3 Things I Wish I Knew When Learning Photoshop

Lets go back a little while; I just spent my first few months working in Adobe Lightroom. I now feel like a hot shot photo editor who can woo just about anyone(not really)with my incredible, new found editing talents. I think it’s time to try Photoshop.

As many of you may already know, we all feel like photo editing prodigies after just a few months in Lightroom. We then muster up our overwhelming confidence, open up photoshop, and within minutes, close the program and run back to Lightroom, with our tails tucked between our legs.

Now what exactly is it that makes Adobe Photoshop appear so daunting? Is it the overwhelming amount of tools? The weird jargon? Is it simply just out of our comfort zones or are we unwilling to put in the time to learn? All are completely valid answers. All of which, are exactly the reasons I told myself, after failing to learning Photoshop originally.

Let me be the first to tell you, Photoshop isn’t easy to learn. It is a program vast in capabilities, but, that same vastness helps facilitate the endless amount of creative possibilities for you to delve into.

“But how do I begin to learn something if I don’t even know where to begin”, was my original struggle with first learning the program; and now my reason for writing. For those of you wanting to learn the basics, to get up on your feet in the program, then I urge you to continue reading.


Before I get into the 3 key tools to understand in photoshop, here’s a quick overview of the most basic pieces of the program that you should understand before hand.


An example of layers

Photoshop works in layers. Unlike Lightroom, that continuously adds adjustments to the  image, Photoshop adds adjustments ‘on top’ of your image, in a way. Imagine layers like make-up. You continue to add adjustments on top of the photo but they are just sitting on top of the image. Each adjustment, each new layer, is like its own entity; only covering up parts of the image of your choosing. Every layer will effect any of other the layers below it, unless using a clipping mask(see ‘clipping masks‘ below for details).

Adjustment Tools:

Adjustment tools are what you will use to adjust any layer. Each adjustment has its own capabilities from altering colour hues, to changing exposure. Play around with them and discover what they each do for yourself!

The layer adjustment panel. All layer adjustments can be found here. If you don’t see this in your workspace, see the set of images below.


Tool Bar:

You will find your tool bar on the left of your window. Click on your desired tool icon to begin using that tool. Some of these icons have a small arrow to the right of them. If you click and hold over that icon, alternate tools will appear. See below:


Adjusting Tool Values:

Once you have selected a desired tool, you may need to adjust its strength, mode, flow, etc. In this case I have selected the brush tool, as shown by a dark box. Now with my tool selected, a bar on the top left of my window will appear. This window shows adjustment options for the selected tool. Each tool you select will have its own unique adjustment bar. Experiment with different tools and their adjustments to further your understanding.


Top 11 Keyboard Shortcuts 

Ever heard of the saying, “work smart, not hard”? It’s referring to keyboard shortcuts. They aren’t completely necessary to know, but; they are extremely helpful for saving time and drastically reduce the required amount of clicking. Learn these shortcuts to become lightning fast in photoshop and look cool doing it.

Save your mouse, learn a few of these shortcuts that I guarantee you will use constantly:

D : Change active colour to WHITE

X : Change active colour to BLACK

cmd + J : Duplicate layer

cmd + T  : Transform(use to warp or change layer perspective)

cmd + Z : Undo to your last adjustment

alt + cmd + Z : Undo past your last adjustment

cmd + I : Invert your layer or layer mask

cmd + + : Zoom in

cmd + – : Zoom out

[ : Make brush size smaller

] : Make brush size larger

The list goes on for quite a ways. Before you dive in too deep in shortcuts, just try to focus on these basic ones to start off. You have to build the foundation before the house, am I right?

The 3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Learning Photoshop

Alrighty, now that we have a rough understanding of the interface at surface level, lets dive a little deeper. Here are the 3 things I wish I knew when I was learning Photoshop.

  1. Layer masks and what the heck those are.
  2. Smart filters… and what those are too…
  3. Clipping masks and why you should be using them.

Layer Masks:

Layer masks essentially control the transparency of a layer. White represents 100% visible while black represents 100% transparent. All the shades of grey in between represent varying transparency values as they get darker. Although they may sound complicated, I assure you, there is nothing difficult about them. Just remember them as a way to be more selective about where your layer adjustments are seen on the image. Play around with them and you’ll begin to piece together their uses as your skills progress.

On the top of some of the screenshots below are layer modes I have adjusted for my specific example image. You don’t need to worry about those for now. What they do is help blend in your layer, further. Experiment with them as you practice using layer masks to really begin to grasp their uses.

Since we are just focusing on layer masks for now, below is a set of examples taken from one of my projects:

1. screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-4-51-28-pm

Here you see a normal layer that I painted a gradient around, no layer mask. It is completely visible

2. screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-4-51-48-pm

With your desired layer selected, click the create new layer mask icon to create a new layer mask.

3. screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-5-01-17-pm

Now we have a white box beside our layer. This is our layer mask. Since it is white, that means it is 100% visible. All of our layer will still be visible.

4. screen-shot-2017-02-01-at-5-01-31-pm

With the layer mask selected, press cmd + I to invert the layer mask, turning it black. Now the entire layer is transparent.

Now we know how to create a layer mask and/or invert our layer mask. We typically would use a layer mask when we only want certain parts of the layer to be seen. In this case, I only wanted a small area to be visible. I changed my layer mask to black(100% transparent)for sake of ease allowing me to mask a smaller area. I select my brush tool (B) and paint white on the image in the areas I wished to be visible. This is shown on the layer mask:

Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 5.05.34 PM.png

You can do the opposite of this, by keeping your layer mask white(100% visible)and painting black over the image with your brush tool to mask out of the layer mask you are not wanting to see. Ensure your layer mask is selected before you paint on your image. You can be sure of this by looking for the white box around your layer mask, as shown above. If it is not selected, you will only be painting white or black over your actual image and not onto the mask.

In the layer adjustment above called, “Exposure 3“, it has a layer mask that is completely visible. Every layer adjustment automatically comes with a white layer mask(100% visible)but they function the exact same as any other layer mask. They can be inverted, and painted on in just the same ways; as long as they are selected.

Converting for Smart Filters and Using Smart Filters:

Thankfully for us, we don’t have to be all that smart to understand smart filters and how to use them. What a smart filter is, is it allows you to make adjustments to any filters you might add to a layer after you add them. Filters such as blurs, clouds, noise etc. All filters can be found under the “filters” tab on the top of your window.

If you do not use smart filters, then any filters you add will become permanent and you cannot make any adjustments to them later. They become a part of the layer. In certain cases this can be okay, but, an important habit to adopt is being non destructive in Photoshop. Non destructive meaning, anything can be undone or deleted at any time without any harm to other layers or your original image.

If you want to use smart filters, the first thing you must do is select your desired layer, go to ‘filter’ at the top of your window, then click ‘Convert for Smart Filters’. That’s it! After a moment, your selected layer will appear with this icon indicating it has been converted for smart filters:


The photo above shows a layer that has been converted for smart filters. Now you can begin to add filters.

Go back up to ‘filter’ then select your desired filter. For example, I selected blur – gaussian blur as you can see below. My layer now has a smart filter attached to it. Should I need to make any other adjustments to it, I just double click the filter. In this case I would double click where it says ‘Gaussian Blur‘ to make any adjustments.


Smart filters will each have their own layer masks. These layer masks are the exact same as the layer masks we previously discussed. In this example, I did not want the blur around the top edges, so I painted black(100% transparent)in the desired areas with my brush tool as shown below:


You can add as many smart filters as you would like to a layer converted for smart filters. I strongly urge you to use these if you aren’t 100% sold on a filter adjustment or you may have to go back and fine tune as your project develops. Smart filters are a good habit to get into since they can be altered or deleted at any time without harming the original layer they belong to. Remember, non-destructive editing!

Clipping Masks: 

You will quickly come to realize that layers will effect any other layers below it. That means that if you have any type of layer or layer adjustment, it will effect all layers its own layer is above. You might be guessing that you could use layer masks to get around that problem. This is true, but, when you have several adjustments, creating new layer masks repeatedly gets quite tedious. Another scenario is if you are bringing in a separate image into your photo, such as adding in mountains, clouds etc. If you only want to make adjustments to those added elements, you would use a clipping mask. When using a clipping mask you effect only the layer you are clipped to, without altering any of the layers below.

In this example, I want the exposure adjustment layer to only effect layer 4.


Above, there is no clipping mask. Any adjustments made to the exposure adjustment layer will effect all layers below. I only want it to effect layer 4.


When you select a new layer adjustment, an adjustment window will appear with controls. Should you ever need to make further adjustments to an adjustment layer, just double click its icon in your layers panel. At the bottom of this adjustment layer window, is a small box with an arrow as indicated above. Click that button to clip the selected layer to the layer below.


The layer will now have an arrow beside it indicating it is clipped to the layer below. All adjustments made to ‘exposure 4’ will now only effect the layer below, ‘layer 4’.

You can continue to add adjustment layers and clip them to the layer below as many times as needed. Between clipping and layer masks, you now have the ability to really fine tune the details with better precision.

It may all sound quite complicated now but begin putting some of these new found abilities to work. Experiment with your own photos and see how using layer masks, smart filters and clipping masks all drastically improve your ability to refine your edit. The more you practice the easier it will become!

Staying Organized 

As your skill set increases, some projects will take you well into 50+ separate layers all with their own layer masks, smart filters, and clipping masks. No matter how good at memorization you think you might be, I can assure you; you won’t remember what every single layer is for.

Luckily, there are simple work arounds for keeping organized that you can get into the habit of doing right away. Things to help you organize are groups, and custom naming each layer.


Above is an example of a photo manipulation I created. Each layer is custom named to help me keep track of what’s what. To rename a layer, hover over the text and click. A box should appear for you to type in, to replace the current name. Just the same as renaming a file on your computer.


At a closer glance, there is also a folder icon in my layers panel with a custom name. This icon represents a group.


Upon clicking this group, it opens to reveal all layers inside. To add layers into an already existing group, just drag and drop your desired layers into the group. If you do not already have a group created, you can either select all the layers you want to group then click the ‘group’ icon shown below, or, you can click the ‘group’ icon and drag and drop your layers in afterwards.


Create a group for any similar layers. For example, all layers that are seen in the foreground could be grouped together and group named ‘foreground’. All layers used to create a sun burst or gradient could be grouped and group named ‘sun burst & grads’. Grouping layers not only helps to keep things together, but also keeps your layers panel nice and tidy. Remember that staying organized is easy. Group similar layers and use custom names to improve your workflow, ultimately keeping you from losing your mind if you haven’t already.

That’s It!

So there’s 3 (and a bit more) things I wish I knew when learning Photoshop. We discussed the basics of the Photoshop interface including where we can find our layers, the places where our layer adjustments can be found, as well as our tool bar and how to access extra tools. We learned a few key shortcuts that will drastically improve your workflow speeds while editing, as well as; what measures we should take to keep our layers organized and tidy. Finally, we discussed 3 key tools that I believe are imperative, for anyone getting into Photoshop, to learn. Layer masks, smart filters, and clipping masks. Although basic, these 3 simple tools will begin to vary in complexity as your capabilities and understanding further progress.

Ultimately, I hope this guide has helped you to find a start point in your Photoshop journey. The more you practice using the program, and working with these techniques, the better you will become over time. Be sure to keep an eye out as I create photo editing video tutorials for you to continue to grow your skills beyond this guide.  Stay creative, be authentic, and enjoy the process. I can’t wait to see what you create!

Brendan Williams – Outbound Media

Find more of my guides and video tutorials here: http://www.outboundmedia.net/Tutorials


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