6 Totally Essential Photoshop Skills Even Your Mom Should Know


For more than a decade, Adobe Photoshop has been the de facto image-editing program used by professionals and art students alike. But there are plenty of casual users who only dabble with Photoshop for simple tasks, such as photo resizing and cropping -- oblivious to the sheer power of Photoshop's graphics manipulation abilities. These decidedly non-power users (and we know some of you are included in this group) can do so more with this versatile program -- and we're here to show you how.

Whether you've just installed Photoshop for the first time or know your away around a the Tools toolbar, we put together a few of the most essential Photoshop skills to get you started on your photo editing endeavors. Before you know it, you'll be fixing up your grandmother's torn-up black and white wedding photos and airbrushing the heck out of yourself for your Facebook photo.

Ahh...a clean Photoshop palette. Don't be daunted by the many tools!

Create an Action Script to resize a large batch of photos

Understanding how to record an action script is vital to becoming a Photoshop power user. Actions can help increase productivity by using prerecorded macros to emulate repetitive tasks, allowing you to step away while your computer automatically gets the job done. In this particular tutorial, we'll show you how to resize a large batch of photos, but you can record virtually any action that may be neccessary to your Photoshop needs, including color correction, level adjustment or even applying filters.

1. Before you start this project, we suggest that you gather your images from their respective locations and place them all in one folder. This way, it will make it much easier to save a huge batch of images and access them afterward.

Fire up Photoshop and open up a photo from the set you’ve previously isolated. At this point, we only need one photo to record the action.

2. Go to Window - Actions, or use the shortcut keys Alt + F9 . Click the “New Action” button. A dialog box will pop up asking you to give it a name. You also have the option to set the action as one of your defaults or assign it a function key.

Select "New Action" to start recording your own macro.

3. Press the red circle in the actions palette and get ready to record. Remember that everything you do from this point on is tracked and added to the new action, so make sure that any tool you utilize follows in the precise order you'd want your macro to emulate.

Resize the photos to your desired width and height, then Save for Web... and select the file type you would like to save your image as. We suggest that you save your photos as high resolution JPEGs for use on the web, or otherwise, PNG.

If you prefer, you can also select Save As... and simply replace the original image with the resized one.

4. Close your image and select the Stop symbol on the Actions palette. Your Macro should be all set for your batch of photos. Locate the folder where you stored your photos beforehand and load them all up in Photoshop.

5. Go to File – Automate – Batch; a new dialogue window will open up. Under Play – Set, which should automatically set to Default Actions, select the name of the Action you just created.

Click for a thorough view of the Photoshop palette.

Under Source, make sure that the option Open Files is selected. Destination should be set to none, since you’ve already recorded that in your action.  Click OK, sit back, and observe your macro in action.

Alternatively, you can manually set a destination for your resized images, and use the File Naming section of the Batch Process window to add prefixes, suffixes, or sequential numbers to your newly resized images. If you do this, make sure to check the "Over Action 'Save As' Commands" box as well.

Befriending the Pen Tool

They say that pen is mightier than the sword, and indeed, the Pen Tool is a powerful blade -- easily one of Photoshop's most difficult tools to use, which is why it merits giving it a bit of an introduction before you use it freeform.

Open up a new image, giving it workable dimensions (800 width by 600 height should be enough), and strike up your Pen tool by selecting it from the tool bar (or by pressing P).

We've provided a cheat sheet to give you a thorough understanding of what each option in the top navigation bar does for the Pen tool. Click on the image to enlarge it.

Download the cheat sheet if need be and try your hand at making your own shapes and curves. Keep in mind that maneuvering your pen tool can seem incredibly challenging at times. As long as you’ve got the basics down, it should be a fairly simple attempt. The trick is in figuring out how to create subpaths, which is the point at which the path starts.

To create a curve, start by clicking anywhere in your document, then click and hold elsewhere on your blank palette. Slowly drag the mouse in any direction to create an anchor point.

The bullet points now illustrate where your curve points are, which further enhance the current curve. To move these curve points, hold ALT and drag. To move the anchor point or the subpath, hold CTRL . Refer to the image below to distinguish between the subpath, an anchor point, and a curve point.

Photoshop has a great built-in tutorial on how to use the pen tool. Hit F1 to do a search in the how-to guide and keep practicing!

Extracting Images Using the Pen Tool

Using what you've just learned about the Pen Tool, we're going to trace our object, extract it, and save it as a new image.

Original Image:

Click to load the image in its original size and then save it to your computer to follow along with the tutorial.

1.    Open up your image of choice. If this is your first time cutting out an object, we suggest choosing a photo that does not contain an elaborate background.

2.    Select the Pen tool to begin tracing the image. Start at a decent anchor point and make a path around your image, but be precise. When you’re finished tracing, make sure the lines are all connected.

3.    To make a selection out of your path, right click and select Make Selection, making sure Anti-Aliased is selected and Feathering is set to zero.

Copy it by using the Ctrl + C shortcut. Then, go to File – New, select OK and paste your image with Ctrl + V .

The window at the top left is your extracted object.

Final result:
With your vector image now its own entity, you can edit the object however you please. Here are a few examples of what you can do with your image from the Blending Options menu, which you can access by right-clicking on the layer.

You can create a border around your object with the Stroke option.

Or, you could do a pattern overlay. The choice is yours!

Quick Tip: You can use this same extraction technique in Adobe Image Ready to export objects from an Animated GIF. Simply load the GIF in Image Ready, select a frame, and then repeat the above steps.

Use Level Adjustments and Color Correction to bring an photo to life

Long nights toiling in the dark room have become a thing of the past, thanks to the simplification of applying photo filters and color correction. If you’re a photographer—whether casual, professional, or a serious hobbyist— knowing how to work with digital photography in Photoshop can save time and improve the visual quality of your images. Level adjustment in Photoshop lets you tweak the constrast and brightness of your photos, so you can make sharper images and highlight you photo subject.

Original Image:

1.    Open up your image in Photoshop. Click on “Create new adjustment layer”. You’ll be given a selection list. Choose “Levels”.

You can always do contour tweaking by adjusting the Levels and Hue/Saturation of your photo from the Images - Adjustments tab. However, fine-tuning directly adjusts the layer in it’s entirety, which ruins the original photo quality and makes it difficult to do any additional contour alterations without scrapping the whole process and starting over from scratch. Using an adjustment layer avoids this pitfall and lets you play around with Levels without commiting to any changes.

Levels can be very tricky to adjust. It’s assumed that, generally, you wouldn’t need to adjust anything too drastically. In this case, we’re going to do the minimum possible to make this image a little more outstanding.

2.    Photoshop uses histograms to visually represent the tonal range of your photo, which is incredibly useful in distinguishing between light shades in your image.

The black arrow on the left represents pure black, the middle adjusts the contrast and is referred to as the mid-tones level slider, and the far right represents pure white. The histograms are different for every picture, so what you see here may not match what is on your screen.

Play around with the levels to achieve the look you’re going for, or hit Auto to have your image instantly set to automatic levels (based on tonal range) and go from there. You can also select Options for more customization features.

The layer palette now has two layers—the original image and a levels adjustment layer. Should you change your mind about the way your photo looks, all you have to do is delete the adjustment layer.

This is the histrogram for our image after we selected Auto levels. Notice that we've moved the adjustment arrows to the peaks of the histogram to enhance the colors that are most prevalent in our photo.

3.    Next, we want to enhance the color of the image by adjusting the hue and saturation. Like the first step, we’re going to create a New Adjustment Layer and select Hue and Saturation. Arrange your screen so that you can see both the dialogue box and the image.

In the drop down list at the top of the dialogue box, where it says Edit, you can choose which color set you'd like to refine.

Each option serves a different purpose: Hue modifies the tint, saturation controls the color, and lightness will alter the brightness. In this particular situation, we are most concerned with the saturation. And we want to adjust just one color without affecting any others.

Unlike the Levels box, from here you can choose between six different color schemes. For our photo, we want to increase the detail on the salad, so we only slighty increased the saturation and lowered the lightness for the reds and the yellows, which increased sharpness of the beer and tomatoes. For the lettuce and cucumbers, we muted them a bit so they wouldn't overshadow the vibrance of the other vegetables in the salad.

Adjustments for our tomatoes

Adjustments for our beer and lemon wedge

Adjustments for our lettuce and cucumber

4. You’ll notice a trio of eyedropper icons on the bottom, right side of the dialogue box, right above the rainbow color bar.

Each of these will help you accurately define the colors you wish to adjust, with the middle and right eyedroppers allowing you to add and subtract from your selection. Select the left eyedropper to select the approximate shade of the color you want to modify.

5. The sliders on the rainbow color bar at the bottom of the dialogue box can help with color fluidity—they also tell you what color you’re currently toying with. The inside brackets determine the color spectrum range and the outside ones determine how those colors blend in.

Be careful when saturating individual colors so that the image doesn’t stray too far from its original composition.

In general, level adjustments can be tricky to figure out. It may take some time before you figure out the formula to get a photo looking just the way you like it, but once you’ve played around with levels you’ll know exactly what to do for future photo projects.

Final product:

Our original image looked a little bland, but this image brings more attention to the delicious food laid out on the table.

Remove flash spots

There’s no doubt that sometimes it's neccessary to fix those little nuances that plague digital photos, especially those taken indoors with a point-and-shoot camera.

Flash spots occur when the flash from the camera reflects back from the person’s face or a reflective object in the background. Suffice to say, flash spots are unflattering. They make the photo look over-exposed and take away from the overall aesthetic of the image, or they add too much shine to your subject’s face. Follow along to find out how to use Photoshop’s default filters to make your point-and-shoot photos look cleaner. You can also use this tutorial for airbrushing.

Original image:

1.    Point your cursor over to Image – Adjustments – Curves (or you can hit the shortcut, Ctrl + M). We’re going to use the curves to adjust the lighting in our photo.

With your mouse, click on the center-most point of the grid and drag it downward to diminish the lighting in the picture.  Conversely, moving the curve upwards will increase the exposure of your image, causing it to look washed out. We want the image to be a bit dimmer than the original to remove the sheen from our subject’s face.

2.    Duplicate the layer; you can do so by right clicking and selecting Duplicate Layer. Uncheck the visibility of your original image by clicking on the tiny eye icon next to it. We’ll be working with the duplicate to make all of our changes.

3.    Go to Filter – Blur - Gaussian Blur and increase the radius only slightly until the shiny spots begin to fade away. Be careful not to blur out the entire photo.

4.    Now, we want to bring back some texture to the image, especially if we want any semblance of human skin on your subjects. Go back to Filter and select Noise – Add Noise. Make sure Gaussian is selected and Monochromatic is unchecked.

Decrease the percentage so that it doesn’t look like rainbow speckles. Click okay, and now you have your base image, which we will fuse with our original to remove the flash spots.

5.    Activate the original layer by clicking on the small eye icon. Select the eraser tool, pick a brush size, and make sure to turn down the hardness to zero percent in the brushes dialogue box. The master diameter of your brush really depends on the picture and the person featured in the picture; you want to make sure that you don’t use too big of a brush.

This is what the brush tool dialogue box looks like.

6.    Touch up the areas that you see the flash spots, doing so slightly by sponging the area with your brush. Be careful not to remove too much when you’re removing flash spots from human faces as you could lose depth, causing your subjects to look flat (and fake!).  Remember to zoom in and fix miniscule areas like gums and teeth, just for posterity.

Final product:

Restoring Black and White Photo Scans

This trick is incredibly essential for anyone looking to restore ancient family treasures for photo albums and preservation. Make sure that when you scan the photo, you do so at a high resolution to ensure the highest possible photo quality.

Original image:

Click on the photo to get the original and take a closer look at its imperfections.

1.    Open up your black and white photo, complete with scratches and whatever other imperfections may be present.  Zoom in to get an accurate depiction of how severe your scratches are.

2.    This next process can become incredibly meticulous, so put on your patience hat and prepare for mass amounts of left-mouse button clicking. (Alternatively, if you have a WACOM tablet lying around, now would be the time to put that thing to use since you can use the digitizer pen instead of incessantly clicking your mouse.)

Select the Spot Healing Brush tool from the toolbar, or press J on your keyboard. This particular tool will help clean up any small, unwanted marks from an image even more easily than the standard Healing brush (which, basically, copies and pastes). The Spot Healing Brush will make its own sample from the pixels around the mark and match in texture, tone and lighting.

Setting the mode will change the results of how your brush emulates the area surrounding it. For this project, you’ll want to use the “Replace” option, which will retain the grain, noise and texture of the original image, and select the “Proximity Match” option, which will emulate the pixels around the edge of the brush shape.

Toward the top of the window, you should see an option for brush size. Select whatever size you think best suits the scratch and make sure that Hardness is set to zero. Keep in mind that the brush size should really depend on the width and height of what you’re trying to fix. Just make sure that the brush size doesn’t exceed those parameters, otherwise you’ll constantly be hitting Ctrl + Z to undo.

The Healing Brush tool dialogue box

3.    Trace over any and all scratches in your photo. Instead of holding the left-mouse button down and dragging it over the scratches, click on the problem areas as if you were dabbing at it with a sponge. This is the most effective way to remove the scratches. However, if you’re fixing scratches in a lightly colored sky scene, you can very well drag the mouse across the scratch without any problem, but don’t go too crazy with your strokes—this method only works well if you make horizontal strokes.

If you see that your method doesn’t work for the darker areas of the photo, try reducing your brush size to fit each of the tiny specks on the picture and zoom in so the process doesn’t become too tedious.

4.    Similarly, you could also use the Healing Brush Tool, which emulates a sample of your photo. It is almost like using the paintbrush and coloring over your image in one particular shade. This method works depending on the range of shades in the photo.

Once you’re finished, save your image at the highest resolution PNG. The end result may not look too different from its predecessor, but bear in mind that your picture can now be easily duplicated and printed out as a high quality photo.

Final product:

Use the Clone Tool

This process can either test your patience or turn out to be a fairly simple task—it really depends on the complexity of the background in your image. In this case, we're going to use the Clone Tool to ensure that we can mask what once was. Copy and paste your photo into a new layer (or right-click and select “Duplicate Layer”). Having two layers means that you can mess one up and still retain the original, in case you run into some trouble and need to start over from scratch.

Original image:

That air filter cable seems pretty uneccessary, and it looks kind of tacky, so we're gonna get rid of that in our photo to bring more glory to our betta (beta?) fish

Click on the image to download the original and try out the tutorial for yourself

1.    Select the Pen Tool and trace the main subject of your photo. This is to ensure that the Clone Stamp doesn’t identify the main image as something it should duplicate.

Right click and select “Make Selection”. When the dialogue box appears, make sure there is zero feathering selected, and then press “OK”.

Invert the selection so that everything else is selected except for what you traced. You can do so by going to Select – Inverse or by hitting Ctrl + Shift + I.

2.    Select the Cloning Stamp Tool by pressing S . Scan your image and look for a suitable area to clone. This can be a tricky decision—if you choose the wrong spot, your image will look out of whack. We suggest that you clone certain areas one section at a time.

Hold the Alt key and click your left-mouse button to select a section of your background, and then choose a brush size. Make sure it’s set at Normal and Zero percent hardness, and that it feathers a bit.

3.    Start the cloning process by repeatedly clicking with your mouse over the object you want to remove. It also becomes easier to do so if you zoom into the image. Look for repeating patterns and make sure when you dab with your clone tool that it matches the background—attention to detail is extremely crucial for pulling this off.

When you choose sections, try going horizontally for accuracy.

Make simple swipes with the Clone Tool

4.    When you’re finished, and if your endeavor proved successful, delete your duplicated layer and save your image.
This tool also works well at removing scratches out of color photos and objects that seem out of place in a photo, such as a lamp post or a trash can.

Final product:

Finishing Touches—Typing On a Path

What better way to finish off a soiree of Photoshop tutorials than by adding text? Text lets you add witty remarks and character to your image, giving it a sense of completion—or, you could be accidentally generating the next big meme. Either way, here’s a few tips on how to lively up your photos, besides adding thought bubbles or diagonal text.

You’ll need to create a path for the text to follow; do this by selecting the pen tool and make sure that paths is selected in the options bar towards the top of the window. Go ahead and create yourself a fun little shape. You can pretty much shape it however you like, but make sure it has some sort of fluidity. Otherwise, the text could come out looking a bit awkward and illegible.

You can also type according to the outline of a preloaded Photoshop shape or manipulate the text box so that the end result looks like the shape itself. To do so, make sure you have the pen tool selected and click the shape you’d like for your text box (it can be anything: a square, a circle, a heart, or a custom shape). Make sure that it is selected and then point your cursor inside the box (your cursor will have the text symbol with a circle around it). Click and type.

Take note of the various cursor states. You can decide on a start-point by dragging the cursor either way—the choice is yours. When you’re finished, you can either click on the outside of the shape selection or click on the check mark on the right side of the options bar, towards the top of the window.

Typing text on a shape's path

Typing inside a shape

Quick Tip: You can make your own shapes for the text boxes if you have a very complex graphic. Simply select the pen tool, customize your shape (making sure all open ends are closed), and then right click “Define Custom Shape”. Give it an alias of your choice and accept the changes. It should be available at the end of the custom shapes list.

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