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10 Tips for Photoshop Beginners

The user interface of Photoshop can be as overwhelming at the beginning as the number of available tutorials. The quality of the tutorials differs a lot — that’s why these 10 tips are meant especially for beginners, but also for old hands with bad habits. If you internalize these basic principles, your projects will be more pleasant to use during and after editing. And that saves unnecessary stress.

#Mask, not erase

If possible you should always prefer the use of a mask instead of the eraser tool. The mask allows you to change or access the original image even later, has a comprehensive dialog window to improve the edges (very useful when removing objects from their background) and allows fine adjustments of transparencies. You can use masks not only on layers but also on groups and hence modify multiple layers at once. The dialog window for improving the edges features non-destructive ways of modifying the edge itself, e.g. rounding the edges, moving the edge in/out or letting the AI do the work.

#Smart Objects

With a Right Click and Convert to Smart Object you can bundle single/multiple layers, groups or other Smart Objects into a new Smart Object. All changes made to such Smart Objects are non-destructive, i.e. you can also change the parameters at a later time or remove the change completely. These include transformations (scaling, adjustments etc.) or filters (gaussian blur, stylized filters etc.). But it would be nonsense to convert every layer into a Smart Object — you can still use the layer system and leverage it to your advantage. All adjustments (like hue/saturation) are also available as their own adjustment layers.

Here are some real-world examples where I’d like to use Smart Objects:

  • At the end of an image manipulation project I create a flattened copy of all layers and convert it to a Smart Object. Onto this layer I then apply things like the Camera RAW filter.
  • You can define variants for a layer setup inside a Smart Object and then can use this list of variants to display different versions of the same Smart Object

See Adobe’s help page for more information.

#Adjustment layers

There are two ways to change the brightness/contrast of an image: Once via Image → Adjustments → Brightness/Contrast or via Layer → New Adjustment Layer → Brightness/Contrast. Better use adjustment layers, because they are non-destructive! Although one could also apply the first command to a Smart Object, it would not be possible to mask out the effect separately with several filters. The setting levels (incl. cutting mask) are often the better choice.

If you work across multiple projects that should have the same color grading you will also be able to copy the adjustments between projects as they are just layers.

#Organize your project

That’s where it should have arrived by now: Do not work on a single layer! Create as many layers as you like, arrange them with groups and mark important layers/groups with color — and name your groups! It may sound like extra work to name your groups, but this will save you stress later if you have to change something in the file again. I used to also name every layer but over time I realized it didn’t give many benefits over grouping layers & naming those groups. This also includes that you should name your Photoshop files properly. Image Final Final Really Final v2 Change.psd is not a good name! In such cases just use an increasing version number like Image_v01.psd.

#Keyboard shortcuts

You’ll work so much faster when you don’t have to use the mouse for frequently used tools. The only thing that really helps here is: practice, practice, practice. You can print out a cheatsheet and lay it besides your keyboard. When you select items in the menus you’ll also see the available shortcut. And if a shortcut doesn’t feel comfortable or easy to remember: You can always remap shortcuts to different ones!

#Pen Tool

The Pen Tool seems a bit bulky and complicated at first, unlike a magic wand tool or something similar. But when used correctly, the Pen Tool gives the best results for masks. Learn to use the tool, learn to create curves. The tool is not there to set a point every 10 pixels! Once you’re comfortable it’ll be your main tool for creating new shapes, masks, and paths for the brush tool. Mastering this tool will be really beneficial.

#Watch out: Saturation and Sharpness

Far too often you see images that are extremely oversharpened or where the saturation of the image has been extremely increased. Use a halfway calibrated monitor (i.e. it should display colors correctly in the best case) and sharpen your image with a 100% view. If you want to make the colors pop more, use the Vibrance adjustment layer.

#Internet ≠ Print

Media for the Internet are not automatically suitable for printing and vice versa. Before you put your poster idea into practice, you should read carefully what the printer’s requirements are. Find out about the meaning of dpi/ppi/resolution, raster and vector graphics so you don’t end up in a jam and your image is too low-resolution.

#Understand what you do

Sounds stupid, but is still important: Understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Don’t memorize the steps to achieve an effect, but understand why you are doing these steps.

#Photoshop is not a jack of all trades

You should realize that Photoshop is not your jack of all trades device for all your problems. Videos are easier to edit in video editing programs, UI interfaces are easier to create in Sketch/Adobe XD/Figma, magazines/business cards/flyers should be created with InDesign. Better take a look around before you torture yourself to your goal with Photoshop.


Last updated: May 01, 2021