Musings on Photography

Photoshop, reduced

Posted in photoshop by Paul Butzi on November 12, 2007

One of the things I hear repeatedly from folks who are just starting out with a digital printing workflow is “Photoshop is just too complicated. There’s too much to get a grip on.” This is a slightly different twist on the same theme as is discussed in Photoshop Future, where the complaint is that the interface to Photoshop has just gotten too unwieldy.

Those are legitimate complaints. Photoshop is too big, with lots of features that photographers don’t really need. And the interface is too unwieldy, so that you have to drill through lots and lots of stuff to find the things you want. And the combination of those two means that for a beginner, it seems like not only are there more ways than one to skin a cat, there are infinitely many was to skin a cat, and there’s no obvious way to choose what you’re going to do from among all those ways.

There is a solution, though. What I recommend (and teach to students) is to strip Photoshop down to a few key concepts/tools, master those concepts, and then go exploring through the vast array of tools that Photoshop offers only when the problem at hand can’t be conquered using those core tools.

I’d say that those core tools are:

  • layers – layers are the basic structuring tool that is used to organize your edits to photos, to adjust how they relate, and to make your edits be reversible. If you can’t understand and use layers in Photoshop, you’re not going to get anywhere. Never do anything directly to an image if you can instead put the adjustment in a layer.
  • layer masks – layer masks are the way that you restrict a change to just a certain area of an image. I’m particularly fond of putting gradients in layer masks, perhaps because I grew up doing essentially this to blend burns and dodges in the traditional darkroom.
  • Curves – forget about the levels, brightness, contrast controls. All of those changes can be expressed, more easily and intuitively, as a curves layer. Burns, dodges, bleaching are classic tradtional darkroom methods that can be easily expressed as curve layers with masks to restrict the change to certain areas.
  • sharpening, especially good old classic unsharp masking – in addition to using sharpening to crisp up an image prior to output, unsharp masking with a large radius and low percentage is an essential tool for building internal contrast in an image.
  • cloning and healing brush, for spotting images.

There are other useful tools in Photoshop. But the fundamental adjustments to images, both getting to what the traditional darkroom worker would consider a ‘good straight print’ and getting to what the same traditional worker would call an ‘expressive print’, can usually be expressed in terms of those fundamentals. And working with those fundamentals first means that you’ve pared the staggering complexity of Photoshop down to a manageable size. The vast majority of images I print are adjusting using these tools. Beyond that, I find that teaching people how to think about the problem of printing in terms of these fundamental concepts gives them a useful way of thinking about the problems of printing (e.g. think about tonality, contrast, etc. in terms of curve adjustments). It’s not just a limited set of tools that’s easily mastered, it’s a whole way of thinking about the image that gives you a structured way to go from the raw image to the final print.

Do I use other tools? Sure. But not very often. Am I a Photoshop expert? No way. I’m just a photographer who’s figured out that the vast majority of clever Photoshop tricks I neither need nor want. I can either spend my time mastering the sneaky tricks in the next volume of “Photoshop Wizardry for the Masses”, or I can spend my time out in the field with the camera, or at the computer printing. I’m sure there are artistic, creative ways to use all those tricks and spiffy tools. But I don’t seem to need them at all. For me, the secret seems to be to ignore them.

7 Responses

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  1. Gordon McGregor said, on November 12, 2007 at 2:06 pm

    I think in many ways, that’s what Lightroom aims to do, too. The subset of tools and features are very similar to what you’ve listed, except for the missing concept of localized adjustments via layer masks.

    I still use Photoshop, I know it inside and out but find I just need the hassle most of the time now, lightroom gets me the output I want, much of the time, though some more localized control would be nice.

  2. lumieredargent said, on November 13, 2007 at 1:10 am

    Not sure LightRoom, nor Aperture, aim to do that at all. There is a curve tool in LR and the Levels tools in Aperture allows a lot, but in each case the tool can be applied once and only once to a photo.

    Prior to allow localized adjustments, Adobe and Apple have to allow to use a same adjustment several times and given the way those tools work, the performance hit could make the idea impractical, unless they implement the internal pyramid of lower resolution renderings like in PhotoShop.

  3. Mike said, on November 13, 2007 at 3:56 am

    Get a copy of’s Picture Window Pro. It has these tools and many more that are purely photo-oriented at a fraction of the price. And it works on a bog-standard PC.

  4. Frank Armstrong said, on November 13, 2007 at 7:22 am

    Without doubt, PS is what a student NEEDS to know. It is the program they are most likely to have to know something about if they get a job that has anything to do with images and imaging. I’m with you all the way on the features you selected. However, curves is the most difficult concept/tools to grasp if a beginning student hasn’t had a background in the darkroom. Every fall I teach (…er, explain/show) the rudiments of a PS workflow to a dozen or so beginners. By the second week most are up and running. Hell, it’s more difficult to control the Epson 4000 we use for output than it is to learn the basics of PS.


  5. Paul Butzi said, on November 13, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Urging me to try Picture Window Pro runs headlong into several problems:

    1. I’m happily up to speed on Photoshop. Any switch of tools means I lose time to the switch.
    2. I already own Photoshop. So buying PWP means I spend bucks to replace a tool I have and like and which works well.
    3. PWP is available only for Windows. Since I am now doing everything on Macs, this means that PWP is dead to me.

  6. Mike said, on November 13, 2007 at 10:54 pm

    OSX can work on PCs. Macs are Intel PCs in disguise. Windows programs can work under Apple OS. I wasn’t expecting you to change, Paul. The suggestion was for others who still live in the PC world. And you wouldn’t have been spending all that much — the program’s very priceworthy. It’s not a PS Lite. It’s a full spectrum photo editor.


  7. Ed Richards said, on November 16, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    PWP is a sweet program, which I used for years. The show stopper is that they use masks like PS uses layers, but the masks are each separate files. Wonderful in the old days because you could edit huge files with limited memory, but I went nuts trying to keep track of the masks that went with an image. Still, a very nice program.

    I would differential sharpening, which Paul introduced me to. For some images you need to sharpen some parts of the image a lot, others less, and sometimes you even want to blur the sky.

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