How To Edit Photos In Photoshop
Photoshop is one of the most powerful image editing programs money can buy. With some of the best tools and layer adjustments around, there’s no reason not to use this program. Now the trouble is, if you’ve tried to edit a photo in Photoshop, you’ve likely felt a little lost. With an overwhelming amount of features, it’s hard to know where to begin. Luckily, using this simple 10 step method, learning how to edit photos in Photoshop has ever been easier.
To professionally edit a photo in Photoshop, follow this 10 step recipe:
- Import Your Photos
- Crop And Straighten If Necessary
- Create Base Exposure And White Balance Adjustments With Camera Raw
- Remove Any Distractions From Your Photo With The Clone Stamp Tool
- Improve The Exposure And Contrast With A Curves Adjustment Layer
- Make Your Color Adjustments
- Create Spot Adjustments With Layer Masks
- Dodge And Burn
- Sharpen Your Photo
- Export Your Image
By following these 10 steps, it’s easier to know exactly what to do next. With a clear plan of action, Photoshop feels far less intimidating, and you can get from point A to B in less time. Now let’s walk through each of these 10 steps together!
How To Edit Photos Professionally In Photoshop – Step By Step
The photo I’ll be using in this tutorial is a waterfall photo I took recently. After going through the 10 step editing recipe, we can take this photo to a whole new level.
If you want to follow along, I encourage you to bring up a photo of your own, so we can work through this together. Since every photo you edit will require different adjustments, I’ll only be sharing my general steps. The exact settings I use for each tool are irrelevant since they will look different on your images.
The idea here is to give you a roadmap to follow towards a workflow for photo editing in Photoshop. This workflow is one I’ve developed over the years and find to be the most effective at yielding consistent results!
Here’s how it’s done.
1. Import Your Images
This may go without saying, but you’ll need to import your photo into Photoshop before anything else. There are two different ways to do this, depending on where your photo is stored.
Option 1: Opening New Document
The first option is to open your photo directly into Photoshop from your computer. To do this, simply press Command + O (Mac) or Control + O (PC) on your keyboard. Alternatively, you can click “Open” on the Photoshop start screen.
Since this option takes a photo directly from your computer into Photoshop, you’ll need to remember to save your project later on. Without working out of another program like Lightroom, Photoshop will require you to choose a place to save your project on your computer. You’ll be prompted to do this when you try to save your project.
There isn’t any downside to this, but it’s easier to get your project files disorganized. When saving Photoshop projects, make sure to have some kind of folder to order things systematically. That way, they’re easy to find later on!
Option 2: Opening A Photo From Lightroom Into Photoshop
If your photo is already imported into Lightroom, you can begin editing the same file in Photoshop. Simply right-click on your desired photo and select Edit In > Photoshop.
From here, your photo will automatically open inside of Photoshop and will be ready to work with. The difference with this method is that when you save your project, the new image will appear in Lightroom.
Rather than having to organize your Photoshop project files, Lightroom will do it for you by storing the project file in the same place as the original image.
2. Crop And Straighten (If Necessary)
If your photo looks a little crooked or you need to adjust your framing, using the crop tool will fix all your worries.
– Using The Crop Tool
The crop tool can be quickly accessed by pressing C on your keyboard or finding it in your toolbar.
Once selected, you’ll notice a white box around your image and your tool settings in the upper bar. For general use, make sure your crop preset is set to “W x H x Resolution.” While using this crop preset, you can freely adjust the size of your crop.
With that said, you can also use the “Original Ratio” preset if you need to keep the same aspect ratio as you crop.
Next, make sure the “Delete Cropped Pixels” option is turned off. That way, when you crop your photo, all the image information outside of your crop will still be there. This is the best way to crop non-destructively while giving you the option to change your mind later on.
To crop your photo, click and drag on any of the outside edges of your crop overlay. This will reposition your crop and darken any areas of your photo that will no longer be visible.
The idea here is to crop your photo to better focus on your subject or quickly remove distractions around the edge of the frame. If you don’t feel like you need to crop anything in your photo, then that’s totally fine.
It’s just important to consider whether or not you need to crop at the beginning stages of every edit.
– Using The Straighten Tool
Next comes the straightening tool. This tool is perfect to easily correct slanted horizons or adjust your photo to align with a certain edge. In most cases, you’ll use this tool along your horizon lines.
The straighten tool can be accessed in the crop tool settings bar at the top of your screen. The icon is a small bubble level with a dotted curved line above it.
Once active, just click along the horizon line and drag outwards. As you drag, a line will be created to base the straightening corrections on. Do your best to align this to match the angle of your horizon or edge. That way, Photoshop will know exactly what edge you want to be perfectly straight!
After letting go, your image will be automatically straightened to match the line you made.
If your photo was very crooked, you’ll notice a lot of your image may be cropped. To adjust for significant angle changes, it will only work by cropping and punching into your photo in some cases.
That’s why it’s always best to get it right in-camera!
Why Crop And Straighten As The First Step In Your Edit?
Making sure your photo doesn’t look crooked is crucial to set up before anything else. It’s possible you’ll be wasting your time adjusting parts of your photo that may not even be included after you crop. To stay one step ahead, crop and straighten your photo from the beginning, so all that’s left is to edit exposure and colors!
3. Add Base Adjustments With Camera Raw
Camera Raw is a handy tool in Photoshop that operates like a mini Lightroom. In this tool, you have all the typical white balance, exposure, color, and spot adjustments you could expect in a photo editor. The beauty of Camera Raw is that it provides an efficient way to create base adjustments to your photo.
Base adjustments are the general changes needed to balance out the exposure and white balance in your photos. In most cases, you’ll have an exposure that favors either the highlights or shadows. With base adjustments, you can balance these out to create a better-exposed photo to work with.
– How To Open Camera Raw
Before you open Camera Raw, I strongly suggest you change your image layer into a smart object. That way, you can always go back and change your Camera Raw adjustments if need be. You can learn more about the powers of smart objects here.
Next, right-click on your new layer and select “Convert To Smart Object.” Once converted, your layer thumbnail will have a smart object icon displayed on it.
Then go up to Filter > Camera Raw Filter, to open your selected layer into Camera Raw.
– Editing Exposure In Camera Raw
If you’ve spent some time in other editing software such as Lightroom or Luminar, most of what you see here will be familiar. Using the exposure, highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks sliders, you can get things started.
First off, increase or decrease the exposure slider to create a nice balance between the shadows and highlights. Ideally, you want to be able to see the details in all exposures clearly. You can use the histogram at the top of the editing panel to help you out.
Now work through your highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks sliders. Rather than changing your entire exposure, these sliders only affect certain exposure ranges in your photo. Since it breaks everything up, it’s far easier to target specific parts of your photo.
Continue to adjust these sliders to help make the brightest and darkest parts of your photo more visible. The end result will likely look a little bit flat and low contrast, but that’s exactly what we’re going for. That way, you can add back contrast more creatively in later steps.
– Change The White Balance In Camera Raw
After your exposure adjustments, make sure to adjust the white balance and tint of your photo to look as realistic as possible. By making your white balance warmer or cooler, you can help to make the colors in your photos look better going forward.
To change the white balance, simply move the temperature slider left or right. Moving to the left will make your white balance more blue, while moving right will make it appear more yellow.
If you need a certain area of your photo to look 100% white, then click on the eyedropper tools above the white balance sliders. With this tool, you can click to sample any color in your photo, and Camera Raw will adjust your white balance to match that specific area.
In most cases, just using your best judgment will get the job done when adjusting white balance.
After changing the color temperature, your photo might feel a little bit purple or green looking. Especially when shooting with an ND filter or polarizer, it’s not uncommon for this to happen. Luckily you can quickly correct this with the tint slider. Just drag left or right to counter the hue you see in your photo.
Once you’re happy with the adjustments you’ve made, click OK to exit Camera Raw.
4. Remove Any Distractions From Your Photo
With the base adjustments set, it’s time to remove any unwanted distractions from the photo. This could be something as minor as a sensor spot to as major as an entire building. Whatever you need to remove from your image, it can be done with two simple tools in Photoshop.
The Clone Stamp Tool
The clone stamp tool is one of the best object removal tools in Photoshop. Rather than Photoshop automatically choosing where it thinks will work best, you get to manually set the sample area. This gives you more flexibility to work with patterns, complicated edges, or anything that typically throws off content-aware methods.
– Setting Up The Clone Stamp Tool
To access the clone stamp tool, press S on your keyboard or find it in your toolbar.
Next, create a new layer to make your clone stamp adjustments on. This way, you can continue to edit non-destructively.
In your clone stamp settings bar, make sure your mode is set to normal, the opacity and flow is at 100%, and your sample is set to current and below.
If you’ve never worked with the clone stamp tool, it operates a lot like the regular brush tool. The only difference is that it paints a sampled area rather than a solid color.
In most cases, you need the new clone stamp area to blend in with the rest of your photo. The best way to do this is with a soft-edged brush.
Click on the brush preset picker and select the “soft round” brush preset.
Change your hardness to somewhere between 0% and 25% for more blended results with your clone stamp adjustments.
As for brush size, you’ll need to change this constantly, so just use the keyboard shortcut [ or ] to enlarge or shrink your brush size.
With all your clone stamp settings in order, it’s time to start removing objects from your photo. In this case, I want to remove the fallen tree on the right of my photo. Since there is a large empty area nearby to sample from, this will be easy to remove.
– Removing Objects From Your Photo With The Clone Stamp
Whenever you try to remove something from a photo, remember you need to find an area to replace it with. The larger the area you can sample (in this case, the rocks), the easier it will be to cleanly clone out your objects. This can start getting complicated when there are patterns or nothing to fill the area with.
To start, I’ll hold my Alt or Option key (PC/Mac) and click somewhere on my image to sample. Wherever you sample from will be used to clone out your object. Since I am sampling the nearby rocks, it will blend well to clone out the fallen tree.
With a small brush, I’ll slowly work through the fallen tree. For the most realistic look, using a small brush will make your clone adjustments appear less noticeable. It really pays off to take the time with a small brush.
As you continue to clone your photo, you’ll need to continually resample new areas. In an ideal situation, you will sample as close to your object as possible, so the new exposure and textures match up with the surrounding area.
Repeat these steps until you’ve gotten rid of any distractions in your photo. Once complete, rename your layer to “Clone” to help stay organized.
The Spot Healing Brush
Not all objects need to be removed with the clone stamp tool. In a lot of your photos, you’ll find that the things you need to remove are small. Since you don’t need to be as specific with your sampling, these small objects can be automatically removed with the spot healing brush.
The spot healing brush works by using content-aware to intelligently find a sample area to replace your selection with. All you need to do is paint over an object you want to replace.
To access the spot healing brush tool, press J on your keyboard or find it in your toolbar. If you don’t see it, click and hold on the healing brush icon to reveal other tool options.
For tool settings, make sure you’re using a brush hardness between 0% – 25% and a spacing of 25% brush preset, have the mode set to normal, and the type set to content-aware. Also, check off the “sample all layers” option to make this tool a bit easier to use.
You can once again change the size of the brush with your left and right bracket keys [ or ].
In this photo, there is a scattering of leaves laying on the rocks beneath the waterfall I want to get rid of. Since they’re so small, the spot healing brush tool will do a great job of getting rid of them.
By painting over the areas you want to get rid of, a semi-opaque black brush will appear on your photo to represent your selection area. Photoshop will automatically replace this black brush stroke with something suitable to replace that section of your image with.
Repeat this process on the same “Clone” layer until all of the small distractions have been removed.
Looking at the before and after, using both the clone stamp and spot healing brush tools, the photo looks much cleaner. These are two of the most useful tools for you to use in any type of situation.
5. Improve The Exposure And Contrast With Curves
Now all the starting work is out of the way. The image has a balanced exposure, the distractions are gone, and now it’s time to add your creative touch. To start things off, we’ll improve the exposure and contrast using a Curves Adjustment Layer.
– Creating A New Curves Adjustment Layer
To create a new curves adjustment layer, click the curves adjustment icon in the Adjustments tab.
You can also find it by pressing the adjustments icon at the bottom of your layers panel. Both will get you the same result!
– How The Curves Adjustment Works
If you’re familiar with the tone curve in Lightroom, then this adjustment layer will feel very similar. In short, the curve is broke up into 4 different sections represented by a grid. Moving horizontally from the left, the columns represent shadows (far left), darks, lights, and highlights (far right).
The white line represents your exposure across all of these sections. By clicking anywhere on the line and dragging up, you’ll brighten all the exposure ranges together.
Meanwhile, if you drag down, you will darken the overall exposure.
By clicking on different areas of your curve, you can continue to add new anchor points to fine-tune the exposure and contrast. For example, you could bring down the shadows and bring up the highlights to add more contrast.
Play around with your curve adjustment to see what types of exposure and contrast adjustments best suit your photo. To get a look at some different curve shapes, you can use for specific effects, check out this post.
Once you’re happy with the curve adjustments, you should have a nice general contrast and exposure adjustment. Something that better suits your editing style and makes the photo pop.
6. Make General Color Adjustments To Your Photo
After exposure and contrast comes color. There are a handful of fantastic tools in Photoshop to edit the colors in your picture with. However, the three below are the ones I find to be most effective.
Adjustment 1: Selective Color
To create a selective color adjustment layer, click the selective color icon in your adjustments tab.
You can also find it via the adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.
This tool breaks down each exposure and color value in your photo into their own tabs. By targeting different color tabs, you can better refine the exposure and tones of these areas. Although there are a series of color channels to work in, I find using the blacks, neutrals, and whites tabs to be all you really need.
There are four sliders available in the selective color adjustment layer called cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
By moving any of these sliders to the right, you’ll add more of that specific color to the photo.
If you move the sliders left, you’ll add all the opposite colors of each slider to the photo. For reference, moving the cyan slider left gives you red, the magenta slider gives you green, and the yellow slider gives you blue.
Work through the blacks, neutrals, and whites tabs and adjust the four sliders accordingly. Take care not to go overboard with this adjustment, or you’ll end up with an unrealistic look.
Adjustment 2: Hue Saturation
The next adjustment layer to use for editing color is called the hue saturation adjustment. This tool lets you alter the hue of any color in your photo to create a unique look to certain colors.
To create a new hue saturation adjustment layer, click the icon in your adjustments tab or find it via your layers panel.
Once open, click on the “master” tab to reveal your individual color channels. Working your way through each channel, edit the hue, saturation, and luminance, as needed.
If you want to get extra creative with your photo edit, don’t be afraid to alter the hue of certain colors dramatically. It’s all part of the fun!
Adjustment 3: Color Balance
The final color adjustment to add is the color balance adjustment layer. This tool lets you alter the tones of your exposure ranges. Rather than targeting via color, you can target areas of your photo based on their exposure.
To create a new color balance adjustment layer, click the icon in your adjustments tab or find it through your layers panel.
Once open, make sure the “preserve luminosity” is checked off. Then begin to play around with the sliders to see what types of tonal changes you can make.
Be sure to change the “tone” option between midtones, shadows, and highlights to better blend your adjustments.
I like to start in midtones, then edit the shadows while doing the highlights last. Whatever your workflow, just make sure to use all of the tone ranges!
– The Result Of These 3 Color Adjustments
After 3 different adjustment layers, your photo now has a lot more of a professional look to it. These three tools are my go-to for every photo I edit in Photoshop. Below is the before and after of the adjustments made to the waterfall photo!
7. Create Spot Adjustments Using Layer Masks
Now that you’ve finished all the general exposure, contrast, and color adjustments, now comes the time to get specific. With spot adjustments, you can directly target one part of your photo (such as the sky or your subject) to adjust them as needed.
Unlike other editing programs, Photoshop doesn’t have a specific “spot adjustment” brush. Instead, you need to use layer masks to control where adjustment layers are visible.
If you’re new to layer masks, be sure to learn the fundamentals of layer masks in order to make the most of them. For the sake of this example, I’ll be using a soft brush on my layer mask to brighten the sky.
– Create An Adjustment Layer
You can use any adjustment layer for spot adjustments. However, since I want to brighten the exposure of my sky, I’ll use the curves adjustment layer. You can follow this exact process with as many adjustment layers as you wish.
To create a curves adjustment, I’ll click on the curves adjustment icon in my adjustments tab or find it via my layers panel.
Since I want to do a general brightening to the photo, I’ll just lift the exposure of the mid-tones.
With a white layer mask, the entire image will be brightened by the curves. To isolate its effects, I’ll first invert the layer mask by click on the mask and pressing Command + I (Mac) or Control + I (PC).
Now all of the curves adjustment will be invisible, but you can add it back using a white brush.
Grabbing my brush tool (B) and selecting a soft sound brush with a 0% hardness, I’ll paint over the areas I want to brighten. In this case, the sky and nearby the waterfall. By using a layer mask, you get the best control in terms of isolating adjustments. You can learn more about how to use layer masks in this post.
– What Kinds Of Spot Adjustments Should You Make?
Spot adjustments are perfect for helping fix any discoloration in your photo or brighten important areas. In most cases, brightening around your subject or darkening less important areas can add a lot to your photos.
In the above example, I only used a curves adjustment layer, but you can use the same steps with any adjustment layer. Just rinse and repeat the same process with any color, contrast, and exposure adjustments as needed!
8. Dodge And Burn
At this point, you are getting pretty happy with the look of your photo. However, there’s one last step you can add to really make it pop. This step features a technique called dodging and burning.
In short, dodging selectively brightens your photo, while burning selectively darkens. By swapping between these tools in Photoshop, you can add some creative contrast.
– Create A 50% Grey Layer To Edit Non-Destructively
To start, you need a 50% grey layer to apply your dodging and burning to non-destructively.
Press Command + Shift + N (Mac) or Control + Shift + N (PC) to open a new layer dialogue box.
Change the blend mode to “Overlay,” check off the fill with 50% grey option, and rename the layer to dodge and burn.
– Dodging Your Image
Starting with your dodge tool, press O to access it.
Looking at your settings bar, leave your range set to “Midtones” and the exposure between 5% and 10%. The higher your exposure, the more intense your adjustments will look. For the most realistic effects, I’ve found this range to work best.
With your dodge and burn layer selected, begin dodging any areas of your photo you want to bring more focus to. Things like your subject, interesting textures, or along the horizon. If you want to make an area brighter, paint multiple brushstrokes over the same area.
– Burning Your Image
After you’ve gone through and dodged sections of your photo, click and hold on the dodge tool icon in your toolbar. Select the burn tool from the pop-up tool window.
Looking at your settings tab once again, set your range to Midtones and leave the exposure between 5% to 10%.
This time around, you’ll be darkening parts of your photo. Paint over any areas you don’t want to stand out. You can also burn edges of your photo that are opposite to the light source. This will make the highlights in your image really stand out and direct your eye towards the lighter areas.
Go back and forth between dodging and burning until you like the effect you’re getting. If everything works correctly, you’ll notice a subtle but favorable change to how areas of contrast look in your photo.
9. Sharpen Your Image With A High Pass Filter
Your edit is nearly complete. The final touch is to add some sharpening to your entire photo. One of my favorite ways to do this is with a high pass filter.
A high pass filter will enhance the edge detail in your photo. This, in turn, ends up making your entire photo look more clear.
Since this filter needs to be applied to an image, you’ll need to duplicate and merge all your existing layers.
Clicking on the top layer in your layers panel, use the keyboard shortcut Command + Option + Shift + E (Mac) or Control + Alt + Shift + E (PC) to duplicate and merge all your layers.
With your newly merged layer selected, go to Filter > Other > High Pass.
Set the radius to no more than 2 pixels and click OK. The higher your radius, the more intense the sharpening will look.
Lastly, set your layer blending mode from Normal to Linear Light to blend in the high pass filter.
Also, remember to rename your layer to “sharpening” to keep yourself organized!
10. Export Your Photo From Photoshop
Now that you’ve come this far, it’s time for one final task in your editing process. That’s to export your photo! There are a few ways to export images from Photoshop, but let’s go over the easiest one.
Go up to File > Save As.
Type in your desired file name and a location on your computer to export your photo to.
Now most importantly, change the format from Photoshop to JPEG.
Then click save to export your photo as a JPEG file!
After following the 10 steps, we’ve completely transformed this waterfall photo. What started as a relatively plain image has been enhanced to better catch your eye. With a handful of adjustment layers and filters, editing a photo in Photoshop is easy!
If you’re new to editing in Photoshop, this all might seem a little overwhelming. Just remember that with practice and repetition, these steps will become second nature. It takes time to build a good photo editing workflow, but once you do, you’ll breeze through the editing process with every photo!