Whether online, offline, or in the form of a phone app, the options for photo editing software have never been more numerous. Despite the growing competition, Photoshop remains the daddy of them all, with the name even becoming a generic verb in the manner of Hoover and Xerox before it.
One reason it has remained on top is the pure wealth of features it brings, although this can actually be to its detriment too; for those new to photo editing, it can seem almost impenetrable.
The good news is, you won’t need to learn most of what Photoshop can do. You only need to learn the tools you are going to use.
But how do you know which ones they are?
Below is a rundown of the features I mostly use. While every photo is different, the list is in the rough order I use them.
Shadows/Highlights – the tool I use first on every photograph I edit, without fail. Found under Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights, this tool is used to lighten dark areas and darken light areas. It is what makes the biggest single difference and/or improvement to my images.
Sometimes using this to bring the exposure to how I like it can leave the image looking a little flat and unnatural, but there are extra sliders that fix this, found by clicking ‘Show More Options’. Tonal Range and Radius can be adjusted for both Shadows and Highlights until you get the look you want.
On top of this, you have options to adjust the Midtone Contrast and Color Correction, both of which should be experimented with too.
Straighten and Crop – in the latest version of Photoshop, the straighten tool is one of the options that appears when selecting the crop tool.
Personally, I hate to see otherwise brilliant photographs that need straightening. Always check your pictures are straight by using a line like the horizon or the side of a building, and adjust accordingly.
Straightening your photo actually crops it to keep it rectangular. Because of this, if you were planning to manually crop it yourself for composition purposes, always do the straightening first.
Selective Color – found also in the Adjustments menu, selective color allows you to choose single colors to adjust. You could, for example, effortlessly change all of the red in your image to purple.
I tend to use Selective Color to help accentuate or dim certain elements of an image. In a landscape scene, I might brighten the greens and blues and drop the reds, while a color street shot might see me highlighting the red of a coat while dropping the green of a distracting background. (Attached screenshot)
Vibrance – when wanting to raise or drop the overall color of your image, the obvious setting to use might appear to be Saturation. In reality, Vibrance is a better option.
Altering the Saturation affects every color equally and gives quite hefty results, meaning an unnatural look to your image is dangerously likely.
When wanting to maintain a natural look, Vibrance is the better option. Acting only on colors that need boosting, leaving alone those that are already high, Vibrance is a far gentler tool than Saturation. It also likes to leave oranges and yellows alone, meaning skin tones will remain natural.
Curves – a powerful adjustment tool that can look intimidating at first, due it being a graph rather than a simple slider.
Curves can be used to alter a few different elements of the image, but one of the most common uses is to boost contrast and color, with the simple S-curve being perhaps the best known way of achieving this.
After altering the previous setting, I only use Curve for minor adjustments, but it is worth it.
Unsharp Mask – the Unsharp Mask option, found in Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask, gives you the most control when sharpening an image, due to having sliders for Radius and Threshold as well as Amount.
Sharpening an image is a great way to make it stand out, but it needs to be done with care. It is easy to over-sharpen an image, making it look unnatural and obvious it has been done.
When sharpening an image, if you think it might be over-sharpened, then it probably is.
Aside from Photoshop, a lot of the other editing software out there will have similar options to these. They will also have a plethora of tools you will likely never use.
I get by very well with just the above and, for starters at least, so should you.