Musings on Photography

Simplifying Photoshop

Posted in photoshop, process by Paul Butzi on December 8, 2006


If I might steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, Photoshop is the worst photo editing software ever – except for all the others.

It’s not just big, it’s bloated. It’s hellaciously expensive. It runs like a pig, it seems to consume vastly more resources than ought to be needed. The interface, which has not so much been designed as much as it sort of accreted over time, is non-orthogonal, non-intuitive, arcane, and notoriously difficult to learn (and write about). There are keyboard shortcuts that you can’t read about in any book, weird tricks that are undocumented by Adobe – the list of complaints just goes on and on and on. It’s so amazingly bad that I think you could just invent a complaint – “The needlegrommit doesn’t interact properly with the through-flammulator”, and by god, you’d discover that Photoshop CSII actually had both a needlegrommit and a through-flammulator, and sure enough, the two don’t interact properly.

When I have students who want to get a toe-hold on Photoshop, here’s what I tell them: there are just a few key concepts. Most of the commands are variations or embellishments on one, basic, powerful concept. Learn the one command that controls the entire sheaf of operations that stem from that basic concept, and you can ignore a whole slew of stuff. This not only pares down the complexity of Photoshop, it makes your photo editing decision process work more smoothly.

For me, those key concepts are: curves, layers, layer masks. Those are the fundamentals; they’re the foundation on which everything rests. Without mastery of those key concepts, it’s an uphill struggle to make any headway at all on working with Photoshop.

Take curves, for instance. All tonal adjustment in PS is based on curves. If you’ve got curves, you can throw out levels and brightness/contrast. Combined with the ability to make selections, the curves tool can replace the dodge tool, the burn tool, the sponge tool. But if you have mastered levels, brightness/contrast, the dodge tool, the burn tool, and the sponge tool, you STILL haven’t got the expressive power of curves. Why learn levels, brightness/contrast, dodge, burn, and sponge when you can just learn curves and selections?

The problem with Photoshop isn’t that it’s insufficiently powerful and expressive. The problem is that it offers too many ways to get the job done, and not only do people founder when trying to decide how to get the job done, the unnecessarily broad range of choices distracts them from the real task, which is deciding what needs to be done.

5 Responses

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  1. Rosie Perera said, on December 8, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Well said! I found a complete list of CS2 keyboard shortcuts here. I find that stumbling upon (or systematically learning) the keyboard shortcuts in a complex piece of software helps me use the product more efficiently and frees up time to learn its basic concepts more thoroughly. On the other hand, when you’ve got four pages of three columns of small print worth of keyboard shortcuts (OK, admittedly, two of those pages are just a reordering of the shortcuts sorted by keycap instead of by function), then that’s a way overcomplicated product.

  2. Concentrik said, on December 8, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    Paul said –

    “…..the real task, which is deciding what needs to be done.” (my italics).

    I believe that gets right to the heart of the matter and I’ll wager that the vast majority of Photoshop users take a scattergun approach to digital editing along the lines of:

    “Let’s get this image into Photoshop and see what we can DO TO IT”

    In another life I worked in the film industry and one of the first things you notice on any set is that there are generally LOTS of toys around. At first glance it might appear to be an essentially technical matter to coax images onto film,
    through the labs and via tortuous editing eventually onto the screen. There’s a curious parallel here with Photoshop – surrounded by endless complex possibilities, the temptation may be to simply avail oneself of every manipulation available in the hope of producing a fine image. I guess we’ve all seen that kind of movie – lame plot, Pinochio acting, no narrative drive – but so crammed with ‘production value’ it’s got helicopters on the walls of Troy …..

    Luckily most movies aren’t made like that. The actual production is just the act of conforming the material – set, actors, properties – to a well conceived, predetermined plan. Sure, there’s plenty of room for improvisation and development, but if you turn up without a clear strategy, hoping to sort it out ‘on the day’…. it shows in the final print.

    You can apply this approach to image editing, but I’ve never seen it mentioned in anyone’s workflow. Forgive me if I simply haven’t searched hard enough Before doing anything in Photoshop how about…. making a print !!! The same size as your intended final print, not a loupe-sized paper-saver. Then look at it, carefully and decide what needs to be done… make the decisions, visualise the edit path to the final print, annotate the workprint and conform it in the edit, thereby freeing yourself from the Tyranny of Photoshop! (and avoiding those helicopters)

  3. Anonymous said, on December 8, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    Forget Photoshop, that is another terrific water picture.

  4. Dwight Jones said, on December 9, 2006 at 5:44 am

    Nice photo. Just for fun, converted it to B&W. (In photoshop.) I think it’s much more powerful in B&W than in color.

  5. Phojo Nick said, on December 20, 2006 at 6:02 am

    Have you ever seen LightZone? I just switched to using it, and am very happy.

    The power of photoshop in a photographer-friendly interface.

    I’ve never been a big fan of PS, I’d rather be out shooting than fiddling with numbers. LightZone allows me to adjust different zones of tonality directly, while watching the results on the screen. No numbers required.


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