Three Tricks To Help Improve Photoshop Performance While Retouching and Compositing

Three Tricks To Help Improve Photoshop Performance While Retouching and Compositing

In an era when working on 30 megapixel and higher images has become the norm, a Photoshop document with dozens of layers can quickly become a burden to work with often slowing to a painful delay after each stroke of a brush. The simplest solution is to constantly be crushing those layers down into a single flat layer but this method is the antithesis of non-destructive editing which can make future client feedback rather difficult to implement. Instead, lets focus on few easy tricks you can do to keep your computer running smoothly during the most complex of composites.

1. Turn Off Your Adjustment Layer While Working Below Them

The logical method of editing is to place your color grading and toning at the very top of your document within a series of adjustment layers. It is also quite common for photographers to create these layers at the very beginning of a retouch to give themselves a "feel" for how the image will look once complete. Most photographers will then begin their retouch or compositing work below the adjustment layers so they can see the full impact of each change as it is made. The downside of this, unfortunately, is that after every tiny change Photoshop must re-render the preview along with all the adjustment layers often numerous of times per second. Each additional adjustment layer adds additional work for Photoshop and slows down your computer. Instead, hide all those adjustment layers while you are working. You don't need to be looking at a perfectly color corrected photo while you are cloning skin blemishes. The benefit is that Photoshop will run much faster.

2. Shrink Your Photo

The fact that your magnificent Canon 5DS can make 50 megapixels of data in a single exposure is certainly impressive, but do you always need that much resolution for every image? If you are planning to print large, certainly maintain as much data as possible, but if you are working on a shot destined to only display on the web or to never be printed larger than an 8x10 headshot you don't need 50 megapixels of resolution. Make the first step of your retouching process the act of asking yourself what the largest size you will ever need for a given photo and only editing at that resolution. It is amazing how much better Photoshop handles a 20 megapixel image compared to a 50 megapixel one. For those wondering, and as an example, an 8x10 headshot printed at 300dpi is less than 10 megapixels. Very few photographers ever truly make use of a high resolution sensor. 

3. Create Stamp Visible Layers. 

When working on a complex composite each element usually is on its own layer, frequently with its own set of color grading to match the tone of the scene. For every new object added to the stage Photoshop slows considerably. Rather than crushing all those layers down which obliterates editability, instead create a stamp visible layer above them then hide all those other layers. You can always remove the stamp visible layer later but while it is in place Photoshop doesn't need to re-render dozens of layers each time you make a small change. To create a stamp visible layer create a new, empty layer above all the layers you wish to be included, and hit command-option-shift-e (control-alt-shift-e on windows). You can then edit above that layer without forcing Photoshop to re-render anything below it on every change.


Photoshop continues to demand greater and greater resources of our computers. Rather than spending every dime on the fastest, most impressive computer money can buy, adapt your editing workflow slightly to help Photoshop stay quick, even if you aren't using the latest in super powered GPUs. This post really only skims the surface of a potentially limitless topic, I'd love to hear some of your favorite Photoshop accelerating tricks in the comments below.

Ryan Cooper's picture

Ryan is an mildly maniacal portrait/cosplay photographer from glorious Vancouver, Canada.

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How about calling out Adobe for not optimizing for modern day systems that have 8-16 threads and video cards like GTX 1070's and above? They have money but it seems not the desire to be leaders in the creative software market. And yes I know there are other programs out there, but none of them have the legacy or market share Adobe has. I don't see one article on Fstoppers that address this issue that has been brought up by many Creative Cloud users. You guys have clout so use it to get answers.

I've called out Adobe before for poor performance and other articles have as well, but ultimately that is up to Adobe to fix we can't just whine all day, it doesn't help anyone. Thus we present solutions to help with the workflows users already have.

That said, ultimately, Adobe will respond to their bottom line. If you don't feel their product is of high enough quality, stop paying for it. Thats how the free market works. Journalists don't influence the quality of products, consumers do.

Adobe could care less about my $10/month and their bottom line has gone straight up since the Creative Cloud. And don't forget that they only did the $10/month kicking and screaming because of the LOUD and vocal user base. Fstoppers has a very large megaphone and the users to back it up...All I'm saying is please use it to better the product and not change workflows.

You are presuming that you are the only one frustrated by this. Your $10/month on its own is meaningless, $10/month of a larger percent of their user base would have meaning.

Adobe added the $10/month tier for a simple reason. A huge percent of the user base was not willing to pay for the full creative cloud membership. It had nothing to do with journalism, it had everything to do with Adobe seeing that there was a lot of money to be made that they were missing out on. Its that simple.

That said, while Photoshop (and Lightroom) can get slow at times I don't event remotely consider it severe enough to consider switching software myself. I suspect the vast majority of users agree with me.

Fstoppers is not a megaphone, it is an online publication. Our primary goal is to create content that is useful and helpful to our readers. Adobe knows about Photoshop's performance issues. They don't need us to repeatedly tell them and they certainly are not going to radically re-engineer their software based on an article we write.

I'd be willing to bet Adobe did a cost/benefit analysis a long time ago to figure out if the effort required to make full use of multi-core and GPU processing was worth their effort. As of right now, the answer is no. The only way that will change is if large chunks of users flock to competing products.

Agree. Adobe is more than aware of their program and performance. If they could improve performance of their products, i'm pretty sure they would and will. I use a 1 TB external drive i had laying in the drawer, and used as a scratch disk, my performance is just fine.

I did my last payment for CC, next year I'm going away! I'm already on Capture one and Affinity Photo (still not perfect, but I believe it will get better). LR performance on modern computers just terrible.
Capture One other hand has more bug, but it's getting fixed slowly.

I had big performance issues with LR. Once I deinstalled my antivirus software which caused problems anyhow with updates and upgrades I got a huge performance boost. LR runs at least 3 times faster now. No more waiting.
Try it! (Win 10 comes with its own antivirus so why bother with third party software that ruins performance...)

I'm pretty much in the CaptureOne Pro + Affinity boat as well. C1 is getting better all the time as is Affinity. I find Affinity faster than Photoshop most of the time too (on Mac at least).

Due to my workflow, #1 isn't applicable and I've tried #2 and regretted it later, too many times to do that anymore. #3, however, is a great idea that I would have never thought of. Thanks a lot!

Almost all of my images are composite images often with dozen of image layers before I even get to adjustment layers. So things can bog down for me as I get deep into the edit. The thing I find most helpful is not to use smart filters. Use adjustment layers at all times or it gets nasty fast. Does suggestion 3 with the Stamp Visible layer make a difference to anyone else? I find adding a stamp visible layer at the top and then working on top of that makes no difference at all. Your reasoning sounds good, and it should work that way, but in my experience it's just another layer photoshop has to deal with even if it is blocking out the lower layers. But, yeah, if that's working for other people I'll have to look into what's going wrong at my end.

Helpful article, thanks. Question? Most of my work is 8x10. For editing in PS, What do you suggest to downsize my file, and then edit for a faster results?

Personally, I use Capture One for this as it lets me kick everything out as 16 bit tiffs as part of my RAW conversion process so I don't really have to think about it.

Not everyone wants to have a massive gaming style rig sitting on their desk. Many photographers want to edit while on the go using a portable laptop. Furthermore, Photoshop doesn't even properly use multicore machines or a sooped up GPU so you would be buying an expensive high spec machine that mostly sits idle while still having slow behaviors in Photoshop.

As far the Apple comment, I won't get into that discussion since no one will ever win it. But in my opinion, the Apple OS is so much better than Windows that its a no brainer for me to stick with Apple.

No you wouldn't. ;) For me it all begins with user experience, and the Windows user experience is terrible. It has improved over the years, I will grant you that. But Windows 10 is still abysmal in my opinion. I currently have 2 installations of it and dread any time I have to work with it. If I had to choose between only Windows and just not owning a computer. I'd choose the latter and just use a tablet.

I'm referring to a laptop like an MS surface, that isn't going to run PS much better than a Macbook Pro. (even though it should, editing a single image is such a trivial task considering these are computers that can run games at like 60 fps)

That said this argument is circular, no one ever wins it, but so many people, like you, are obsessed with starting it because you feel you have some brilliant high ground. (Apple users are just as guilty). Reality is, use what you like. But the problem with Photoshop currently isn't computers with poor specs, nor is it macOS or Windows, its an app that is so bloated and poorly architected that it requires far more computing power than it should. We can't really change that though, thus we must look for work around, hence this article.

See, you just made my argument for me. "windows 10 out of the box was a horror".

Nothing else matters after that. I don't want to buy something that is garbage when I first plug it in. Nor do I want to invest hours in both learning how to and doing the troubleshooting to make it work properly.

I want to buy a device that "just works", and does it elegantly and consistently. Apple meets that need, even if I have to pay a premium to reach it.

When I buy a brand new car from a dealer I wouldn't want to have to change the oil, get new break pads etc. I just bought a new car, it should be in great shape and ready to drive. Same goes for computers.

Il ignore the rest of that since its all just rhetoric.

Good to know. Thank you. Yes, this has been a great problem since losing my Alienware. My laptop tends to freeze due to limited RAM and Photoshop being such a heavy program.

When batch processing thousands of images on a PC tower with Xenon processors and deciding I needed better performance I added a Mac tower with Xenon processors running OS X and the processing time was cut by more than 50%.

Most applications do not benefit from multi-threading. It is used primarily for server based applications where there are multiple users or applications being supported simultaneously. What does improve Photoshop performance quite noticeably is minimizing defragmentation with the hundreds of temp files created by PS and using a dedicated scratch drive so that the data drives are fragmented as little as possible. I can fully defrag a drive and then do a batch processing of my prior days image files and when the work has completed if I check the drive it is highly fragmented.

SSD's help with the application and OS but are not something I would ever use for data. I used RAID1 internal paired drives for working data and that helps performance. RAM at 12GB also helps and this is where the Apple OS is superior in using excess memory as a very high speed scratch drive.

One thing I loved about the Nikon D3 was its having a 5:4 crop mode so for shots that I expect to become 8x10 prints I can reduce the file size by 20% at the time of the shot and also simplify batch resizing later as no cropping is needed of the image.