9 mistakes you're making in Photoshop

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Each version of Photoshop comes with new features that let you work smarter instead of harder, but old editing habits are hard to break—especially if you’ve been using the program for a long time. Here you’ll find a roundup of some common editing mistakes and how to avoid them.

Perform edits on separate layers

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Here you can see all the layers in this image.

When you color-correct on one layer, zap blemishes on another, whiten teeth on another, and so on, you can back out of any edit, anytime you want, even after closing the document. You can lower the opacity of individual edits to make changes look realistic (crucial in portrait retouching), and by using adjustment and fill layers, you automatically get a mask that lets you hide layer content from parts of the image. In fact, the first 16 commands in the Image > Adjustments menu are available as super-safe adjustment layers (choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer), wherein the change occurs on a separate layer that you can control. Adjustment layers also make it easy to duplicate an effect onto another image—simply drag and drop relevant layers into another open document. In a pinch, duplicate the original layer and edit it instead.

Use empty layers

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To turn on a tools’ ability to work on an empty layer, adjust the sample settings in the Options bar, as shown here. (Click to enlarge.)

To safeguard the original, most folks duplicate the layer before using the tools for healing, cloning, patching, and content-aware moving. However, using an empty layer keeps your file size leaner. To enable tools to function on an empty layer, trot up to the Options bar and turn on the Sample All Layer checkbox, or set the Sample menu to Current & Below or All Layers. This trick works with the Spot and Healing Brushes, the Patch tool (set the Mode menu to Content-Aware to reveal the Sample All Layers checkbox), the Content-Aware Move tool, and the Clone Stamp tool. Sweet!

Use fill layers

Instead of adding an image layer and filling it with a solid color, gradient, or pattern, use the Layer > New Fill Layer command. How is this exciting? Let us count the ways: You can double-click the fill layer’s thumbnail in the Layers panel to reopen the Color, Pattern, or Gradient Picker in order to experiment with other colors, patterns, or gradients. The fill layer automatically resizes itself to match canvas size changes. And fill layers comes with a mask that lets you hide the fill from parts of your image.

Use the Stamped Visible command

Instead of merging or flattening layers to use paint, heal, clone, the Fill dialog’s Content-Aware option, or Content-Aware Scale, use the Stamped Visible command. Alas, some tools and commands—like paint, heal, clone, content-aware fill, and content-aware scale—only work on single layers. If your document consists of multiple layers, resist the urge to merge or flatten. Instead, use the Stamped Visible command to create a stamped copy, by pressing Shift-Option-Command-E, or by holding Option as you choose Merge Visible from the Layers panel’s fly-out menu. This combines all visible layer content onto a brand-new; just drag it to the top of your layer stack and edit away.

Use layer groups or smart objects

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To apply a single layer mask and drop shadow to the Options bar screenshots used in figure 2 of this column, the mask and style were applied to a layer group instead of individual layers.

To add a single layer style or mask to multiple layers, you can use layer groups or sandwich ’em into a smart object, instead of merging or flattening those layers. Either way, activate the layers and then, to create a layer group, press Command-G and then add the style or mask to the group. To create a smart object, choose Layer > Smart Object > Convert to Smart Object and then add the style or mask to the smart object.

Use Smart Filters

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With smart filters, you get a mask (circled) that lets you hide the filter’s effect from parts of the image. You can also open the filter’s blending options (also circled) to change the filter’s opacity level and/or blend mode. A variety of filters were safely applied to this image in order to create a water color effect and dark-edge vignette. (Click to enlarge.)

To run filters on multiple layers, or to run filters safely on a single layer, activate the layer(s) and choose Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. Photoshop sandwiches ’em into a smart object, which you can open by double-clicking. This maneuver protects your original, lets you reopen the filter for more editing (double-click its name in the Layers panel), hide the filter’s effect from parts of your image (use the included smart filter mask), change the filter’s blend mode and opacity (double-click the icon to the filter’s right in your Layers panel to open the blending options dialog), or delete it.

Convert to smart object before resizing layers

Each time you summon Free Transform and resize layer content, you lose quality. Resize too many times, and the content becomes unrecognizable. To preserve quality, convert the layer(s) into a smart object as described earlier or choose File > Open as Smart Object in the first place. That way you can resize content till the cows come home without making pixel pudding.

Don’t feather the selection, feather the mask

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The Properties panel’s masking settings include a Feather slider that lets you perform non-destructive, adjustable feathering.

If you’re trying to create a soft selection—say, for a soft oval vignette collage—create the selection and then add a layer mask. In your Layers panel, double-click the mask to open the Properties panel and drag the Feather slider rightward for pure, nondestructive feathering on the fly.

Get out of Photoshop sometimes

Omnipotent as it may seem, Photoshop isn’t suitable for everything. If you’re setting tons of text or creating multi-page documents, use a program like Pages or InDesign. Likewise, as this article explains, it’s far easier to perform some edits in Lightroom, another part of Adobe’s Creative Cloud.

That said, Lightroom-like controls live in the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in: either double-click a raw format image to open it or access a version of it in Photoshop CC by choosing Filter > Camera Raw Filter. The latter is handy for making color and lighting changes to JPEGs, removing sensor spots, creating custom edge vignettes with the Radial Filter, smoothing skin with the Adjustment Brush set to a negative Clarity setting, and more.

Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!

PhotoLesa.com founder Lesa Snider teaches the world to create better graphics. She’s the author of the best-selling Photoshop: The Missing Manual books, coauthor of iPhoto: The Missing Manual, author of The Skinny Book ebook series, a founding creativeLIVE instructor, and regular columnist for Photoshop User and Photo Elements Techniques magazines.

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