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5 Incredibly Useful Non-Destructive Photoshop Techniques
NOTE: This post was originally posted on April 8th 2011. However, I continually get emails from people struggling to understand proper non-destructive workflows. This tutorial has helped a lot of people since it was first pubilshed, so we hope that whether this is your first time reading it, or you’re using it as a refresher, it’s helpful for you.

5 Incredibly Useful Non-Destructive Photoshop Techniques

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.

1. Adjustment Layers

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…

2. Smart Filters

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:

3. Masks

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.

4. Dodge/Burn

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:

5. Lens Flare

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 Do You Think?

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?

About the Author:

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Chris says:

    Very useful tips! Especially about the lens flare. I will definitely use that one.

  2. I really like the Dodge/Burn part. I have been looking for a way to use that effect without having to make sure I am perfect every time. This will help me out a ton, thanks Tom!

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Aaron! That’s exactly what I was hoping to achieve with this article. When I first learned these techniques I only wished that I’ve discovered them earlier.

  3. Another way to burn and dodge non-destructive is to use 2 curves, one dark, one light and use the masks to bring in the highlights or shadows.

    • Tom says:

      Yeah, that’s a pretty useful technique too! Personally I prefer the freedom of the method I highlighted in this article, but if you’re a little more rushed for time the curves method is really effective.

  4. LjM says:

    Very well written and easy to understand. A good tutorial and a very good teacher who prepared-created it. Love to see more posts like this one! T.Y!

  5. Dana says:

    Love the dodge/burn and the lens flare tips, have been wondering for a while myself how to use them non-destructively. Thank you for teaching me something new today :)

    • Tom says:

      Cheers Dana! As I mentioned in the article, I was so grateful when I discovered these tips, I thought it was worth sharing them.

  6. Carwyn says:

    Wow thanks for these! They will save me a lot of time if I want to change something in a layer, since now I tend to flatten things that don’t need it hehe

    • Tom says:

      Once you start working regularly with a non-destructive workflow you’ll be amazed at how much time and effort you can save yourself. I’m glad you liked the article :) .

  7. Natália says:

    The tips about the color dodge and the lens flare were Awesome, thanks a lot =)

  8. Gabe says:

    This are great tips. Thanks a lot!

  9. Fort3design says:

    Great tips! Adjustment layers are invaluable and smart objects and great too! I found the dodge burn info interesting helpful too, always just duplicated the layer.

    I rarely use the lens flare in my work, but that type of non destructive editing on a black screen layer can be applied to anything that requires rendering.

  10. Eric Vasquez says:

    I agree that this is a very good article. I learned a few useful tips here as well like the Smart Filters and the Dodge/Burn method you described is also something I’ll be using more of! Thanks Tom, nice read!

  11. Some really good designs here. Some of them would look really nice as wallpapers on websites

  12. Michiel says:

    Great tips, although they should be the standard for every photoshopper! I did not use the smart filters very often, but I think they are quite usefull. Aren’t they new since cs4/5?

  13. Zia says:

    Wow! nice techniques

  14. Joe-Hewes says:

    You guys rock! Another great list of tips- anything non-destructive really helps out in the long run… Cheers guys.

  15. Gustavo says:

    Nice overview. I did some videos on my blog about these but didn’t cover lens correction or lens flares, thanks!

  16. André says:

    great tips, im using all of them now! thanks!!!!!!!! :)

  17. Didgeridoodles says:

    I knew all of these tips from various sources over the years, but you have put a great resource together that will help peeps looking to do advanced work.
    Well Done

  18. Incredible tutorial, I shared this with my followers!

  19. Amazing collection of tips! I liked especially the one about dodge and burn.

  20. Henning S says:

    A very nice article. One thing about the dodge/burn part though: There is no need at all to first fill the layer with 50 percent gray; you can paint directly on it with black and white. As 50 percent gray will have zero influence on the image, you can pretty much skip this step. Just a handy tip for you. So, in short: New Layer – Set it to Overlay – Start to paint with black or white.


    • Tom says:

      Very true, and a great tip. The only reason I like to use the 50% gray is so that I can toggle on ‘normal’ and ‘overlay’ modes and better see what I’m doing.

  21. Scott says:

    This is great thanks. My question to you is when using adjustment layers non-destructively and you need to bump up a little brightness or a little saturation, how do you get the arrow keys do not do this? The only way to get the arrow keys to work that way is to select the adjustments from the top, located under “Image”. Is there a setting in preferences or something i can choose to allow me to use my arrow keys non-destructively? Only seems to work with curves

    • Tom says:

      Hi Scott. I’m a little confused by your question. What ‘arrow keys’ are you referring to? If you apply a brightness/contrast adjustment layer then by definition the adjustment layer will be non-destructive as you’ll be able to edit/remove it whenever you need without changing any other part of your image.

  22. Absolutely superb, Tom– incredibly helpful!

    I’ve seen occasional references to the dodge/burn and lens flare techniques, but never really understood them. You explained everything beautifully– can’t thank you enough! You da best!! : )

  23. Kari says:

    Short, sweet, and priceless! A good reminder for me to lay off my ‘duplicate layer’ urge so much and utilize these better alternatives. The dodge/burn layer was genius. Beer earned!

  24. kritter keeper says:

    thank you so much! this was a great tutorial and taught me a new way to think in the nondestructive manner. love your website!

  25. Ron says:

    Very useful tips

  26. Chuck H. says:

    Great Stuff! Appreciate the effort.. it really helps newbies like me!

  27. Aaron says:

    Well done. Simple, easy to understand, brilliant.
    The only question I have; Lens Flare? Are you kidding me? Only use that if you really want to destroy your picture. In the example above, the top of the hay is brightest , so the light is obviously above the hay. Why would the lens flare be in the middle of the picture then? That would only happen if the sun were in the middle of the picture, like a sunset. Don’t use cheap filters in photoshop to rely on making photos better.

    • Tom says:

      Thanks Aaron. I understand what you’re saying about the lens flare filter but I do believe that if correctly implemented (subtly, not too obviously) it can be an effective, useful filter. In the haystack image it was done as a quick example, but I do sometimes use the filter properly in my photo manipulation work.

  28. Ghazanfar says:

    Nice info about graphics.. and i love that info..

  29. Su Hall says:

    How about this! I feel like I have made it in Photoshop! LOL I don’t know if I read this when it was first published or not, but, it may not have made since to me then anyway. Gaining a PS education with tutorials and articles found here and there online are what helped me the most, but, there was no cohesiveness.
    I kind of feel that to learn PS, there are two main tasks at hand – learning the program and learning to create non-destructively. The main feature about this stuff is that it is not permanent. You can do all you want to a layer via Adjustment Layers, Masks and so forth, and not worry! If you don’t like something, drag that layer to the trash and start anew!
    This is an awesome piece, Tom!
    Thank you!

    • Tom Ross says:

      Aw, thanks so much Su, that’s great to hear that you’re making progress in Photoshop. We have some really helpful video courses lined up that should really help you progress faster, including a complete course on non-destructive, efficient workflow.

  30. carol ann says:

    I have been working with PS Elements for several years. Your non-destructive tips are great and work with my software as well. Thanks so much! I’m anxious to try them all.

    I was taught to make composites along the way while making non-destructive editing. I’m a fan of that, for sure! (Control + Alt + Shift + E).

  31. Paul Fullilove says:

    Very nice article. All except for the dodge/burn technique are part of my workflow.Thanks for the tip.

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