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How You Can Easily Learn Photoshop

If you’re searching for the best way to learn Photoshop, you may be able learn a lot from my story. I had a terrible experience trying to learn Photoshop and wasted a lot of money in the process.

To understand why, I need to take you back to 2002. It’s a little long but please stay with me. I’m trying to condense 10 years of struggling to learn Photoshop into a few paragraphs.

Learning Photoshop in 2002

In 2002 I decided to learn Photoshop properly. I was becoming frustrated by the wonderful images in the photography magazines. My images looked like poor quality snaps in comparison. Following guidance from more experienced photographers, I discovered many used Photoshop extensively and it made a big improvement to their images.

That’s when I made the decision to learn Photoshop and stop wating time. Unfortunately, many of the people I turned to were reluctant to share their hard-won knowledge. They did want to give away any secrets that gave their photography the edge. I decided I had to widen my search.

Trying to Learn Photoshop

Now if you’re old enough to remember 2002, I’m sure you’ll recall that the internet was a vastly different place. Pages took minutes to load over dial up modem connections. Google was just starting to improve the search experience. YouTube didn’t exist and most web sites were full of blinking text on strange coloured backgrounds.

Despite many hours of searching over many months I couldn’t find anything remotely helpful. Alongside all this searching I was starting to experiment with Photoshop on my own and started reading books.

[Side note: Today, there’s a lot more information on the internet but overloads become the problem. How do you know what to trust and how can you piece everything together? Later in this article I’ll try to help with some of this. Now back to the story.]

Photoshop Book Confusion

Compared with using the internet, I found Photoshop Books much easier to follow and learn from. At least some were whilst others seemed to be impenetrable and filled with things that didn’t make sense. Most were also incredibly thick which I mistakenly equated to containing more/better information.

The books I bought had two broad approaches to help me learn Photoshop:

  1. Provide in depth coverage of every Photoshop feature and menu command. This usually involved describing a feature without explaining what you could use it for or even how.
  2. Present a jumble of techniques that you needed to memorise. Whilst these gave me the how to do something, there was too much to remember. I also had problems understanding when to apply one technique rather than another.

After a couple of years of reading all these books, I knew how to do a lot of things in Photoshop. What I didn’t understand was why I was doing them, or which techniques were important to use. What I also didn’t know was that I was getting into bad habits that would later be difficult to stop.

Experimenting with Photoshop

Alongside my book research I was experimenting heavily with Photoshop. In an effort to learn I was editing lots of images using the techniques I was reading about. But I was also unknowingly making some big mistakes and getting into bad habits.

Possibly the biggest is that I would make my adjustment directly to an image. There were a few reasons for this:

  1. By searching the Photoshop menus, I discovered Adjustments in the Image menu. It made logical sense to me that these were the tools used to adjust photos, otherwise why put them in a menu called “Image | Adjustments”.
  2. I read that Layers were an advanced subject, so as a beginner I didn’t need to worry about them. A lot of the books at the time also avoided dealing with the subject so I never knew any better.
  3. None of the books I was reading presented a clear system or workflow for editing an image. It seemed as if you threw a lot of techniques at the image to see what worked or somehow you just knew instinctively what to do.

I should also mention that I tried a few classes and courses in my attempt to learn Photoshop. Despite this, much of Photoshop remained a mystery. I even adopted the commonly accepted view that Photoshop was difficult to learn and use.

Unlocking the Secret of Photoshop Layers

My big breakthrough came after a few years when I finally read a book that explained Photoshop Layers clearly. It made layers easier to understand and explained how to use them for non-destructive editing. Before this I didn’t think non-destructive editing was important. I incorrectly reasoned that could use “Edit | Undo” in the Photoshop menu or even the Photoshop History list if I needed to go further back.

What I didn’t realise is that non-destructive editing isn’t just about being correcting mistakes. It helps unlock more powerful adjustments in Photoshop. Unfortunately, to benefit from my new knowledge I need to unlearn much of the Photoshop editing that I had struggled to learn in the first place.

Eventually, I managed to create a system Photoshop editing for myself based on using Layers. Best of all it was easier than my previous approach. It also allowed me to adopt more powerful editing techniques like blending modes and masks. Now I was finding ways to adopt more sophisticated editing techniques and my more advanced books were making sense.

By 2008 I was beginning to understand how to use Photoshop properly and my photography was looking a lot better.

The Photoshop Layer Window plays an important part in photo editing

What I Learned from Trying to Learn Photoshop

What’s useful about my story is that I learned some important lessons about trying to learn Photoshop:

  1. You don’t need to know everything to learn Photoshop well. In fact, there are a few essential tools and techniques and everything else is a distraction. Learn and master these essentials and you can achieve most things.
  2. Once you learn the essential Photoshop tools and techniques, it’s easy to learn more advanced skills. These essential skills provide a foundation of building blocks for everything else. When you don’t put these foundations in place, you quickly forget how to use many of Photoshops tools.
  3. You need to have a workflow or framework to follow when editing. Without this Photoshop is a confusing array of menus, icons and tools; most of which you don’t need anyway.
  4. It’s not difficult to learn Photoshop providing you learn the right things in the right order.

Once I realised these important lessons, I didn’t want others to go through my painful experience.

If you want to learn Photoshop, I want to help. And whilst I do sell books and courses to help people learn Photoshop, I provide a lot of what you need to know for free on this website, just like the tutorial below.

A Structure to Learn Photoshop

As I mentioned, much of Photoshop is unnecessary so you must concentrate on the essential elements. These are the tools and techniques you can use to edit any image, and which make learning more advanced techniques easy.

In a moment I’ll share these with you BUT, you must tackle them in the right sequence. This is important and will make all the difference when trying to learn Photoshop. Please remember this and follow the list in order:

  1. The Photoshop Interface. Photoshop has a confusing interface (for good reason) and which you can customise. It’s quite likely that when you’ve been trying to learn Photoshop you’ve encountered a problem where your screen doesn’t look like the tutorial. If you download and follow the free sample of my Photoshop book it will explain why and how to fix it.
  2. Layers are the foundation of good editing in Photoshop. If you don’t edit your photos using Layers, you’re making life difficult for yourself. To explain why I’ve published this article and video to help you understand Photoshop layers.
  3. The next area when learning Photoshop is how to clean up dust spots and remove unwanted objects from the frame. Photoshop has a lot of useful tools you can use for this, but you should start with my Clone Brush and Healing Brush Please don’t skip these.
  4. After learning how to use Photoshop’s Clone and Healing Brushes, you can progress to learning the Photoshop Patch tool. By combining this with the Clone and Healing tools you can move and remove objects from an image.
  5. Photoshop Levels allow you to adjust image tones. My Photoshop Levels tutorial and video will explain the basics.
  6. The Levels adjustment is a useful tool but the Photoshop Curves adjustment is much more powerful. Follow this tutorial with video and you will understand how to apply powerful photo adjustments. You’ll probably find correcting problems with a Curves adjustment also corrects poor image colour and saturation.
  7. To unlock the power of Photoshop you must learn how to make localised changes using masks. This tutorial and video provides an introduction to learn Photoshop masking. After which read my Photoshop masking tips.
  8. Now it’s time to look at Dodging and Burning in your quest to learn Photoshop. Start with using the Dodge and Burn Tools in Photoshop. After this you can try more powerful Dodging and Burning techniques using blending modes. If you want to learn more about how Blending Modes work, this video will help.
  9. The final step in the photo editing workflow is to sharpen your image. Photoshop has lots of options you can use to sharpen an image as I explain in this video and tutorial. One of the best sharpening options to learn is the Smart Sharpen filter. Before to read both tutorials in order.
before and after example using the curves. An essential step to learn photoshop

Once you understand these 9 essential areas, you will learn Photoshop. If you decide you would like to go into more detail or perhaps want everything consolidated in one place, try my book Essential Adobe Photoshop CC.

Learning More Photoshop

Having learned the essentials of Photoshop, you’ll probably want to extend your skills further. There are many directions you could take but broadly your options fall into two categories:

  1. Learn advanced Photoshop techniques. This will include things like advanced layer blending, channel masking and luminosity masking. If you decide to take this approach, you’ll find I have books and courses to help you. If you’re unsure what best suits your needs, please contact me. I’m always happy to help.
  2. Another approach is to extend Photoshop using plug-ins. Good plug-ins aren’t just about adding special effects. They can help make complex editing tasks much easier to perform. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Nik Collection which make colour and black and white editing faster and easier. Whilst you need to pay for the latest version of Nik you can still get an older version of the Nik Collection for free.

Whatever approach you decide to take to learn Photoshop, I’m always happy to advise and help where I can.

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