A few weeks back I wrote a post about being tired of faking it and that I wanted to expand my technical knowledge. Three weeks later I’m back to tell you what I learned from Photoshop. I’ve finally finished my first 10 hour Lynda.com course and “surprise!” I learned a few things.

The first thing I learned is that I actually did know my way around Photoshop pretty well which made me feel better about this whole project. I’ve always used layers for my individual edits and corrections and I’ve taken a reasonable amount of care to make non-destructive edits. I was thankful I wasn’t going into this course completely new, otherwise I think the speed of the class would have been overwhelming.

What was new to me was how powerful a tool Adobe Camera Raw (the equivalent of Lightroom) is for basic photo editing? You can complete almost all of your major edits here without even accessing Photoshop. All the necessary edits like Exposure, Contrast, Color Temperature, Vibrancy can be take care of in the first menu. You can also spot adjust, fix distortion, add a split tone, create a black and white image, use selective color and add a pretty sweet vignette without even accessing the more powerful Photoshop. You can even correct blemishes with the spot removal tool. All of these edits are done in a non-destructive environment which means you can change your mind and go back into your file and re-edit the photo as your tastes and skill set changes. There are many more features and I highly recommend you watch a couple of videos on Adobe Camera Raw so you can maximize its benefits. (And before you get on me about why I’m not using Lightroom, its because I already had ACR so why spend money on another program?)

Once I have an edit that I am happy with in Adobe Camera Raw I’ve been opening it in Photoshop proper, and that’s where the problems start. Photoshop is an incredibly powerful program. When people like Suppadduppa666 talk about dropping down the rabbit hole that is Photoshop, I now get it. Where do you stop? Want to make your image look like a watercolor painting on rough canvas? You can do that. Want to make your mini figures frown? You can do that. Want to combine images to create ethereal other worlds? Of course you can do that too. In fact the program is so powerful it can be positively overwhelming.

In some ways I’m glad I didn’t start really getting serious about learning Photoshop until now. I’ve spent the last five years developing my own style of toy photography. I’ve practiced through thousands of photos and I can nail the shot I want pretty quickly. If I was learning Photoshop at the same time I was trying to develop my own individual style, I think I would have gone down that rabbit hole, played around with a dozen (or more) different photographic styles and never developed a much more important skill — how to take an interesting photograph that tells a story.

So while I really, really, really appreciate smart layers (where have you been all my life)! And I’m super happy to finally understand focus stacking, I’m not sure I would recommend mastering Photoshop before you’ve mastered beginning photography. In fact there is nothing that Photoshop can do that you can’t do on your phone with a slew of easy to use apps. I think in many ways that taking photos and developing your style is more important than mastering Photoshop in the early stages of your career as a photographer.

Of course it’s important that you know that Photoshop exists. If you have the time I would recommend that you watch any of the beginning classes available on Lynda.com. (My local library offers them for free and LinkedIn Premium offers them for free as well. So look around, you might find a deal.) Watch them not with the intention of doing the tutorials, but to see exactly how people are altering photos in many subtle and not so subtle ways. Part of being a good photographer is being an educated viewer.

I think the most important thing I learned from Photoshop is how to look at a photograph critically. Now when I look at someones work I can see what they did or did not do while editing. I can say: “Gee, I think they should have really bumped up the clarity on the lines in that old mans face to make them more pronounced.” or “Why oh why did they bump the vibrancy and saturation on only part of the sky?” or “That’s a beautiful use of split toning; I have an image that would be perfect for that technique.”

When Boris and I started this blog two years ago we decided not to talk tech and I’m glad we did. Of course my reasons then are different from what they are now. Then it was because I couldn’t, now its because I find them to be a distraction from what is really important — telling a good story with an emotional impact on the viewer.

Which reminds me, I need to choose our next photo challenge. I hope you will consider joining us!

~ Shelly


If you received one of my best of 2015 books you may recognize the sister image to this. When I was reviewing my images with a fresh set of eyes (courtesy of learning PS as well as a critique from Balakov) I felt this was actually a better image. It was a pleasant surprise to find this image and bring it to life with a new set of skills.