Essential Editing I: The Basics of Using Photoshop

Editing, specifically Photoshop, opens up a whole new array of possibilities for the photographer. There are a million different ways to creatively tweak your photos and do things that are not possible (or would take a really long time) with a camera alone. But, so many options can be scary!

In part one of our three part editing series, I’ll talk about a few of the Photoshop tools you should know about and take advantage of as a photographer. It only scratches the surface, but it’s a good place to start!

Begin building your editing knowledge in part one of this three part photography editing series!

Layers in photoshop being stacked on top one another



Dive even deeper into the Photoshop world of editing in the Craftsy class 25 Innovative Photoshop Techniques for Photo & Video, where you’ll learn even more amazing ways transform your images and videos.


The first thing to understand about Photoshop is that you work in layers. There is a layers window that allows you to see the layers and how they are stacked one on top of another. You can add effects to the layers: increase and decrease the opacity, change the order and manipulate each layer individually.

Spending some time working with multiple layers, including changing the order and opacity will help you to see how the layers interact with one another. As you become more advanced, it may not be uncommon to have 50 or more layers on a single image and start grouping the layers together.

Layers also allow you to keep a copy of your original image in the same working file without having multiple files for every change you decide to make. Of course, adding layers increases the file size of your image, so be sure that your computer is up to the task before you start working.


Along with layers, masking is one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop and takes you to the next level of possibilities over Lightroom. Let’s say you have two images, and you want to take an element from one and add it to the second. If you open both in Photoshop and create a file (so that each image is on a separate layer) you could cut out the part you want from one image and add it to the other.

But, the beauty of masking is that you can cut out the part of the image that you want and then later decide that you want more of the image or less of the image, without redoing your work. Masking is a lot like cutting out part of the image, but you are instead masking (or hiding) part of the image, which prevents you from losing that pixel of information for good.

Two regular files and examples of how they change when layered with blending different blending modes.

Blending modes

I could write several posts just on blending modes, but for now, let’s stick to some of the more common modes and how to use them. There are 27 modes in Photoshop, all grouped by function. The ones I use the most are: Normal, Multiply, Screen, Overlay, Soft Light and Hard Light.

The Normal mode is just that — no special blending. You can take the opacity to 50%, and you’ll see exactly 50% of whatever is underneath that layer. The Multiply mode is a darkening mode, like the others in it’s grouping. It seems to darken things the best, while retaining detail and smooth transitions of color—literally multiplying the luminance values of the dark pixels stacked on one another. Screen is a lightening blending mode and works kind of opposite of multiply, in that it multiplies the luminance values of the light pixels.

Overlay, Soft Light and Hard Light modes all are a mix of Multiply and Screen modes, where the darker pixels values are multiplied and the lighter pixel values are multiplied at the same time. Overlay does both pretty evenly. Soft light is a weaker effect and gives more transparency to the light and dark areas. Hard Light is a stronger effect.

You will have to try these on your own to really get a handle on them, but hopefully the examples give you the idea. And don’t forget to check back in for the next installment of the editing series where we’ll discuss levels, curves & cloning!

How do you use Photoshop in your photography?

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