4th January 2017 David Waddington

Photoshop inertia and how to slap yourself out of it

Enhancing images in Photoshop is a bit like dancing – there is more than one way to do it, once you’ve found a method you like you usually stick with it forever, and although you often feel what you do looks good… others may not agree.

I’ve been using Adobe Photoshop for around 20 years. Mainly for web graphics and tweaking photo levels for personal use, and occasionally for full-on design projects. For the past 5 years my usage has stepped up immensely. Essentially it is the first thing I open every single day.

But it is only since delving further into the worlds of Adobe Premiere and Adobe After Effects (leaning heavily on the excellent tutorials out there on YouTube to guide me in learning cool new techniques) that I thought it might be worth shining a light on what I thought I knew about the staple of the Adobe CC world: Photoshop.

And it turns out that despite decades of use… I know nothing.

Photoshop disclaimer

Before I banter on about my ignorance, I feel it is worth mentioning that I was never taught how to use Photoshop.

Just as with most of then tools I use, I’m a ‘have a go and figure it out’ kind of person. And in most cases this is the best way to learn – by jumping in and experimenting; getting some things right, getting some things wrong.

However, this is not an excuse. I doubt even 80% of the people who have a copy of Photoshop on their computer were sat down before installing it and given an intensive course on the intricacies of the system. And this is because there is way too much to cover.

Some people may want Photoshop to create epic backgrounds for their high-profile fashion shoot, and do some (much-maligned) image manipulation to make their models looks artificially perfect.

Some people might just want to crop out that idiot who photobombed their wedding photo.

Which is why it is so easy (and usual) to learn what you need, then stop.

Not just ‘New and improved’

Adobe CC gets updates all the time. Unfortunately I cannot blame my archaic way of using the tool on new functionality.

After watching a simple tutorial video on how to use the pen tool correctly (an unyielding monster that I never saw a use for, and certainly could not control), it became apparent I wasn’t even using the levels correctly.

For years I have been correcting photos by going to ‘Image’ > ‘Adjustment’ and choosing ‘Levels’.

But no! Wrong! Doing it this way locks those settings in permanently.

This video showed me – quite nonchalantly – that I can simply put in a levels layer. This means the levels can be changed later (or removed completely) with no impact on the original image.

This was a fundamental way of working that I had never bothered to look into that I know is going to save me so many headaches in the future, as it has caused so many headaches in the past.

In just a few seconds I had gone from feeling pretty cocky about my Photoshop knowledge to realising I was the Village Idiot of Graphic Manipulation.

But this is a good thing.

Back to school

They say that admitting you have a problem is the first step in recovery, and Photoshop is no different.

Armed with the knowledge that I don’t have as much knowledge as I thought, I hit YouTube video tutorials galore.

I started simple – using the pen tool. Then went on to the next ‘related video’ that peaked my interest.

Before I knew it I was down a rabbit hole of Photoshop tutorials learning how to accomplish all those fantastic effects and processes that I had seen highly talented digital artists achieve.

Professional graphic designers have the same tool as me. So why can’t I do it too?

After grabbing some images off Unsplash.com to try things out, I was away.

Image before Photoshop application

This (already very nice) headshot was my demo ground. In the ‘old days’ to make this a bit more striking I’d open up the ‘Levels’ and have a tweak. Then maybe do some ‘Brightness’ or ‘Contrast’. It would then look a bit less saturated, but the levels would be a bit off as I’d be putting this effect over the whole image. It would also irreversibly alter the photo.

But after some serious ‘masking’ of all the different elements of the photo (eyes, hair, headscarf, coat, background, etc) and independently tweaking them, the result was far better than I thought I’d be able to muster.

Image after Photoshop application

Subtle changes – and still a bit rough – but a huge improvement on my usual techniques.

How to break bad habits

So how do you break your inertia in Photoshop? Go out and learn new things!

If you have the time and the inclination, there really is no reason why you can’t achieve the same fantastic effects as some of the top design agencies out there.

And sure, it may be more convenient to still outsource your graphic projects to agencies (we’re all busy and we don’t have time to be messing around trying to perfectly mask every hair on a model’s head).

But by following through with some of these tutorials every now and again, you may pick up enough tips and tricks to let you handle the smaller projects that come your way yourself, saving serious money from outsourcing.

By peaking behind the curtain, you may find that the wizard you’ve been throwing cash at may not be so magic after all.

With so many free resources out there, it’s certainly worth a look.

Where to go for Photoshop lessons?

As I mentioned, there are literally hundreds of people out there making fantastic Photoshop tutorials, so just hit-up YouTube and go nuts.

But here are three that I have found excellent enough to subscribe to.

If you find any other good ones do let me know by posting in the comments below!
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