Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Don’t do stuff you don’t have to do.
In the interest of establishing clarity in a subject riddled with booby-traps, I’ll preface this blog by stating unhesitatingly that I am no Photoshop genius. This no doubt will come as a relief, for these days there are many who claim to be just that.
Most YouTubers own intimate knowledge in everything from neck-straps to Puppet Warp - while never having earned a cent from actually taking photographs. Such is the weird world we live in. But I’m not like that. I’ve been a working editorial writer and photographer for 35 years and in that time have learned a thing or three about the easiest ways to work with Photoshop.
My purpose with this blog is to help amateur photographers in whom Photoshop has created lasting confusion. I’m happy to share what I know, believe, or think I’m pretty sure of with the following observations.
First up, since Photoshop offers too many ways to do the same thing, it helps if you keep it simple. If you don’t understand what’s happening with a Curves or Levels adjustment, use the Brightness/Contrast sliders instead. They’re not as versatile but will get you close to the ‘correct’ result. (Keeping in mind that there’s no such thing as ‘correct’; what I believe to be immeasurably lovely, you might think is roadkill ugly).
Anyway the point is, if you’re having success with a few simple steps that yield pleasing results, don’t change what you’re doing. Your processing doesn’t have to be complicated.
But please, shoot raw. Raw files have far more digital information than a tiff or jpg. Raw is where all the fine detail lives. Once you have a grip on the raw converter you’re using, probably Lightroom in your case, 70 to 80 percent or even more of your processing can be completed on the raw file.
It takes me about 30 minutes to process a black and white image. I don’t include objects or effects that weren’t there - which seems to be the propelling force in modern landscape photography I have to say – so you could say that 'sticking to the facts' is another reason my routine is uncomplicated.
I don’t use Lightroom. I prefer Adobe Camera Raw, because I’ve used it for years and know every inch of it. It creates no emergency for me that you prefer Lightroom though, so please, continue with it if you find it easy to use and it gives you photographs you like to look at.
Black and white is my first photographic love and has the benefit of chopping down Photoshop’s skyscraper complexity to a building of one or two levels. I don’t have to ask myself, was the sunrise really that colour, or is that skin tone correct? Shooting black and white uncomplicates Photoshop.
And when shooting, I view the subject in black and white, not colour. Apparently though, I’m doing it wrong. The gurus say I should shoot in colour, convert the file to mono in my raw converter, then use the HSL slider to adjust contrast and tone. This works, but not for me.
I discovered long ago that colour in-camera looks nothing like black and white in-camera. For example, a coloured object that stands out in a colour photo might be barely visible in a black and white version of that photo. So I set my Lumix GH4 Photo Style to Monochrome, even though this practice is said to be not only backward but probably illegal.
As a general practice, layers and masks don’t figure in my processing routine. Instead I use the History brush and History panel to manage non-layer adjustments on a duplicate file. For me this technique is simpler, faster, non-destructive, and produces the subtle adjustments I need without creating enormous files steeped in layers and their odious masks.
I favour street photography because I find it relaxing – important in a world gone mad – as well as challenging and rewarding. I also photograph dogs. I have a lifelong love for Canis Familiaris and I'm presently engaged in a project that will illustrate, in both senses of that word, the part that dogs play in the life of humans.
So, after wandering the streets for hours looking for pictures telling Dog or Human stories, I return to my office, accompanied by my dog, to edit the photographs using a technique called Murder Your Darlings.
This is actually an educational tool for writers, an inducement to keep only the best work and dump the rest. The lesson is applicable to photography. It's tough but fair, like Genghis Khan, but can be difficult to learn if immediately you fall in love with every photograph you take. That's the way to creative ruin. Be tough. You may like a photo, very much, but if it isn’t up to scratch, you murder it, and quickly, before you become attached. Genghis would have done it without flinching, which suggests to me that on at least one level he would have made an excellent photographer.
So, after the Battle of Little Bighorn and the subsequent bloodbath in my office, pictures that don’t meet what I like to think of as my high standards are chucked in the bin, never to be seen again.
WHERE’D THEY ALL GO?
The good ones are saved to my PC’s SSD drive and then copied to two portable hard drives. It’s difficult work making good photographs and although I’d rather make photographs than do anything else, I’m careful not to put stuff where my ageing grey matter can’t find it. Your grey matter may be young and pink but the logic is still pertinent.
Processed raw files are converted to tiffs and stored in a folder called UNSHARP MASTERS. This is important. Sharpening is the last thing I do to a file so it follows that image size should not be changed once a file has been sharpened. Why is it so important?
Well, if a friend, or even your first real customer, wants to buy from you an 18x12 print of a shot that you’ve saved as a sharpened 10x8, simply upsizing to 18x12 is giving that customer an inferior product. Keep unsharpened versions of your favourite files so that later you can sharpen and print them to any size.
Sharpening. Ah yes, the experts have fun with this one. But here’s the working truth as I know it.
There’s too much sharpening going on and I’m not happy about it. Modern lenses are very sharp and the images produced by these glass tubes do not always benefit from aggressive sharpening if they were sharp to begin with. Some files should not be sharpened at all.
Denoising is equally important. If you fail to denoise before you sharpen, you’ll sharpen the noise and that looks unattractive.
I give raw files a tiny amount of sharpening in Camera Raw, at an extremely low radius. When finished with the raw file I save an unsharpened version of it as a tiff.
Later, when I'm ready to get the file printed and framed, and hung where it can impress me no end, I size it first then sharpen it.
When sharpening, I limit the effect to parts of the subject that are supposed to look sharp. I don’t sharpen everything. 'Painting' sharpening in a specific part of the picture is easy, even without the odious layers and masks.
For images on social media I use Save For Web (Legacy) in Photoshop, 1920 pixels on the long side and file size about 400kb. These load quickly on my website and are large enough for crisp display. When you get down to it, I don’t deliberately sharpen for the web with Smart Sharpen, Unsharp Mask, High Pass, a bread knife or anything else.
Learn about Curves. Curves is the most useful adjustment, the Photoshop multi-tool, so when you're confident enough to move on from simple Brightness/Contrast adjustments, learn all about Curves.
As well as helping you control contrast and luminosity (lightness and darkness), it can quickly confirm colour accuracy and finetune colour balance.
If you load Curves, or any other adjustment, from the adjustment list at the bottom of the Layers panel, you’ll get a layers adjustment with a mask. Uh-oh!
If the fearful idea of using layers and masks fills you with, well, fear, avoid them by loading your adjustment from the ‘Image’ dropdown menu at the top of the Photoshop window. From there you will get the adjustment without a layer and a mask.
And see the ‘Auto’ panel on the righthand side of the Curves box? Those who know no better ridicule this as overly simplistic but it’s a useful guide to how Photoshop’s brain would adjust a photograph. It may be right or it may not be, but it will certainly give you an idea of where you might begin with your adjustments. Let’s not be precious about this: if it works, try it!
In some cases, making extreme adjustments can help you understand what that adjustment does. As an example, pushing the Saturation slider way too far will make the file look surreal or even ridiculous. But it will also help you understand what that Saturation slider does and how far you can push it. There is nothing wrong with experimenting if it advances your knowledge. And you need no-one’s permission to be surreal and ridiculous if that’s what blows your skirt up.
Okay, we’re 1500 words now so I’ll cease jabbering for a bit and let you ponder my ramblings. I’ve not been too technical for good reason: the photograph is the important thing and Photoshop only a finishing tool.
But if you need more explanation of any topic discussed here, please email me, ask a question and I’ll do my best to give you a sensible answer.
Meanwhile, get out there and do some shootin’.