Photoshop can be pretty intimidating for the uninitiated. But go beyond the super-specced exterior and it’s actually a friendly little puppy of a program. It also happens to be the most awesome photo-editing tool out there. And if you want to get the most out of your photographic images, then sooner or later you’ll need to get to grips with Photoshop. This beginner’s Photoshop guide will show you exactly how.
Don’t worry if you’ve never used photo editing software before: This guide was written with exactly you in mind. By the end of it you’ll be editing your photos like a pro!
A beginner’s guide to Photoshop
Photoshop is an extremely complex and powerful tool, capable of a huge array of image editing and manipulation tasks. Clearly we’re not going to be able to cover more than a few of them here. Fortunately, we really don’t need to. As a beginner looking to improve your photos, most of the things that you will want to do in Photoshop are pretty straightforward. And there aren’t even that many of them.
To make a comparison with construction work, the average contractor will have a whole bunch of equipment that they can reach for when needed for a particular job. These specialized tools will differ massively depending on which area of construction the contractor works in. However, for the most basic jobs, the tools used by a plumber, joiner, or electrician are pretty much the same – screwdriver, hammer, wrench, saw, and so on.
It’s the same with Photoshop; to edit your images, you mostly just need to know how to do a very few basic tasks. The more advanced tools and techniques are there for those special cases where you have an unusual problem that needs to be fixed, or you want to achieve a particular look that’s totally out of the ordinary. These can wait.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that many of the more advanced Photoshop features aren’t really geared toward photographers at all, but are more for illustrators, graphic designers, and art directors who need to put together complicated layouts, collages, and storyboards. So while each new iteration of Photoshop adds many new features, only a small number of these will be of interest to us as photographers. Indeed, the most basic photo-manipulation techniques tend to remain pretty much the same over time. To get you started, we’re going to take a look at the most important of these features here.
First off, we need to get to know our way around. Photoshop is divided into a number of basic areas, each offering different ways to manipulate your photo. Let’s take a look at the most important ones.
The Menu bar at the top of the screen gives you access to a number of different commands via the File, Edit, Image and other drop-down menus. Here you will find commands for a wide range of tasks, from opening a new image or saving one you’ve already worked on, to rotating a photograph or adding special-effect filters to it.
The Tools panel is your toolbox containing many powerful features for the precision editing of photos. Here you can select functions such as the Paint Brush or Pen tools, used both for retouching work and more artistic or design tasks; advanced selection tools such as the Magic Wand or Lasso tools, permitting you to isolate specific areas of a photo for editing without affecting the rest of the image; various Shape tools for adding design elements; the Text tool for overlaying writing onto your photos; and the Eraser, Healing, and Clone Stamp tools for removing imperfections.
Some tools offer different variations beyond the basic form. For example, there are several versions of the Lasso tool, each designed for different photo editing tasks – a freehand one, a Polygonal one, and a Magnetic Lasso that “sticks” to the contours of objects. These extra options are accessed by clicking on the basic tool icon, revealing a pop-out menu.
Under the Menu bar sits the Options bar. This lets you change the parameters for whichever tool you are currently using. For example, if you have selected the Brush tool in the Tools panel and want to change the size, shape or opacity of the brush stroke, you will find all these controls here in the Options bar.
In addition to the Menu, Tools, and Options areas, there are also many other floating panels that will open when you select various commands from the Menu bar. These can be positioned wherever you like on the screen or easily closed when you are not using them. These panels include ones for editing color, contrast, and layers. To open a panel, go to the Window menu on the Menu bar.
Photoshop also offers different viewing/working modes. To quickly cycle through these (normal, full screen, black background) press F on the keyboard.
Opening a File
Open an image file such as a JPEG either by dropping it onto the Photoshop icon on your computer’s menu bar or by going to the File menu in Photoshop itself.
You can zoom in and out of an image either by using the Zoom tool (located in the Tools panel) or by using the shortcuts Command+ or Command- respectively. When zoomed in close, you can navigate around the image using the Hand tool (also located in the Tools panel) to pan left and right or up and down. Pressing the spacebar will also select the Hand tool (for as long as you keep it pressed), allowing you to quickly move the image around and then revert back to whatever tool you were using beforehand and continue working.
Saving a file in Photoshop is much like in any other program: you can either go to File > Save or File > Save As, or simply use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+S (Windows) or Command+S (Mac). If you have opened a JPEG file, you can continue to save it as a JPEG provided that you have not added any extra layers to the image (we look at layers in a separate article on more advanced photo editing). If instead you’ve added layers while working on your image, then you will need to save your photo in either a PSD or TIFF format.
Simple Image Adjustments
Cropping and Straightening
Cropping or straightening a photo will cause some loss of image quality. For this reason it’s always better to shoot your photos with the composition exactly how you want it right from the beginning. However, as the viewfinders on many entry-level cameras show less than the full image area – potentially allowing unwanted elements to sneak into the edge of the frame – that isn’t always possible. This means that sometimes you’ll have no choice but to crop a photo at the editing stage.
To do this, select the Crop tool in the Tools panel and a crop border will appear. Drag an edge or corner of the border to select the desired size and shape of the crop. Drag outside a corner of the crop border to rotate or straighten the image. Now press Enter (Windows) or Return (Mac) to finalize the crop process.
Although you should always aim for a technically “correct” exposure when shooting – and ideally one without too much contrast – you’re not obliged to keep this same degree of brightness and contrast when it comes to the editing stage. In fact, adjusting the brightness and contrast is often one of the simplest and most effective ways of improving a photo.
Don’t feel like you need to remain tied to what your eyes saw when you took the shot. Nor to the look of the photo as it came out of the camera. Adjusting the brightness and contrast of a photo is an important stage in any photographer’s creative process and can radically alter its look and atmosphere, helping you to realize the full potential of the image.
To adjust brightness and contrast, go to the Menu bar, and select Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. A new adjustment panel will appear. Move the Brightness slider left or right to change the overall lightness/darkness of the photo, or adjust the Contrast slider to increase or decrease contrast.
Once you’ve got the brightness and contrast of the photo where you want it, it’s time to turn your attention to the colors. Again, this is an important creative step that will go a long way towards determining the final look of your shot. Photoshop offers several tools to help you achieve this. Here we look at the most important of them.
In most cases, your first port of call for basic color adjustments will be the Color Balance panel. To access this, go to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance on the menu bar. Here you can make changes to the overall color balance of your image by adjusting the Cyan/Red, Magenta/Green and Yellow/Blue sliders.
The Shadows, Midtones and Highlights buttons on the Color Balance panel allow you to adjust the tone of these areas of the image independently from one another. As an example, you can keep the tone of darker areas cool by adding Cyan and Blue just on the Shadows setting, and then warm up the Highlights by adding red and yellow.
As with most Photoshop panels, you can compare the original image with a preview of how your adjustments will change it by toggling the Preview button. Once you’re satisfied, hit OK to make the changes permanent.
To adjust hue and saturation go to the menu bar and select Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation.
Increasing saturation will make the colors of your image stronger and more vibrant. This will give it more impact, helping it to stand out. Bear in mind, though, that although this can often be a good thing, it’s not always the best solution for every photo. By moving the Saturation slider in the opposite direction – giving a more sombre and low-key feel – you might actually make a better image in the end. It all depends on the mood you want to create.
As the name would suggest, the Lightness slider affects the brightness of colors in a photo. However, sometimes it can also be a more effective way of desaturating colors. Try experimenting with the Lightness and Saturation sliders together. For example, if adjusting the Saturation slider to -10 gives roughly the look you want, try moving it back to just -5 points and increasing the Lightness slider to +5 to compensate. This may or may not give a more subtle effect than just using the Saturation slider on its own to desaturate.
While you’re unlikely to make as frequent use of the Hue slider as the Saturation and Lightness ones, it can also be a highly effective tool in the editing process. Adjustments to the Hue slider will change the colors of your photo overall, drastically altering the feel of the photo. For this reason it should be used with caution.
One Color at a Time
Finally, although sometimes you may want to apply the above adjustments to all the colors in an image at the same time, and to the same degree, the results can often be a little too extreme when done like this. More useful is the ability to make these changes to only one select color at a time. For example, you can increase the saturation of only the reds in an image without changing any of the other colors.
To do this go to the drop-down menu at the top left of the Hue/Saturation panel and select only the reds (or the blues, or yellows, or whichever color you want). Now any changes that you make to the Saturation, Lightness or Hue sliders will only affect the color selected at that time, rather than all of the image.
Image size and resolution
Now that you’ve got your photos looking good, you’ll need to save them at an appropriate size and resolution for use. Precisely which size and resolution will depend on what you want to do with them. If you’ll be uploading your photos to social media, you’ll need to drop both the dimensions and resolution down to a manageable size: uploading an unnecessarily large file would just waste time and bandwidth.
By Image Size we mean the physical dimensions of the image (measured in pixels for online use, or in centimeters and inches for printing). This is different from file size (measured in bytes: KB, MB or GB), although these two things are connected.
To resize a photo, go to the Menu bar and select Image > Image Size. Keeping the Link icon highlighted will maintain relative image proportions: When you change the height, Photoshop will automatically adjust the width by the same degree, and vice versa. Select Resample to reduce the number of pixels in the image, changing the image size.
By resolution we mean the number of dots per inch (DPI) an image contains when it’s printed. This determines the quality of a print: A low DPI means fewer dots spread out over the print, leading to a grainy, pixelated print; a high DPI means many more dots crammed into the same space, leading to smaller dots and a smoother, more detailed and realistic image when printed.
To change image resolution, again go to Image > Image Size. Deselect Resample in order to preserve the original number of pixels in the photo. For printing, set the number of pixels per inch In the Resolution field to 300. This will also change the number of inches in the width and height fields correspondingly.
When reducing image size and/or resolution, save the new photo as a copy so that you always have the original high quality file to come back to if needed.
You’re all set
Obviously there are many more things you can do with Photoshop than the few we’ve mentioned here. But if you’ve mastered the steps above, you will now know how to take a regular photo from your phone or camera and work on it until it shines. In fact, in most cases, these few steps are all it will take to get a good shot looking great!