“How to edit photos in Photoshop?” is probably the first thing you’re going to ask the first time you open up Photoshop on a computer.
I was completely lost the first time I use Photoshop, or should I say attempted to use! There are so many icons, so many options from the main menu to choose, etc. Although it’s not the most intuitive software to use, it’s the most versatile and powerful one.
Even though there are many image editing software on the market today, only few are used routinely by professionals and Adobe Photoshop is one of them (and the most common one). If you know how to operate Photoshop, you can figure most other software without too much of a learning curve.
From my brief survey, people don’t use Photoshop not because they can’t afford to pay the cloud subscription fee but they can’t be bothered to spend the time necessary to learn how to use it.
I have spent years staring at Photoshop, watching videos and tutorials to figure out how it works. Some of you (the readers!) who were in a similar situation have told me you want to learn but just didn’t know where to start.
In this tutorial, I’m going to break it down for you. I’m going to walk you through Photoshop’s interface step-by-step and explained the core knowledge you need to know to start using the software with confidence.
This post is written for total beginners in Photoshop. I’m not showing you anything advance but only the essentials. By the end of this, you should be able to use Photoshop to transform an image.
6 Steps To Learn How To Edit Photos In Photoshop
Personally, I think Photoshop is so intimidating on first sight because it looks like a big chunk of complicated programmer. When your mind tells you it’s complicated on first impression, you’ll naturally be taken back and reluctant to even try. That’s just human nature.
So, to break that barrier, I’m going to replace that traumatizing first impression of yours with six simple steps.
These steps divide Photoshop’s interface into small chunk of information. This will help you to digest and remember more easily. The six steps I’m going to show you are:
- 1How to open/save/save for web
- 2How to select the right workspace
- 3Walkthrough on Layers panel
- 4Walkthrough on Adjustments panel
- 5Walkthrough on Tools panel
- 6How to apply sharpening
That’s right, you're six steps away from knowing how to edit photos in Photoshop.
Step 1: Open, Save and Save for Web
Opening a file in Photoshop is not any different from software you’re more familiar with (e.g. Microsoft Office, etc.) Go to File > Open... and select the image file you want to open. Photoshop can read almost all image file formats (including PDF!).
Apart from the conventional way (which I’ve just explained above), there are two other ways that I often prefer:
If your image file is on the desktop or a folder that is easily accessible, you can click, drag and drop the file on to Photoshop’s icon. Photoshop will launch with the image open and ready.
The other way is if you use Adobe Lightroom to organize your files, you can open any images from Lightroom into Photoshop directly.
In the Develop module, right click on an image (or select all the images you want to open) and select Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop CC, or use keyboard shortcut Cmd (ctrl for PC) + E. If you have multiple images in Lightroom and want to stack them in layers in a single file, don’t use the keyboard shortcut but choose Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop.
For saving and exporting, I’ll explained that after Step 6 because it makes more sense from a workflow point of view.
Step 2: Select A Workspace
You only need to do this once because Photoshop will remember your settings after this.
Workspace is not a common topic people talk about when it comes to Photoshop editing tips. It’s not essential but I strongly feel it delivers you benefits.
What is workspace in Photoshop anyway?
It’s your personal office in Photoshop, just like your desk at work where you organize everything the way you like. In Photoshop, there is a twist. You can select a default workspace and customize it from there.
Why should you care?
Photoshop is not just for editing images. There are so many other tools where you will never need to use as a photographer. To improve your productivity and workflow efficiency, these unnecessary tools can be kept away in the drawer, leaving only the ones you use routinely on your desk.
The good news is, Photoshop has already thought about this and has a default workspace for photography. Go to the top right corner, click on the icon as shown here and select “Photography” from the drop down menu.
From here, you can customize what you can to see and not want to see by moving panels around. You can then save this as your personal workspace.
Step 3: Layers Panel
This is where the actions are. Everything you apply to your image is displayed here in a chronological order with the oldest action below and the latest on top (which is why it’s called Layers panel).
Because it’s a LAYERS panel, it also inherits the physical nature of layers.
Imagine you’re holding a stack of printed photos you just developed from a photo booth. The only photos you can see as you're holding is the one on top of the stack. If you want to see the immediate photo underneath, you have to either remove the first photo or cut a hole on it to reveal part of the photo below.
You can also add or remove photos from the stack. What’s interesting in Photoshop is that you can reduce the opacity of any layer to make it transparent and eventually invisible. You can add a “mask” to a layer to conceal the entire layer or just revealing part of it. This is called layer masking.
Layer masking can be very confusing for a beginner so I won’t go into detail. The aim of this tutorial is to deliver the core knowledge for you to start using Photoshop. Although layer masking is an important feature but it’s not essential for basic editing.
Learn more: Layer Masks F.A.Q.
Pixel Layer Vs Adjustment Layer
For the purpose of image editing, layers can be divided into two types: pixel layer and adjustment layer.
A pixel layer contains tonal and color information. For example, the image itself and any layers added via “Create a new layer”. Pixel layers allow you to paint, draw and create a selection directly on it using one of the tools in the Tools panel.
An adjustment layer, which will be explained below, applies mathematical equation to the pixel layer below it to change its tonal and color value.
Step 4: Adjustments Panel
In a nutshell, Adjustment panel is where you can choose a variety of “filters” to apply to your image. In Photoshop, these “filters” are better known as “adjustment tools”. When it’s applied to an image, it will appear in the Layers panel as an adjustment layer.
There are a total of 16 adjustments to choose from. To know what is what, hover your cursor over an icon and text should appear to tell you what it is.
General speaking, these adjustments can be broadly be categorized into three groups: tonal adjustment, color adjustment and black and white conversion.
Apart from black and white conversion, there are multiple tools for tonal and color adjustment. Sticking to the aim of this tutorial, I’m only showing you the ones that are commonly used.
Levels and Curves are THE most commonly used tonal adjustment tools because these are simple yet powerful.
Both achieve results in different ways. Personally, I use both depending on the effect I’m trying to create.
I recommend you start with the Vibrance or Hue/Saturation adjustment tool first. Once you get a better grip on color adjustment, start experimenting with the more advanced ones such as Color Mixer, Channel Balance, Gradient Map, etc.
Black and White Conversion
This is kind of a loner. The only adjustment tool for black and white conversion is called Black & White. The tool itself is very basic and is not the tool of choice for most photographers to convert color images to black and white.
Step 5: Tools Panel
Unlike adjustment tools, tools in the Tools panel do not add to the number of layers in the Layers panel. Instead, it works by applying its effect directly onto a pixel layer.
When you look at the Tools panel, you can see a little white triangle on the lower right corner of most icon. This means there is a stack of tools behind what you can see. Click and hold on the icon to see all the tools that are stacked together.
You’re probably wondering how on earth are you going to remember what is what and what does what? The good news is you don’t because you won’t have to use all the tools. Personally, I don’t normally use more than 10 tools routinely.
In general, Adobe has grouped these tools into seven categories. For those of you who are interested, you can check out Adobe’s user guide on Tools panel.
To be succinct, these are the tools you need to begin with:
- 1Crop Tool - To crop (duh!). In the Options bar, there’s also a Straighten tool to level your image.
- 2Spot Healing Brush Tool - To remove sensor dust on the image.
- 3Brush Tool - To paint on pixel layer and layer mask.
- 4Zoom Tool - To zoom in and out of the image. Left click on the mouse, hold and drag it sideways.
Step 6: Sharpening
Sharpening is usually left at the end because any further adjustments after this may render the image unsharpened.
There are many options to sharpen an image and most photographers usually start off with the Unsharp Mask. Go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. Before you do anything else, use the Zoom Tool to zoom into your image at 100%.
In general terms, sharpening works by increasing the contrast between edges to make the image looks “sharper”. Seeing halos? That’s because you’ve increased the contrast (or "sharpening") too much!
There are three settings in Unsharp Mask: Amount, Radius and Threshold.
Let’s start with Radius. It determines how many pixels on either side of an edge for contrast to be applied. Amount determines the amount of contrast to be applied to the set radius. Threshold is to remove “sharpening” from areas that has low contrast (when the image becomes too noisy with sharpening).
In general, set Amount to 100%, Radius between 1 to 2 pixels and Threshold to 0. This works for most type of images and a good point for you to start off.
Understand these three settings (Amount, Radius and Threshold) will allow you to know what you're actually doing when apply sharpening.
Back To Step 1: Save and Save for Web
When done editing, you probably want to save all the hard work you’ve done. In most cases, you want to save the file and export a copy (if you want to publish or share it online).
Save basically saves the file back into the file format of the original image. If you shoot Raw, Photoshop will save it as a TIFF file because you can’t save adjustments in Raw file. But if the file you open up is already a TIFF (or other format), it will be saved back into the same file.
Bear in mind that, in order to preserve all the layers so you can come back to re-edit, you should save it as either a TIFF or PSD file. Any other file formats will merge all layers into one permanently.
Save for Web works slightly different from Save. Save for Web saves by creating a copy of the file into JPEG, PNG, GIF or BMP. If you want to share the photo on social media or websites, JPEG is the one to go for.
Other features of Save for Web is you can resize the file and change the quality of JPEG to reduce the file size.
How To Make Photos Look Professional In Photoshop?
I didn’t find a simple solution back then and I haven’t found one now (honestly, don’t think there is one exist).
This tutorial covers the six steps. that in my experience, are the core skills you need to learn to start using Photoshop to edit images.
It’s not a blueprint and certainly not a thorough handbook to Photoshop 101!
My aim here is to provide you with a framework so you can go through each part of the software in small chunks and systematically. At the end, I hope you’ll be able to put all the steps together to make sense of Photoshop.
For more tutorials on image editing technique, please check out the editing technique resource page!