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Non-destructive workflows are vital to being a great Photoshop designer. However, they are often overlooked by people. Personally, I was pretty late to pick up non-destructive Photoshop techniques – to my peril! After learning these techniques my workflow increased dramatically, and I was able to start editing my images much easier after finishing compositions.
I would go as far as to say that these techniques have been the most useful in my journey to master Photoshop. Many of you will already be aware of them, but I think it’s important to publicize these techniques, even if only a few of you can benefit from them. I hope you find these techniques useful, and that you can all make your workflow less destructive.
Adjustment layers have gotten a lot of press lately, and for good reason. They’re simply invaluable if you’re a regular Photoshop user. Quite, simply, they let you apply adjustments to your images via a completely editable layer. This means that your adjustments are totally non-destructive, and can be altered or removed at any time.
To active your adjustment layers window go to window>adjustments.
This will make your adjustment layers window pop up, which looks like the image below. You can see lots of adjustment options such as levels, hue/saturation, brightness/contrast, gradient overlays, color overlays, exposure etc… You should be able to handle a lot of your photo editing requirements using adjustment layers.
In the example below I’ve applied a gradient map adjustment layer. I used a rainbow default gradient, and then reduce my adjustment layer’s opacity to 20%, to give a more subtle effect. The great thing about adjustment layers is that you can not only edit the adjustment settings, but the layer opacity, layer blend mode etc… You can even use masks to mask off areas of your adjustment layers, giving you area-specific adjustments for your image…
Adjustment layers are great, but what if you want to apply filters non-destructively? That’s where smart filters come in! This lets you apply your smart filters just like a layer blending option, so that you can go back and edit your filter settings at any time.
To apply a smart filter select the layer you’d like to apply the filter to, and go to filter>convert for smart filters.
You will receive a notification that you must turn your layer into a ‘smart object’. Click ok.
Then simply apply a filter as you normally would. If you look at your layers palette you’ll see that the filter has appears underneath your layer, much like a blending option would. If you want to change your filter settings later, simply double click on the filter within your layers palette:
Masks are probably the aspect that you are all most familiar with. They let you hide or ‘mask’ parts of your image. It’s incredible to think that many of us used to use the eraser tool for this, which of course is totally destructive. Masks give you far more freedom to apply the settings you want, and of course are totally non-destructive.
I will focus on a standard layer mask for this article, but there are a huge variety of masking techniques out there.
If you look at the bottom of your layers palette, you’ll see a small icon for ‘apply layer mask’. Click this icon. Then you can use a black paintbrush to mask off areas of your image. Try experimenting with varying hardness and opacity for different results.
This is what happens when you mask off parts of your image using a large, soft black paintbrush at 100% opacity, with a red underlying layer. If you want to repair and parts of your image, you can simply brush over with a white paintbrush and unmask specific areas.
This is a great technique that I use frequently in my photo-manipulation tutorials. I used to dodge/burn my images by simply using the dodge/burn tool directly on my layers. However, this is clearly destructive, as you can’t undo your dodge/burning if you’re later unhappy with the results.
To dodge/burn non-destructively start by opening up your photo. Then create a new top layer called ‘dodge/burn’. Go to edit>fill and fill this layer with 50% gray.
Now change your dodge/burn layer’s blend mode to ‘overlay’. This will hide your 50% gray, but let you paint on this layer. Paint over your original photo using soft black/white paintbrushes, at around 10%. Keep painting, gradually building up highlights and shadows to accentuate your image.
You can review your dodge/burn layer’s content by switching it’s blend mode back from ‘overlay’ to ‘normal’. This will let you clearly see your brush marks.
Below you can see the difference between the original image and the dodge/burn version. I only dodge/burned very roughly for this example, but would normally spend more time on the process:
The lens flare filter can be really useful, but I used to be unaware of how to apply it non-destructively. I used to flatten my image, copy this flattened image as a new top layer, and then apply a lens flare effect.
However, in my opinion the most effective way to apply a lens flare non-destructively is by creating a new top layer, filled with black. Then simply change this layer’s blend mode to ‘screen’ to hide the black, and apply your lens flare as you normally would:
The image below shows your ‘lens flare’ layer at ‘normal’ blend mode:
The image below shows the ‘lens flare’ layer at ‘screen’ blend mode, hiding the black background, but letting the lens flare show through:
What is your opinion of non-destructive workflows in Photoshop? Were you already aware of any or all of the techniques listed above, and how helpful do you find them?
Tom is the founder of PSDFAN. He loves writing tutorials, learning more about design and interacting with the community. On a more interesting note he can also play guitar hero drunk with his teeth.
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