Photoshop for Beginners; Destructive Tendencies

Okay, so I realised when I was writing this tutorial about levels and curves that I really needed to write a bit about destructive and non-destructive editing and file formats, but unfortunately there’s a lot to be written about it, so I decided to put it into a separate mini-tutorial πŸ™‚

And so, I present to you Photoshop for Beginners Part 4; Destructive Tendencies

This post is more aptly named than you would think, as most people don’t even realise how much damage they’re doing to their photograph when they edit it. Well, the damage isn’t really done to the photograph itself, but what you are doing is making your editing process a lot more difficult than it really needs to be. Luckily for you, I’m here to correct your unruly behaviour, and teach you a better way to edit your photographs.

So, what is non-destructive editing? Simply put, it’s a method of editing an image which ultimately leaves the original photograph completely intact. Now, you may already be doing non-destructive editing without realising it; if you only ever shoot in RAW, or if you use layers to edit your images, you’re doing a perfect job at protecting the original image. If, however, you shoot in JPEG and apply any changes directly to that image, you’re probably doing yourself more harm than good.

So, why would you want to preserve the original image? I mean, the whole point of editing a photograph is, after all, to change it. Whilst that’s true enough, you should bear in mind that humans are very changeable creatures, and our tastes can change from day to day – sometimes ever from hour to hour! You may spend hours slaving to perfect a photograph and be completely happy with it one day, and then a week later decide that actually it’d look better if it had just a slightly different colour tone, or if it was slightly brighter, or had slightly more or less contrast. If you’ve already gone ahead and applied all of your edits, you won’t be able to go and undo anything you’ve done to the image previously.

Even if you shoot jewellery exclusively, and never take photographs of anything else, editing your photographs in a non-destructive manner means that not only will you be able to make multiple different versions of the same image, you’ll also have the freedom to change your mind about certain aspects of your image.

Perhaps most importantly, editing in a non-destructive manner gives you the power to compare your new image to the original, or compare two different versions of one image to see which is the best, or to simply undo a process you decide you don’t like.

For example, if you apply a colour filter to an image, and then move on to crop the image, you won’t be able to go back and undo the colour filter without also having to re-do your crop, or any other changes you’ve made since. But if you’ve added that colour filter in a non-destructive manner – i.e. via a new layer – you can simply go in and turn that coloured layer off. Problem solved πŸ™‚

This is especially important if you use tools like the healing brush or clone tool to correct dust spots or scratches; if you use the healing brush on your original image, and then go move on to other edits, but half an hour later decide that you were a little too heavy-handed with the healing brush and need to redo certain parts, you won’t be able to do so without also throwing away every single edit you’ve made since then. If, however, you only used the healing brush on a duplicate layer, you’ll still have the original underneath it to make another copy of and play around with some more.

So, how do we actually do this non-destructive editing? The important thing to remember here is layers, layers and more layers. Ideally, every time you move on to a new kind of edit (e.g. if you switch from using to the healing brush to applying a colour filter) you should start on a separate layer. Within photoshop, using an ‘adjustment’ (brightness, levels, contrast etc.) will automatically add a new adjustment layer for you to work on, but if you wish to use one of the brush tools you’ll need to make a copy of the original image yourself.

Your layers palette will look a little something like this

Your layers palette will look a little something like this

In the image above, you can see my layers palette. The top two layers are adjustment layers, and the bottom layer is my original image. So, let’s say that now that I’ve finished sorting out my levels and curves I need to do a little bit of a clean-up with the healing brush. Rather than use the brush directly on the base layer, which we now know is a destructive method of editing, we’re going to duplicate the original layer and work on that instead, leaving the original unharmed.

To create a copy of a layer, simply right-click on it and select ‘Duplicate layer’. If you’re in PS, you can also just hit ctrl-j. Now you have a pretty new layer to work on :). If you decide to switch from the healing brush to, for example, the dodge tool, I’d recommend making a copy of your healing layer and working on that. Make sure you rename each layer so that you don’t forget what everything is.

Now let’s look at the actual edits that we’ve made. Let’s say I’ve used the dodge tool on the image, but have decided I’d quite like to see the original image again just to check that what I’ve done still looks realistic. Well, you could of course open up the original file again in a new tab, but frankly that’s just a pain, so let’s use another feature of the layer palette instead.


As you can see in the image above, I’ve made two new layers, one for my healing brush and another for my dodge tool. Now, I’d like to able to view the effects of my dodge tool without removing the effects of my healing brush; to do this, I’m just going to ‘turn off’ the layer by clicking on that little eye symbol on the left hand side of the layer. Now the effects disappear! If you click on the eye again, the layer turns itself back ‘on’ and you can see the effects again. In this way, you can easily compare different effects to the original image (or just a different version) and simply turn off and discard any changes you decide you don’t like.

And that’s really all there is to it! Now then, once you’re finished, you have to save your photograph. This is where you have a decision to make; do you want to to use a destructive file format, and lose all your layers, or use a non-destructive save format and keep all your layer information so that you can come back and edit it at a later date?
If you decide you want to keep your layers, don’t save your file as a JPEG. This format will merge all your layers into one final image, and you’ll never be able to recover that information. Choose something like .PSD or .PNG instead, as these file types will save your layer info for the next time you open your file (they are however slightly larger files than JPEG’s, which is something to be wary of if you store your images on a cloud service). If you’re happy with the image, and are absolutely positive you’ll never want to undo anything, save it as a JPEG instead.


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