Photoshop is the ultimate image editing platform, but for beginners trying to learn how to edit photos in Photoshop, it can be a tricky process. I’ve been there myself, and it’s taken years for me to confidently say I understand the program.
With an overwhelming amount of features, it’s hard to know where to begin. Luckily, using this simple 9-step method, learning how to edit images has never been easier.
Step 1: Add Basic Adjustments Using Camera RAW
Camera Raw has all the typical white balance, exposure, color, and spot adjustments you could expect in a photo editor. Camera Raw provides an efficient way to create base adjustments to your photo.
– Open Camera Raw
If you opened an image in another format, go up to Filter > Camera Raw Filter to open your selected layer in Camera Raw.
Note: You can also open your image directly from Lightroom by following this guide.
– Edit Exposure In Camera Raw
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 clearly in all exposures. You can use the histogram at the top of the editing panel to help you out.
Next, adjust the highlights, shadows, whites, and black sliders. Rather than changing your entire exposure, these sliders only affect certain exposure ranges in your photo. 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
By making your white balance warmer or cooler, you can help to make the colors in your photos look better going forward. 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.
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.
Step 2: Crop And Straighten (If Necessary)
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.
To crop an image:
- Access the Crop Tool (C) from the Toolbar
- In the Options Bar, set the preset to W x H x Resolution to freely adjust the size of your crop, or use the Original Ratio preset to keep the same aspect ratio
- To crop your photo, click and drag on any of the outside edges of your crop overlay. This will reposition your crop
Next, use the Straighten Tool to correct slanted horizons or adjust your photo to align with a certain edge.
- Select the Straighten Tool from the toolbar
- Click along the horizon line and drag to draw a line as the base
- Photoshop will straighten the image based on the line you drew, using that as a point of where to straighten the image from
- After letting go, your image will be automatically straightened to match the line you made
Step 3: Remove Any Distractions From Your Photo
You can now use a few tools to remove unwanted distractions from the image. This could be something as minor as a sensor spot or as major as an entire building.
– Using The Clone Stamp Tool (S)
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.
Follow these steps to use the Clone Stamp Tool:
- Access the Clone Stamp Tool by pressing S on your keyboard or find it in your toolbar
- Create a new layer to make your adjustments on by pressing Shift + Control + N (Win) or Shift + Command + N (Mac)
- In the Options Bar, set the Mode to Normal, the Opacity and Flow to 100%, and the Sample to Current & Below
- In the Brush Preset Picker, select a Soft Round Brush and set the Hardness between 0% and 25%
- When using the tool press [ to decrease the brush size and ] to increase it
- Then press Alt (Win) or Option (Mac) and click somewhere on my image to sample. Wherever you sample from will be used to clone out your object
- Then, release Alt/Option and paint over the object you want to remove, and Photoshop will use the sampled pixels to cover the area.
– Using 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.
Then, follow these steps to use the Spot Healing Brush Tool:
- In the Options Bar, set the brush hardness between 0% – 25%, the Mode to normal, and the type to content-aware. Also, check off the sample all layers option
- Change the size of the brush with your left and right bracket keys [ or ]
- Paint 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 brush stroke with something suitable to replace that section of your image with
- Repeat this process 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.
Step 4: Improve The Exposure And Contrast With Curves
Now, it’s time to add your creative touch. To start things off, improve the exposure and contrast using a Curves Adjustment Layer.
To create a new curves adjustment layer, click the Curves Adjustment Layer in the Adjustments Panel. Follow this ultimate guide to the Curves Adjustment Layer for more information.
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.
Step 5: Use Adjustment Layers To Color Grade The Image
After exposure and contrast comes color. There are a handful of fantastic tools in Photoshop to edit the colors in your picture. However, the three below are the ones I find to be most effective.
Follow this guide for a more detailed color grading tutorial detailing all the methods below.
– Adjustment 1: Selective Color
To create a selective color adjustment layer, click the selective color icon in your adjustments tab.
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: 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 for certain colors.
To create a new hue/saturation adjustment layer, select it from the Adjustments 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 lightness as needed.
– Adjustment 3: Color Balance
The Color Balance Adjustment Layer 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, select it from the Adjustments 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 blend your adjustments.
I like to start in midtones and then edit the shadows while doing the highlights last. Whatever your workflow, just make sure to use all of the tone ranges!
After three 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 are the before and after of the adjustments made to the waterfall photo!
Step 6: Create Spot Adjustments Using Layer Masks
With spot adjustments, you can directly target one part of your photo (such as the sky or your subject) to adjust them as needed.
Note: If you’re new to layer masks, be sure to learn the fundamentals of layer masks in order to make the most of them.
To isolate its effects, invert the layer mask by clicking on the mask and pressing Control + I (Win) or Command + I (Mac).
Next, select the Brush Tool (B) and paint over the areas to bring back the adjustment layer. By using a layer mask, you get the best control in terms of isolating adjustments.
Step 7: Dodge And Burn
In short, dodging selectively brightens your photo while burning selectively darkens. By swapping between these tools in Photoshop, you can add some creative contrast.
– Dodge Your Image
Starting with your Dodge Tool, press O to access it.
In the Options 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.
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.
– Burn Your Image
After you’ve gone through and dodged sections of your photo, click and hold on the Dodge Tool in your Toolbar. Select the Burn Tool from the pop-up tool window.
In the Options Bar, 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 the 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 toward the lighter areas.
Go back and forth between dodging and burning until you like the effect you’re getting. You should end up with a subtle but favorable change to how areas of contrast look in your photo.
Step 8: Sharpen Your Image With A High Pass Filter
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. Follow these steps to merge the layers and sharpen the image:
- Clicking on the top layer in your Layers Panel, and use the keyboard shortcut Control + Alt + Shift + E (Win) or Command + Option + Shift + E (Mac) 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
Step 9: Export Your Photo From Photoshop
Now, you need to export your edited photo. There are many ways to save and export files 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. Now, most importantly, change the format from Photoshop to JPEG. Then click save to export your photo as a JPEG file.
After following the 9 steps, we’ve completely transformed this waterfall photo. What started as a relatively plain image has been enhanced to catch your eye better. 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!