What Is Non-Destructive Editing In Photoshop?

What Is Non-Destructive Editing In Photoshop?

When you first start editing photos, all you focus on is the end result. You’re probably not worried about what steps you take to get there. As long as your photo looks good when you’re done, that’s all that matters. This is exactly how I treated the editing process when I first started working in Photoshop. However, I quickly learned that I was only making it harder on myself by not editing non-destructively.

Non-destructive photo editing is when all of your adjustments can be individually altered without affecting your starting image. Rather than applying an adjustment directly onto a photo, each has its own layer to remain separate. By using things like new layers, layer masks, and smart objects, you can fine-tune every adjustment on its own.

To better highlight the importance of non-destructive photo editing, let’s get into specific examples that highlight the value of this technique.

What Is Non-Destructive Editing?

Non-destructive photo editing is the process of editing an image without ever altering the initial photo permanently. When you’re working in Photoshop, this would mean you never apply an adjustment onto any image or background layer directly. Instead, you would apply them to a new layer to keep it separate.

For example, if I selected my image layer and grabbed my brush tool, I could begin clicking and dragging on my image to paint. Although this does create the brushstroke that I wanted, it’s been applied to the actual image.

Brushstroke painted directly onto the image layer

You can see this by looking at the layer thumbnail and seeing the colored line on the image.

The problem here is that if I wanted to reposition this line, I would have to reposition the entire image as well. Since they’re applied onto the same layer, they are essentially one.

Brushstroke and image move together because they’re on the same layer. This is destructive editing.

Now let’s step back a bit and see how I could have done this non-destructively.

Starting with a clear image, I want to create the same line on my image, this time, non-destructively. I’ll once again grab my brush tool, but this time I will create a new layer before painting.

With my new layer created, I’ll make sure it’s selected and then paint a line on my image once again. At first glance, the result is exactly the same. However, this subtle difference in the layers is what makes this process non-destructive.

Since I want to reposition this line, I’ll grab my move tool, and this time, it only selects the brush stroke.

The line can be moved independently because it’s on its own layer.

I can move the line where ever I want, without affecting the image beneath it. That’s because it’s on its own layer, making it separate from the image.

Although this is an oversimplified example, it’s one of the easiest ways to understand how non-destructive editing works in Photoshop. By creating new layers, layer masks, smart objects, or adjustment layers, you can keep all of your adjustments separate throughout your entire project.

What Is Destructive Editing?

With a small taste of destructive editing in the last section, let’s go over a more common issue you’ll face.

For this example, I want to cut out this person from the photo. I’ll create a path around them using the Pen Tool and turn it into a selection. Since I only want to remove the background from the photo, I’ll press the delete key.

Although this does get rid of the background, this has become a permanent change. Looking at the image layer in the layers panel, you can see how the background no longer exists on the layer.

For the sake of example, I purposely messed up my selection and accidentally cut out part of their arm. To fix this, I’ll need to add back this missing area. The problem here is that since I deleted the background from the image, there’s nothing to add back. That information has been deleted from the photo permanently.

The reality is, you’re guaranteed to make some mistakes while editing in Photoshop. When you’re editing in a destructive way, these mistakes end up costing a lot more time to fix. Often times, you’ll need to completely step back and redo the entire process.

Beyond having the advantage to individually edit layers, working non-destructively makes mistakes much easier to fix. Rather than starting all over, you can simply adjust a layer mask or reposition the layer causing problems.

This problem would have been easily fixed by editing non-destructively with a layer mask.

The Major Differences Between Destructive And Non-Destructive Editing

At this point, you’re probably starting to see the differences between destructive and non-destructive editing in Photoshop. Destructive is a permanent change to an image or layer, while non-destructive keeps each adjustment separate.

Besides the physical change to a layer, each editing style will require different amounts of time. The reason you might have already fallen into destructive editing habits is that it’s easier. That’s the reason I and many others first ran into this problem when learning Photoshop.

Although destructive editing does take less time to make each adjustment, you negate your options to fine-tune things later on. What seems like less time upfront ends up costing you more time down the line. Trying to backtrack, undo, and revise destructive adjustments is a serious pain and sometimes not possible altogether.

On the other hand, non-destructive editing does take more effort and thought throughout the entire editing process. Rather than freely making adjustments, you have to consider what the most effective way to create them is. In some cases, you’ll want to create a new layer, while other times, you might create a new smart object, for example.

Whatever will make the adjustment you’re about to make, the easiest to edit in the future. That’s what non-destructive editing is all about.

Even if you don’t think you’ll never need to make any alteration to something, it sure is nice to have the option just in case. By editing non-destructively in every project you create, it slowly becomes a force of habit.

More Examples Of Non-Destructive Photo Editing

There are a lot of examples of non-destructive photo editing, so it’s impossible to give every single example. Instead, let’s cover some of the most common situations you’ll run into where non-destructive editing is crucial.

– Using Camera Raw Or Blur Filters

So far, we’ve only discussed creating new layers to edit non-destructively. The truth is, a new layer doesn’t always solve the problem you need. In terms of the filter gallery or working in Camera Raw, this is the case.

Here’s the problem:

To edit in Camera Raw, all you need to do is select your image layer, then go to Filter > Camera Raw Filter to open it up.

Camera Raw opens up, and you can start making your adjustments as needed. Everything is adjustable in Camera Raw until you click OK and exit.

Once you’re back to your regular layers panel, your adjustments have been applied, but Camera Raw is nowhere to be seen. If you reopen it to try to fine-tune adjustments, you’ll find all the Camera Raw settings back to zero. That’s because your adjusted photo is the new “base image” you’re now working with.

Camera Raw adjustments applied destructively.

So what can you do to make your Camera Raw adjustments editable?

The Solution:

With any type of filter adjustment, including Camera Raw, converting your layer into a smart object is the best way to use them non-destructively. With smart filters, you gain the ability to edit any filter adjustment after the fact.

Before applying the Camera Raw Filter, right-click on your image layer and select convert to smart object.

With the layer converted, I’ll once again open Camera Raw by pressing Filter > Camera Raw Filter.

After making my adjustments in Camera Raw and pressing OK to save the changes, notice the changes in the layers panel. Now there is a Camera Raw filter beneath the image layer to represent the recent changes.

Smart filters available after making Camera Raw adjustments

If I ever need to make changes to my previous Camera Raw adjustments, I could simply double click on the Camera Raw smart filter to pick up where I left off.

Although this same principle applies to any type of filter adjustment, using smart objects and smart filters is always a good idea. This way, you can apply filter adjustments non-destructively and have the freedom to make changes later if needed.

– Selections And Layer Masks

One of the biggest reasons people use Photoshop is to create selections and remove backgrounds. As you’ve now come to learn, anything that involves removing something from a photo should always be non-destructively. You never know when you might need to add something back in!

Rather than going and deleting your background to cut out something, you can apply your selection onto a layer mask. With a mask, you still get rid of the background, but it’s hidden rather than deleted.

That way, you can easily add back or remove parts of your selection simply by painting white (100% visible) or black (100% transparent) onto the mask.

As a simple example, let’s cut out this moon image by using the Elliptical Marquee tool.

After making my initial selection around the moon, you can see the circle of marching ants to represent the selection area.

Instead of pressing delete, I’ll add a layer mask to my moon layer.

Now the selection is applied to the layer mask, and the background has become transparent. The difference, however, is that all the background information is there; it’s just hidden by the mask. That way, I can alter my selection or add parts of the background back into the photo if need be. No permanent changes have been made!

Whenever you’re working with selections, use a layer mask to edit non-destructively. It makes the entire process easier while giving you more customization options with your selections. If you’re new to creating selections, check out the 5 best ways to cut out images in Photoshop.

– Using Adjustment Layers

Whenever you want to edit the exposure or color, there are a series of adjustment tools you can use in Photoshop.

The first way to create an adjustment is by going to Image > Adjustments and selecting the adjustment you want to make. For the sake of example, I’ll choose a curves adjustment to apply to my image.

After making the curves adjustments and committing to the changes, they get applied to my image. The trouble is that now these changes are directly applied to the photo, and it’s impossible to change them.

Brightening the image with a Curves adjustment destructively.

That’s where adjustment layers come into play.

Adjustment layers create all the same adjustments as the previous method, except apply them onto a new layer. You can create a new adjustment by selecting on in your adjustments tab or pressing the adjustment layer button in the layers panel.

Whenever changing the color or exposure, using adjustment layers is a no brainer. It’s easier to see what adjustments are applied, while also giving you the chance to refine or remove adjustments as needed. Best of all, every adjustment layer automatically creates a layer mask for itself, so they’re extremely easy to use for spot adjustments!

Brightened image with Curves adjustment layer non-destructively.

Tips To Edit Non-Destructively In Photoshop

So non-destructive editing is hands down the best way to edit in Photoshop. There’s no argument about that. However, what are the best methods and tips you can begin using right now to start applying this strategy?

– Use Layer Masks

Layer masks are one of the easiest ways to edit non-destructively when working with selections or needing to erase part of a layer. With a layer mask, you simply hide parts of the layer rather than permanently deleting them. That way, you always have something to go back to later on to make adjustments.

– Always Create New Layers

One of the best ways to implement non-destructive editing is to always apply changes to a new layer. Before you go to paint something or make a new adjustment, ensure it’s on a new layer. If you forget to add new changes to a new layer it further compounds the problem as you continue on with your project. By getting in the habit of always creating a new layer for things, you’ll be editing non-destructively on autopilot.

– Use Smart Objects

As we discussed in one of the previous sections, using smart objects is the best way to make filter adjustments non-destructive. With smart objects, you enable smart filters that let you go back and adjust different filter settings applied to your image. Better yet, you’ll also gain access to a smart filters layer mask so you can further refine your adjustments.

To learn more about the power of smart objects in photo editing, click here (my complete guide to smart objects).

– Save Projects As Layer Type Files Such as PSD or TIFF

No matter how many layers and smart objects you use, none of it will matter if you don’t save your project as a layer type file. In the case of Photoshop, the best file types to save projects are either PSD or TIFF. Each of these file types will store layer data so you can access all your layers once you reopen your project.

To learn about the best types of Photoshop project files, check out this post.

– Use Adjustment Layers To Change Exposure And Color

Rather than applying adjustments straight onto a layer, consider using adjustment layers instead. With adjustment layers, you can still apply to the same exposure and color effects, except with onto their own layer. The advantage of this is mainly so you can go back and change adjustment layers later on. They also make it easier to delete certain alterations if need be.

– Duplicate Your Background Layer

Right when you start any new project in Photoshop, make sure to duplicate your background layer. This applies to when your background layer is an image since you can’t just fill it with a solid color. By duplicating the background layer you guarantee yourself to have a backup no matter what happens. This is a great habit to get into as soon as possible!

– Build It Into Your Workflow

Like anything else, editing non-destructively gets easy when it becomes a habit. By building these extra steps into your typical workflow, it will become routine. Once it’s a part of your workflow, you won’t have to think about whether or not you’re editing non-destructively. Instead, you’ll go through the proper steps automatically.

Non-destructive editing is one of the most important things to know for anyone getting into Photoshop. It not only saves you time but prevents you from the challenge of undoing permanent mistakes. No matter how much of a perfectionist you are, you’re guaranteed to slip up at some point in your workflow. Rather than hoping you never run into a problem, plan ahead and begin editing non-destructively as soon as possible. It’s a game-changer, and you won’t regret doing it!

– Brendan 🙂

Photo of author
I'm a Canadian photographer and photo retoucher turned founder of bwillcreative.com. Around here I help you to decode the mystery of photo editing with no-fluff videos and written guides to help you achieve your creative goals. Outside of shooting photos and my passion for educating, you'll find me mountain biking or on the trails with my dog, Sunny!

Continue Reading:

How To Use The Marquee Tool In Photoshop

Learn how to use the Marquee Tool in Photoshop to crop layers, create basic selections, add selective adjustments, and more with ease.

How To Crop A Layer In Photoshop (3 Simple Methods)

If you're struggling to figure out how to crop a layer in Photoshop, you're not alone. Fortunately, there are a few easy (not so obvious) methods to help you crop a single layer in Photoshop.

How To Fill A Selection In Photoshop (5 Best Ways)

Learn how to fill anything in Photoshop from selections, shapes, and text with solid color, gradients, and even images!

What Are Embedded Previews In Lightroom + How To Use Them

Use this guide to help you understand the use of embedded previews in Lightroom along with tips to help you use them in your workflow.

Adobe Lightroom System Requirements For Mac & PC

Here's a breakdown of the system requirements for Adobe Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC to make sure it will run smoothly on your computer.

How To Add A Watermark In Lightroom Classic & CC

Learn how to add a text or graphic watermark to a photo in Lightroom Classic and Lightroom CC to protect your photos from theft.

How To Outline An Image In Canva

Learn how to outline anything in Canva from outlining images, shapes, text, designs, and more with a few easy steps.

How To Add A Border In Canva (To Images, Shapes & Text!)

Learn how to easily add a border to your designs, images, shapes, and text in Canva using these step by step techniques.

How To Make A Background Transparent In Canva

Learn how to create and export images with transparent backgrounds in Canva to open up more design options and creative styles.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments