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Photoshop Best Practices

by | 1 year ago

Everyone always says, “There are multiple ways to do things in Photoshop,” and although that’s true, some approaches are better than others; they’re faster, more accurate, and more flexible. This article covers some of the most important approaches you can use to improve your speed, accuracy, and creativity in Photoshop, as well as some of the other benefits from following these best practices. (Along the way, you’ll find some best practices tips and tricks.) 

Use Layers 

Let’s get this out of the way right from the top: If you’re not using layers, you’re probably working too hard, and you’re definitely not taking full advantage of all the control, flexibility, and creativity that layers offer. So if you’re brand-new to the concept of layers, go check out Terry White’s KelbyOne course Photoshop Layers for Beginners

The Checklist 

Pretty much every tool and function in Photoshop has default settings, and the settings you choose will (a) depend on what you’re doing next and (b) stay that way until you change them. This means that if you haven’t used a tool in a while, the tool settings will still be the ones you chose the last time you used that tool, and those settings are most likely not ideal for what you’re doing now. Photoshop has many factors that influence the results of whatever you’re doing, so the more things you can check the better. 

Think about this example: In a multilayered document, you’re about to start painting with the Brush tool (B). Here are some of the things that should be on your checklist: 

  • How big is the brush? What’s the Opacity setting? What’s the blend mode of the brush? 
  • What are the brush settings (Spacing, Scatter, etc.)? 
  • What’s your Foreground color? 
  • Am I on the correct layer? Should I add a new layer? What’s the Opacity of the layer? What’s the blend mode of the layer? 
  • Do I have something selected? Should I have something selected? 

Very often, as soon as you start to do something different, the checklist will change. Needless to say, the more you use Photoshop, the more experience you’ll gain, and the easier it’ll become to go through your checklists more quickly. But the bottom line is this: If you get in the habit of checking tool settings, layer functions, selections, and other key “influencers,” you’ll spend more time doing rather than undoing

Default Settings Aren’t Always Ideal 

As mentioned, most tools and other commands have default settings, but it’s important to note that just because a setting is the default doesn’t mean it’s a good setting. Default settings definitely aren’t always ideal for your current situation, and you should check the current settings of each tool to determine whether those settings are appropriate for whatever you’re going to do next. 

Tip: Use Guide Layout 

Need a bunch of guides in a document? Rather than dragging them onto your document one at a time, use View>New Guide Layout to add columns, rows, or a grid of guides. 

Think Like Photoshop

One simple but effective practice is to look at a task through the eyes of Photoshop: How would Photoshop do it? For example, rather than thinking, “I have to remove this person from this photo,” it’s better to think, “I need to cover up this person so it looks like he was never there.” 

This does a couple of things: (1) It makes you realize that it’s usually not just a simple matter of “removing” someone in one step, and (2) it gets you thinking about which tool (or tools) would be best suited to covering up the person, and the process you’ll need to use. 

In this example, that could mean using a variety of tools such as Content-Aware Fill, the Spot Healing Brush tool, and the Patch tool to end up with pixels on a layer to cover up the person that needs to be “removed.” 

Another example of this would be thinking about the long-term impact of how you work in a Photoshop document. Remembering how Photoshop layers work might remind you not to be too quick to merge layers: Photoshop can’t “recover” separate layers after they’ve been merged, the document closed, and then saved (see “Work Nondestructively” below). 

Tip: One Image, Two Views 

When you zoom in really close to work on details, sometimes you might forget how much smaller the final product will be. One solution is to use the command Window>Arrange>New Window for [name of your document]. This will create a second window of the same document. Then go to Window>Arrange and choose one of the tiling options. Zoom in on one view but keep the second view at the “final” size. Any changes you make in the zoomed-in view will also show in the actual size view. 

Start with Automated Tools 

As Adobe Sensei, the artificial intelligence (AI) within Photoshop, continues to get better, the practice of first using the automated versions of tools and functions becomes even more important. Just remember: An automated tool may not always create perfect results, but often the result is a much better start than you’d have arrived at through manual effort. The expression “compared to the alternative” comes to mind here, as in, “ The result of Content-Aware Fill wasn’t perfect, but way better than if I’d used the Clone Stamp tool, and in a fraction of the time.” 

One example of the ever-improving AI technology is Select>Subject. In each new version of Photoshop, this automated selection technique gets better, making it a great example to first use an automated tool. 

Another way to think of starting with automation is using actions in a slightly different way. Most people think of actions as a packaged automation: Play this Action to make these functions happen; for example, to turn your photo into an oil painting. And while these beginning-to-end actions can be interesting, on a day-to-day basis there’s another, perhaps more practical way to use actions that could be thought of as starter actions. 

Let’s say that for many photographs you add a Curves adjustment layer, make things lighter by adjusting the curve in the Properties panel (Window>Properties), fill the Curves’ layer mask with black to completely hide the adjustment, and then paint with white on the mask with the Brush tool (B) wherever you want to lighten the photograph. And then you do the same thing with another Curves adjustment layer to darken areas of photographs. 

Rather than do that every time, why not create a starter action that adds a lighten Curves adjustment layer with the mask filled with black, and a darken Curves adjustment layer with the mask filled with black? So, all the action contains are just those steps to get you started. You’d still manually paint with white wherever you want to reveal those adjustment layers, but at least the initial work is done for you, which is much faster than manually adding the adjustment layers to each photo. For an in-depth look at actions, check out Terry White’s course “How to Automate Photoshop.” 

Use Keyboard Shortcuts 

As best practices go, this one might fly a little under the radar. At first glance, the idea of using shortcuts might seem more like another form of automation (which it certainly is), but think of it this way: You can get more work done by keeping your focus on the task at hand rather than moving your cursor away to click on a tool or menu. 

Some people have a hard time remembering keyboard shortcuts and therefore don’t use them. A great place to start might be the shortcuts for activating tools: Rather than moving over and clicking on a tool in the Toolbar, you can activate that tool by simply tapping one letter on your keyboard. You don’t have to remember any crazy combination of keys; it’s just literally a single letter. Many of them are very logical such as M for marquee, C for Crop, T for Type, and B for the Brush, while others are a bit more of a stretch such as W for the Magic Wand or V for the Move tool. But generally speaking, you can implement these fairly quickly, because again you’re not memorizing a combination of keys, it’s just one letter. 

All you’re doing is activating a tool. Think about how you’ll keep your focus on what you’re doing and how much time you’ll save by typing one letter instead of moving your mouse back-and-forth from the Toolbar. Also, once you learn a tool’s shortcut key, you can throw in the Shift key to cycle through all the tools that are nested with that tool in the Toolbar. 

Make Your Own Shortcuts 

Although just about every conceivable combination of keys has already been used as Photoshop shortcuts, it’s very likely you’ll find a function that you use all the time that doesn’t have a shortcut. Luckily, you can reallocate an existing shortcut and apply it to the function you want. It’s simple to do, and well worth it; and it’s easier to remember a shortcut that you allocated, rather than one assigned by someone at Adobe. 

To reassign a shortcut to the function you want, go to Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts. Let’s say that you want to add a shortcut for adding a layer mask. Set the Shortcuts For drop-down menu (near the top left) to Application Menus. Then in the Application Menu Command list, click on Layer to expand all of its options, and scroll down until you see Layer Mask>Reveal All. 

Click on the space to the right of that function and enter the shortcut you want to use, for example, Shift-Command-M (PC: Shift-Ctrl-M). A warning will tell you that this shortcut is already in use (in this example, it’s assigned to something called Record Measurements). Assuming the currently assigned function isn’t something you’ll ever use, click the Accept button and, from now on, you can press Shift-Command-M (PC: Shift-Ctrl-M) to add a layer mask. (Custom shortcuts will remain active unless you reset the keyboard shortcuts back to the default settings.) 

In some cases, the shortcut you want to use is already in use by a function that you use on occasion. In those circumstances, you’ll have to decide which function you use more often, and allocate the shortcut to that function. 

Tip: Change Opacity with the Keyboard 

When working with layers and tools that have Opacity settings, you can change their Opacity by tapping one key. If you have a tool that uses brushes, the Opacity of the tool will be affected; if you have any non-paining tool selected, the Opacity of the current layer will change. Tap 1 for 10%, 2 for 20%, 3 for 30% etc; tap 0 for 100%. 

“End Up With” 

To some extent, this may be just semantics (or mind games) but it’s always served me well to think about what I want to end up with. For example, rather than looking at a photo and thinking, “I need to select that object,” I think, “I need to end up with a selection of that object.” That simple change in thought means that I go into the process expecting for it to take several tools and steps for me to get the result I need. And as mentioned earlier, it also means that I expect the automated tool (if there is one) to give me a good start, but that I’ll have to do some manual work to get the result I want. 

This approach can also be used for many functions, including retouching, compositing, working with layers, and more. By thinking about what you want to end up with, while thinking like Photoshop, you may find that you get better results in less time.

Tip: Easily Discover the Range of Values 

In some dialogs you’ll be asked to enter a setting but it’s unclear what range of values you can use. To get a quick answer to the question of what’s the range of values, enter a very high number, and a dialog will appear telling you the range of values. For example, when converting a selection into a path, you’ll be faced with entering a value in the Make Work Path dialog. The default value is 3.0, but how high or low can you go? Type in 10,000 and you’ll get a warning saying, “A number between 0.5 and 10.0 is required.” Now you know the range of values you can use for that command. 

Use Presets 

The simple advice here is if there’s an opportunity to save a preset, use it! Presets are wonderful timesavers and can also help with consistency (creating the same look, color scheme, etc). There are many types of presets in Photoshop, including layer styles, patterns, swatches, shapes, brushes, tools, new documents, adjustment layers, and even some filters. And for the most part, presets can be thought of as both a starting point or a final step; for example, apply a layer style preset from the Styles panel (Window>Styles) and you can either leave it as is, or tweak the results to make a new look based on the preset. Even if you tweak the result of the preset, it’s still faster than starting from scratch. (Remember “compared to the alternative” earlier?) 

In most cases saving a preset is simply a matter of clicking a button (e.g., Add to Swatches in the Color Picker), using a panel’s flyout menu (e.g., Save [name of adjustment layer] Preset in the Properties panel), or using a command under the Edit menu (e.g., Define Brush Preset, Define Pattern, and Define Custom Shape). Those saved presets can then be applied by clicking on a preset in a panel (Brushes, Patterns, Swatches, Shapes, Styles, and Gradients), choosing from a menu (Adjustment Layers, some filters), or going to a section of a dialog (e.g., the Saved tab in the New Document dialog). 

Tip: Name Your Presets 

In the past, I wouldn’t have worried too much about naming a new brush or pattern or shape, but now that you can search these presets by name, it’s more important than ever to name these presets. 

Work Nondestructively 

It’s very likely that you’ve heard this before: Working nondestructively allows you to make changes to an image without overwriting the original file. Over time, Adobe has made it easier to work nondestructively by adding adjustment layers, smart objects, smart filters, Lightroom and Camera Raw smart objects, and the option to apply most retouching tools to a separate layer. These nondestructive methods of editing have other advantages in addition to the ability to change your mind, namely accuracy, efficiency, and creativity. 

Accuracy: Take advantage of the ongoing editability of functions such as adjustment layers, Camera Raw smart objects, and smart filters to help create more accurate masks. For example, deliberately (and temporarily) over-adjust an image so it’s easier to make a selection (or paint on the mask), and then either remove or re-edit the adjustment. 

Efficiency: When you’ve created a document using nondestructive methods, you can use the results both in the same document or another document. As mentioned before, it’s usually quicker to tweak an existing setting than to start completely from scratch. 

Creativity: An often-overlooked advantage of working nondestructively is how much it can open the door to creative freedom to experiment. By nature, Photoshop is a linear program, meaning you do Step 1, Step 2, and Step 3, and you can then undo those steps in reverse order: Step 3, Step 2, and Step 1. But implementing nondestructive methods means you can do many more steps and then go back and tweak whatever you want, in any order, for example: Change the adjustment layer you added in Step 3, turn off the smart filter you added in Step 7, or lower the Opacity of a layer that was the first thing you started with many steps ago. 

It’s much less likely that you’ll find yourself painted into a corner with no further options when you fully embrace working nondestructively. 

Tip: Not-the-Best Practices 

If at all possible, avoid using such commands as Erase, Delete, Rasterize, Merge, and Flatten. These are the polar opposite of working nondestructively, and will put an abrupt halt on your ability to change your mind or experiment. 

File Structure 

Take a look at one of your recent projects. Does it have layers with names like “layer 2 Copy 4”? At a quick glance, can you figure out which layer is which, and the purpose of each layer, adjustment layer, and mask? One of the best suggestions I can give you is to treat your document as if you were going to send it to someone else to work on. Or perhaps even better, imagine what you’d like to receive from someone who was sending you a layered file. I’m guessing that you’d prefer to see named layers and groups in that Layers panel. 

This is an important habit to put into practice: create an organized, named structure that makes it easy for you to open an older document and instantly jump in and edit it, because it’s simple to work with. And if anything goes amiss and doesn’t work, it’s much easier to troubleshoot when the purpose of each element in the Layers panel is very clear. 

Another reason for creating a strong structure in your documents is creativity; it’s easier to experiment with different settings, filters, etc., if you have a well-structured document that takes advantage of all the nondestructive elements we talked about earlier, and those elements are all logically named so they’re easy to find and use. 

Tip: Apply Layer Styles to Multiple Layers 

Although you could copy a layer style in the Layers panel and then paste it to other layers, if you need to make changes, you’d have to edit each layer style on each layer. Instead, put the layers into a group and then paste the layer style to that group. This way, any layer added into that group will automatically have that style applied, and any edits you do to the style will be applied to all the layers in that group. 

On the one hand, if you get to the end result you want, it doesn’t really matter how you achieved it. But in the long run, developing good work habits and following the best practices outlined in this article will help with your efficiency, accuracy, and creativity while working in Photoshop.