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20 Photoshop CS Tips


Pre-visualize your Processing

Open your digital images with an idea towards what you want to accomplish first.  Don't think that every image needs the same preset applications of actions, filters, color, contrast, or other editing/image tools.  Look at your image and make a mental list of its weaknesses, and the areas you want to improve.  That is a great place to start the digital processing workflow.

TIP  Take a pencil and paper and list your images weakness before you begin, then create new layers as you process that list.  Start with simple things like removing dust spots or correcting the horizon, then move to the more difficult things like correcting white balance, removing distracting objects, replacing closed eyes, saturating colors, sharpening, etc.


Create a functional Workspace

Layout your tool bar and palettes and save your workspace so that the next time you start Photoshop your workspace will be ready for you.  You can access your palettes in the Windows menu.  Once the workspace is how you want it, save your workspace by going to Windows >> Workspace >> Save Workspace and give it an easy name ... mine is Brent's Workspace.  If the workspace gets accidentally changed, I can go to the same spot and click Reset Brent's Workspace.  Click to view my Video on Creating a Workspace.

TIP  The palettes in my workspace, besides the tool bar on the left, are (from top, down) 1 - Navigator and Histogram.  2 - Actions/Adjustments.  3 - Layers/Channels.  Doubling clicking in an empty area of the Palette title bar will collapse the palette to minimize size.  You can also drag and drop palettes into different locations.


Create Actions to Save Time

Creating Actions to perform often-repeated key strokes or menu selections will make working in Photoshop CS programs much more time effective.   You can also read a more extensive explanation if you purchase ($4) the 37 page Image Processing PDF.  Click to view my Video on Creating Actions.

TIP  An Action can have more than one set of tool keystrokes.  If you commonly add your copyright to an image, or change the colorspace to sRGB for the web - then you can add those keystrokes to any Action you create so they are all done at the same time.


Create a Layer

Whenever you open a new image the first thing you should do is create a new layer to do your work on.  You can drag the background layer to the Copy Layer Icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette, or you can use the shortcut command, CTL+J.  Each time you make different types of changes you should do them on different layers in case you want to go back and make changes to those specific processing steps.  Deleting a layer is easy, you just don't want to lose all the processing steps you have already done.

TIP  As you complete changes to the image via Layers you can click the eye on/off in the Layers Palette of those Layers to review the before change/after change differences.  If you find your changes too strong, instead of deleting the Layer and starting over, try reducing the Opacity of that Layer instead. 



Lower Tool Opacity Settings

Working on photographs in Photoshop requires some blending in order to make the changes without evidence of the work you have done.  The best way to do this is to use the Tools Opacity settings at less than 100%.  For example, in my seminars I open the eyes of a mother in a wedding photo by copying a better set of her eyes from another photo.  Once they are sized right (using guides) I slowly erase around the new eyes to blend them into the photo.  I use the eraser tool at a 18% (or lower) opacity setting so no harsh edges exist.  Using the copy tool, the eraser tool, the paintbrush tool (especially when using masks), sharpen tool, etc can all be done at less than 100% to blend your corrections.

TIP  Go slowly when you make changes.  Instead of dramatic, quick, single-stroke changes work the image slowly - using lower opacity tool settings.



Save Unfinished Images as .psd files

You can't save an image with more than one Layer as a .jpg file.  If the image you are working on requires future retouching then save it as a .psd (Photoshop) file in order to save all the Layers.  Photoshop will default to the .psd extension if the image has not been flattened to one Layer.  It is a good idea to retain the .psd file on images that have required extensive processing and retouching just in case you need to make future changes.

TIP  Photoshop files are large, so the decision as to whether to keep them or delete them after saving the final image as a .tif or .jpg file should be made with that in mind.  I keep multi-layered, complex files as both a .psd (for future changes) and as a .jpg (current uses). 



Use the Correct Color Space

Most D-SLR cameras will allow you to choose the color space to shoot in (in JPG Mode), with two options: Adobe RGB (1998) and sRGB.  I shoot my images in the Adobe RGB (1998) color space.  This color space is larger (more colors) than the color space used on the web - sRGB.  If you plan on e-mailing your images to others, placing them on a website or hosting service, or to use as wallpaper or screensavers - then you need to save them with the sRGB color space; otherwise, the colors will appear flat.  The color profile of images can be accessed by clicking Edit >> Color Settings or Edit >> Assign Profile.  Create an Action to make this selection even easier.

TIP  I print a lot of large prints, up to 48 inches, nearly every month.  I did a match print test on one image, at 16x20 sizes, in both color spaces and could only barely see a difference.  However, the difference on the web is noticeable right away.



Turn the Ruler ON

Always turn the Ruler On.  It can be accessed at View >> Ruler, or by using the shortcut CTL+R.  Also, I turn the Snap, and Snap To features both on.  Not only does this help in seeing relative proportions in the image, but you can drag guides from the ruler area that can help you in lining up horizons, straightening perspectives, etc. 

TIP  With your mouse pointer in the ruler area, you can right click the mouse and see a context menu that will allow you to change the Ruler from inches, to pixels, to centimeters, etc.

Use Masks for Processing selected Image areas

There are times when only selected areas of in image need work done.  When that area is difficult to select then its easier to use a mask - then paint the changes in gradually.  There is a saying in Photoshop that "black conceals, white reveals".  In the Layers Palette, ALT + Mask Layer Icon produces a black mask hiding the layer, which then can be made transparent (showing the Layer only where you paint) by using the Paintbrush Tool, with white selected, and a low Opacity setting, like 10-15%.  You simply paint on the photo where you want to reveal the Layer, you will see white begin to appear in the black mask, showing where it is becoming transparent.

TIP  Masks are an integral part of image processing.  It is the easiest way to process small areas of an image, and to do so gradually so the changes appear absolutely natural. 



Image EXIF Data

Knowing how to access Image Data is important to remembering what exposure combinations worked the best.  It can be accessed two different ways: 1. In Photoshop go to File >> File Info to review the EXIF (Exchangeable Image File) Information or to add copyright information.  2. If you use Adobe Bridge (bundled with Photoshop) you can right-click on a photo and select File Info from the options.  You can enter copyright and contact information about yourself, websites, e-mail addresses, phone, etc.  You can see when the image was taken, etc.

TIP  Camera Data is important, especially down the road.  Knowing the f-stop/shutter speed combinations, the ISO used, Focal length, etc can all help you fine-tune the look of your images by going back to successful images and seeing how you shot them. 


Use the Crop Tool

Never resize an image smaller by using the Image >> Image Size command.  Instead, select the Crop Tool and enter the settings you want (width/height/resolution) in the Tool Options Bar.  This allows you to easily delete the crop, re-crop, move the selected crop size around the image, etc. in order to improve the crop.  You can also save different option settings for the Crop Tool by clicking the down arrow in the Crop Icon square in the Option Bar, then clicking the New Tool Preset icon and entering a name.

TIP  I have dozens of preset crop dimensions so I don't have to keep entering them as I go.  I have one for classic sizes (like an 8x10 at 300dpi), my large website images (8.333"x5.556" at 72dpi), my laptop wallpaper (1366px by 768px at 96dpi), etc.


Batch Process Raw Image Files

I shoot a lot of Raw images and wouldn't even consider processing them one at a time.  If you select a number of similarly exposed images and drop them into Photoshop you will see them all shown on the left side of the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) interface that opens up.  Click on the Select All button and apply your processing corrections to all of them at once.  When your finished you can open all the images into Photoshop for individual tweaking, and saving. 

TIP  I usually batch process Raw files about a dozen at a time.  I keep the color enhancements to a minimum and apply only exposure corrections, shadow/highlight corrections, etc.  If the next batch of images is similar, then I can click on the little down arrow in the ACR interface to the right of the "Basic" corrections and click on the "Previous Conversion" to apply the same corrections to this next batch.



Use Guides

Guides are simple vertical and horizontal lines that can be dragged out of the Ruler, or created in the View >> New Guide dialog box.  The guides can then be used to square up the image, establish sizes (for replacing eyes, inserting people, etc.) or be used to snap other objects to, like Text. 

TIP  In creating new guides you can use percentages in the New Guide dialog box.  You can find the direct middle by entering 50% when selecting a vertical line, then the same amount when selecting a horizontal line.  With Snap ON selected layers will snap to the guides quickly.



Use Small Brushes

Everything about digitally processing your images should be done on a small scale, with a minimalist attitude towards corrections.  Folks send me images all the time and I notice that many times I can see brush strokes of sharpness, copy/pasted corrections, and healing brush changes along the edges.  Use brush sizes that are just big enough to do the job. 

TIP  Like the Crop Tool, you can save preset brush sizes, opacity, and flow as a tool preset.  When you click on the small down-arrow in the tool options bar, click on Current Tool Only to see just the brushes, or just the presets for any tool you have selected. 


Sharpen Images Last

The last step in your digital processing is to apply sharpening.  Always create a new Layer to apply the sharpening filter to.  I usually will over sharpen a bit then back it off to where I like it by reducing the opacity of the Layer.  In areas of the image where you would expect to find greater sharpness (sometimes Contrast as well) apply over sharpening to the Layer, then use a black Mask to paint in that sharpness gradually.  This is particularly good in images with foreground objects, like rocks, roads, etc.

TIP  The Smart Sharpen filter in the Filter >> Sharpen menu is a great tool for sharpening images.  Some after market software plug-ins, like NIK Sharpener, do an even better job of sharpening images and give you greater control in how its applied in the image.  All digital images need to be sharpened.


Reset White Balance

Many images have a color caste to them.  Sometimes its blue, sometimes yellow, sometimes magenta, and they are usually hard to see.  When I'm preparing an image for printing I will always create a new layer (Ctl+J) and attempt to reset the White Balance to see how it affects the image.  The eyedroppers in both the Levels and Curves dialog boxes are used to establish a white point, middle-toned, or black point in the image.  Clicking on the white eyedropper and clicking on an area of the image that should be pure white will reset the White Balance of the image.  If it changes too much you can delete the Layer, but if its better, but slightly too much change, just turn down the Opacity of that Layer until you like it.

TIP  Shooting in gymnasiums, heavy shadows, areas of strong color (autumn leaves), morning mist, cloudy, etc - are all situations where resetting the white balance might improve the colors in the image.


Reduce Image Size to E-mail

Is there anything worse than receiving an e-mail with an attached image that is larger than the screen size, forcing you to scroll through it?  This is what I do to e-mail images.  1.  I copy the images to an e-mail folder on my hard-drive.  2.  Go to Image >> Image Size and set the Resolution to 72 pixels/inch. Click OK.   3.  Go to File > Automate > Fit Image and set the pixel dimensions of both Width and Height to 800. Click Ok.  Save and Close.  You don't have to worry about over-writing your originals because these were images you copied to the new directory to e-mail.

TIP  Create an Action to do these steps, then you can File >> Automate >> Batch and run this Action in the E-mail directory very quickly.  Whenever you have more images to e-mail just copy to this directory and run the Action as part of a Batch operation.  Images that have already been down-sized for e-mailing won't be affected.

Common Mistakes and Quick Tips

When something goes wrong, or doesn't do what I expect, it is always my fault.  Here are some simple mistakes to avoid:

1.  Make sure you have selected the right Layer in the Layers Palette box, and make sure you are working on the right type of Layer.

2.  Make sure the right tool is selected, with the right tool options selected.

3.  If saving a processed Raw file to a JPG, make sure its bit depth is correct.  Go to
Image >> Mode and select 8 Bits/per channel.  RAW files are usually 12 or 16 Bits/per channel which can not  be saved as a JPG.  If the file is 16 Bits/per channel, you will not have an option to Save the file as a JPG.

4.  Some types of commands are only available if you are working on a Background Layer Copy, or Layer 1 copy of the image.  Hit CTL+J.  For example, Edit >> Stroke (putting a line around a selected area) is not available if you are working on the Background Layer, but it is available on any other type of Layer, like a Layer 1 or a Background Copy layer.

5.  Apply changes slowly.  Either turn down the Opacity of the Tool being used in the Tool Options Bar, or turn down the Opacity of the Layer you are working on.  I would rather apply small levels of sharpening twice or three times, than large levels of sharpening once.

6.  There are always two, three, four ways to do something in Photoshop - if the way you're are trying isn't working well - search Help or search Online - for other ways.  You can call or e-mail me as well.

7.  Your Brush or Stamp Tool suddenly turns from a circle to crosshairs - just hit the Caps Lock button on your keyboard to switch it back to a circle.

8.  Add Notes or measure distances with the Ruler Tool - both of which are available by pressing and holding the Eyedropper Tool Icon in the Tool Bar down, then selecting them.

Converting to Black-and-White

Desaturating the colors in your image, by using the Hue/Saturation dialog box, is a poor way to create a bw image.  In Elements, click on Enhance >> Convert to Black-and-White, then click on Scenic Landscape as a style and enter these numbers:  Red 70, Green 16, Blue 14, and Contrast 6.  In Photoshop CS programs go to Image >> Adjustments >> Channel Mixer, select Monochrome, and enter the same numbers.  This will produce a much better black-and-white to begin further processing.

TIP  Creating a bw is a lot of keystrokes.  This makes an ideal Action to quicken your workflow.


Reducing Image Noise

Nothing is more annoying that seeing a lot of noise (artifacting) in your digital image.  There are some steps you can take to limit noise: 1. Shoot at low ISO settings.  2. Buy a newer camera body that has the latest digital sensor technology.  3.  Longer shutter-speeds create added noise.  4.  Noise is most noticeable in areas of continuous tones (like the sky), so select them, and go to Filters >> Noise >> Reduce Noise, increase the settings strength and run more than once if needed.

TIP  A noise reduction program like Imagenomic's Noiseware Professional, Noise Ninja, or others are excellent ways to reduce noise, and sharpen images during the process.  When loaded correctly, they will appear at the bottom of the Filters menu.


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