Photoshop for Beginners – We Take this Back to Basics!


Does learning Photoshop make you feel like digital photography is just so darn complicated?!

It happens to us all….and overwhelm sets in. Okay, it's not that bad, otherwise, no one would be using it, right?

So, if you're into photography or in the field of design, you will almost certainly be familiar with one of Adobe’s famous pieces of software, “Adobe Photoshop.”

As far as post processing is concerned, having a basic knowledge of photoshop can be of great help although if you have other software you use for post processing (e.g. Lightroom), at least you'll understand some of the basics.

photoshop for beginners
Image by Freeimages9

Photoshop for Beginners – Why Even Use Photoshop?

Do not misunderstand the usage of photoshop in photography. Using photoshop, one cannot convert a badly composed and shot image into a perfect and outstanding one. Sorry.

When it comes to photography, photoshop should be used to post process your image to give it a pop – to make it look stunning; in other words, bring out the hidden details already existing in the file thereby converting a good photo into a great photo.

On the other hand, if you're into photo manipulation, then by using photoshop, you can create some amazing digital art using the various creative tools that the software provides.

Photoshop for beginners
Image by Kanenori

If you are new to photoshop or are planning to get your hands on Photoshop, the tips here will help you get started. All these basic adjustments are easily doable, and you will see quite a huge difference between the before and after images after post processing.

Make Photo Processing Easy with Layers

Photoshop is a very powerful tool and basically, you make use of layers to accomplish various tasks as you improve your skills. In the layers panel, you can create a new layer and delete any layer.

There are also options to drag layers to any desired positions, merge layers and create groups among layers. All these help you accomplish different tasks in an easier manner, within photoshop.

Photoshop lets you work non-destructively, which means, you do not work on the background layer, which is your original image, but rather add layers and adjustment layers for the different changes that you make while processing.

The adjustment layer is a layer that is created where you make edits without making changes to the original layer, that is your background layer. The effect of layers can be switched on or off using the eye icon next to each layer.

In order to get around photoshop, you do need to be familiar with the workspace, i.e. the toolbox, menu and the palettes which will greatly enhance your working experience in Photoshop.

The tool box, the adjustment panel and layers panel have most of the tools needed for basic processing.

The basic workflow that a photographer would follow to post process the images would be,

  1. Straighten and crop the image
  2. Remove spots
  3. Noise removal
  4. Adjust exposure and contrast
  5. Adjust shadows and highlights
  6. Adjust the saturation and vibrance
  7. Sharpen if required

Before you get into processing your images, a good understanding of what the above mean is very important. For example, saturation and vibrance may seem to mean the same, but they are very different. Read to find out what they are and how they can be accomplished.

A Quick Tip:

If you are using the creative cloud version of Photoshop, Adobe Photoshop CC, then the Camera Raw filter in the filters Menu will let you work on your images flexibly, starting from correcting white balance to lens correction, etc.

When you are working with RAW files, it is recommended to use camera raw within photoshop for easier post-processing. You have all the tools ready on a single window, rather than you having to go through menus and other “tools within tools” in the toolbox.

photoshop for beginners
Image by torstensimon

Straightening is a process where you get the image straight. That is you get the horizon straight for landscapes, the verticals and horizontals right for architecture and with any other images, you just get the lines straight unless you leave it otherwise for creative purpose.

When straightening, it is best to do the lens correction and perspective correction as well, so that you get the image ready for the cropping part. I personally prefer the cropping tool for straightening too as it is a straightforward one.

Another Quick Tip:

To quickly straighten an image, use the ruler tool in the “Eyedropper” group.
Choose the ruler tool and drag a line across the horizon or any vertical line that needs straightening.
Then, “Image” menu -> Image Rotation -> Arbitrary, photoshop corrects the horizontals or verticals for you. Crop off the transparent area around.

For lens correction and perspective correction, “Filter” Menu -> Lens Correction -> Auto-Correction, lets you choose the lens to correct distortions, whereas, Filter Menu -> Lens Correction -> Custom Tab, is where you will have all the sliders to correct perspectives, add vignettes, etc.

Cropping is where you crop out unwanted elements from the frame to get a pleasing and compelling composition. This tool can be found in the tool box.

You create a frame free of clutter, with the elements positioned in the correct areas in the frame. Sometimes adjustments are made in this step to follow certain compositional rules of photography, like for example, the rule of thirds and so on.

Tip: Be mindful not to frame an image in camera, thinking you can make the composition better in post. As much as possible, compose your frame perfectly in the camera itself, unless you are genuinely restricted or limited by gear or location issues.

photoshop for beginners
Image from Pixabay

The Spot healing tool helps you to remove unwanted specks and spots from images. With portraits, it helps to remove spots and blemishes, and in landscapes and other images, it helps to remove specks due to dust or dirt in the sensor.

These dust spots become more prominent in the brighter regions of the landscape as landscapes are usually shot with a smaller aperture.

The radius of the brush can be adjusted according to the size of the speck or spot (keep it a little bigger than the spot). Just click on the spot and photoshop works on healing that part of the image by sampling from around the retouched area to colour match and correct.

The red-eye removal tool is another important tool that comes within the group where the spot healing tool is. Use this to remove red eyes in portraits.

Once the tool is selected, select the pupil size and darken amount (the default settings should work just fine). Using the tool, drag a box around the pupil and release, the red-eye should be gone.

Noise reduction can be done in a simple way using the “reduce noise” filter. “Filter” menu -> Noise -> Reduce noise. You can reduce color noise and sharpen details here. Do not overdo this, but work with the sliders to find the settings that work best for the image.

Exposure and contrast issues with the images can be corrected using the levels and curves in the Image menu. Image -> Adjustments -> Levels or Curves. You can also use the adjustment panel to correct these.

Shadows and highlights can be adjusted to work with the very dark or very bright regions of the images. To access this, Image -> Adjustments -> Shadows/Highlights

photoshop for beginners
Image by Gabriela Neumeier

Saturation and vibrance play a very important role in bringing out the colors lost in the image. Do not get hooked on to increasing these settings for no reason because as a beginner, enhancing the colors of an image may look very cool.

In order to make the best use of these tools, you need to know the difference between vibrance and saturation.

Vibrance tool increases the intensity of the more muted colors and leaves the normally saturated colors as they are. It is more like filling in colors where they are missing. This usually does not affect the skin tones that much.

The Saturation tool, on the other hand, increases the intensity of all the colors in your image, be it muted ones or normally saturated ones. It also makes the skin tones look very orange and unnatural. So using this tool has to be kept to a minimum unless the image lacks color.

Work with the vibrance tool too, and if you still feel that the image needs a color boost, increase the saturation a tad.

Sharpen tool is used to bring in more details to the images, helping them look sharper. A very effective way to sharpen the image is

  • Duplicate the selected layer (Ctrl + J for Windows and Cmd + J on a Mac)
  • For the Duplicate layer, On the Filter Menu -> Other -> High Pass
  • Adjust the Radius Value here so that you just see the edges in the image and hit “Ok”
  • Change the blending mode to “Overlay”
  • Adjust the opacity to your liking or just leave it like that if the image looks good.
photoshop for beginners
Image by Alexandra (Alexas_Fotos)

Vignette tool is one that is used to add dark or light edges to the image. In most cases, a darker edge works better and this technique is used to draw viewer’s attention to a certain part of the image without them getting distracted.

Our eyes tend to move towards the brighter parts of the image and hence this technique works well.

So, where do you find this tool in Photoshop?

Filter Menu -> Lens Correction -> Choose “Custom” tab -> and you find the lens correction, chromatic aberration, vignette, perspective correction tools here. A menu with some very useful settings here, especially for architectural photography!

You can choose the amount of vignette here (slide left for darkening) and also adjust the midpoint here to adjust the size of the vignette.

photoshop for beginners
Image by Jesus Leal


  1. Learning the keyboard shortcuts will cut short processing time and will help speed up your workflow. If not all, at least the most frequently used shortcuts like the move tool, paintbrush tool, new layer, merge, erase tool, clone stamp, quick selection tool, duplicate layer, transform, select / deselect, etc. You would have come across quite a few in this article already!
  2. Always keep your background layer as your original unedited image so that it is easier for you to later go back to check how your unedited image looked. If you want to preview your original image in photoshop after making several adjustments, here is a quick shortcut to see your before and after images in photoshop. Option key (for Mac) and Alt key (for Windows) + the eye icon on your background layer allows you to check the before/after images in photoshop. Simple!
  3. The above trick applies for any layer you want to see on its own. Just press Option key (for Mac) and Alt key (for Windows) + the eye icon on the desired layer and you will be able to see the effect of that particular layer.
  4. Do you like those special effects on your images? Photoshop has a cool list of filters that you can apply to your image to get different looks. To play around with the filters, go to the “Filter” Menu -> Filter Gallery and choose what you like. As a beginner, for a start, you can also apply different filters to different duplicate layers of the same image, blend them and create different effects.
  5. Do you wish to separate an object from its background? The magic wand tool comes in handy here. Just select the tool from the tool box and click on the object to select it. Copy and paste to another layer. This works fine with objects that have a well-defined shape and color boundary.
  6. In other cases, you can use the magnetic lasso tool. Select the tool, click on the edge of the object to be selected and draw along the border or edge of the object. Once complete, the selection line will automatically complete. Copy paste to a new layer.
  7. There is a “Rotate view” rather than “rotate image” that you can make use of in photoshop. Just press “R” and you should be able to rotate the picture around with the tool, rather than rotating the image itself.
  8. If you are editing multiple text layers, like applying the same changes to all of them, for example, font, font size, spacing etc., just hold down the Cmd button (for Mac) or Ctrl button (for Windows) and select the different layers. Make the necessary changes in the toolbar and it applies to all the layers.
  9. If you want more than one “Undo” action (“Ctrl + z” for Windows and “Cmd + z” for Mac) in photoshop, hold down the “Alt” key as well for extra undos.
    For example, “Ctrl + Alt + z” for Windows. You will need to set the undo limits in the “History States” of your program. To do this, Preferences -> Performance -> Under “History States” set the limits. The more the number, the slower will be the performance of the program. So be wise in choosing this number.
  10. Use the channel mixer to create some beautiful black and white photos. To do that, New Adjustment Layer -> Channel Mixer -> Tick “Monochrome”. Carefully drag the red, green and blue sliders to get the desired results.

Further Resources

About Author

Dahlia is a stock photographer and full time educator at Light Stalking. You can find her on Gurushots and see some of her more popular articles at The American Society of Media Photographers. Get to know her better here.

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