brightly colored brush to circle the distractions, adding them to your plan. You can also use the Type tool to clarify your thoughts so you don’t forget what your markups are referring to when you go to edit them later.

6 Remove Distractions - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

7 Reduce Highlight - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Mark elements you want to bring more attention to

Continue to let your eyes explore the image and mark-up the elements that enhance the story. In the example image, you’ll notice that the subject is wearing a nice pair of sunglasses and that his face is a little dark. Drawing the viewer’s attention to this area will most definitely enhance the story.

8 Lighten Face Enhance Shades - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

The example image uses a lot of horizontal leading lines such as the horizon, the edge of the boat, and the canopy. While these are effective at leading your eye across the image towards the subject, you don’t want them to be too effective and allow your viewer’s eyes to continue along those lines and off the image.

A good way to prevent this from happening is to darken the right side of the photo. This will help to control the viewer’s focus by bouncing it back into the frame and onto the subject.

9 Darken Edges - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Another element of this example that could potentially enhance the story is the light source. Adding a sun or lens flare may help to add some interest and balance out any adjustments made to the subject’s face and sunglasses.

10 Add Flare - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

View the image in color again

When you are finished exploring the image and marking-up your notes, it’s a good idea to disable the Black and White adjustment layer you created in step #2 and take a look at the image in full color. As you do so, ask yourself whether the colors you see align and enhance your story or weaken it?

It’s likely that you’ll find one or two additional distractions in the form of color. These might be objects of a particular color that don’t align with the mood of your story or perhaps an overall color cast that you might want to remove or enhance.

In the example image, you can see that disabling the Black and White Adjustment Layer reveals a bright pink object that causes a distraction.

11 Desaturate Pink - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Finally, we can work with the overall color of the image to align with the story. Given that the example image is telling a story about a man trying to keep cool under the hot summer sun, adding a subtle warm-to-cool color tone may help to convey the story and pull the image together.

12 Colour Transition - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

Step #5 – Create a Group

When you are finished making your notes it’s time to group them all together. You can do this by clicking on your Black and White adjustment layer, holding down the SHIFT key on your keyboard and clicking on your NOTES layer (and any other Type layers that you may have created).

13 Shift Click Group - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

With your layers selected, click on the Group icon to put all of your selected layers into a new group. You can then rename the group to “Edit Plan”.

14 Edit Plan Group - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop

With your editing plan in place, you can now systematically work your way through the image. If at any point during your edit you begin to feel a little distracted, lost, or overwhelmed, just refer to your editing plan to get right back on track.

Here you can see the example image post-edit with minimal distractions. You may notice that your eye settles on the subject’s face a lot quicker than they did before, and it’s easier to absorb the story without the distracting elements.



15 Thailand Boat Man After - How to Know What to do and Where to Start with Photo Editing in Photoshop



Spending just a few minutes marking-up your photos and creating a plan can have enormous results. It tells you what to edit and where to start, and it provides clarity when the editing fog starts to settle in.

Yes, it takes a little more time and perhaps it’s not for every image. But if you want to create something with craftsmanship, something beautiful, something your clients and audience will love – it’s worth every second.

So, I encourage you to spend a little time planning your edits the next time you open up an image in Photoshop. Try to resist the temptation to join the trigger-happy chaos – instead, stop for a minute. Spend twice the time on the preparation, be clear on what you want to achieve, and craft something you’re proud of.

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William Palfrey
William Palfrey

is a designer and photographer living in Perth, Australia. He teaches beginner and aspiring photographers how to craft beautiful images and develop a unique style using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow his photography insights over at psitsfun.com or enroll in his new Lightroom and Photoshop courses for free. P.S. It’s fun!

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