Six Photoshop Features All Photographers Must Master

Six Photoshop Features All Photographers Must Master

It doesn't matter what kind of photographer you are, chances are your images will benefit from being edited in some way. If you are serious about your pictures looking their best, these six key Photoshop techniques are well worth mastering.

Adobe Photoshop is a vast program with tools and features that can alter your images beyond recognition. While the extensive list of things the program can do may feel intimidating to many, you'll be pleased to know you don't need to learn every facet of the editor. Many photographers use the same few tools, again and again, to transform their images to a high standard. I know I fall into this category of users who have tried, tested, and rejected many of the features in Photoshop over the last 20 years of using it. In all that time of using the program, I have managed to distill the many features on offer down to just six key tools that I use every day.

Dodge and Burn

Starting off the list is a pair of tools that are based on a traditional darkroom technique. Dodging and burning is a way to lighten or darken areas of the image with the use of a brush. Dodging will lighten things, while burning will darken them. Both the dodge and burn tool can be found on the same icon on the toolbar. To switch between these two tools, you can right-click on the icon, which will reveal a dropdown of all the options in this group.

Once you have the correct tool selected, you have some further controls at your fingertips. First, you can select if the dodging or burning will affect just the highlights, midtones, or shadows from the range menu. Next, you have an exposure percentage, which alters the strength of the tool. The higher the number, the stronger the effect will be. These two controls can be found on the top menu bar. Lastly, there is a Protect Tones option, which when selected will minimize the clipping in the shadows and highlights. This option also tries to keep colors from shifting hue. I personally always keep this last option selected, but you may want to experiment with toggling this on and off to see which you prefer.

Mastering dodging and burning can take some practice to dial in, but the results can enhance an image. It doesn't matter if you shoot portraits, landscapes, wildlife, or even still life, dodging and burning can sometimes be all you need to transform your image into something special. If your pictures sometimes look a little flat and two-dimensional, this tool can change all that.

The Pen Tool

If you need to make complex selections or "cut out" something out from a busy background, the Pen Tool is just what you need. I must admit, for many years, I resisted this tool, as I thought it was something more for graphic designers and not photographers. Once I did start to use the tool, though, I never looked back. While there are many great tools for making sections, nothing can beat the human eye and a steady hand.

The Pen Tool is located in the toolbar just below the dodge and burns icon. Once selected, it's just a matter of drawing connected points around your intended object until you complete your selection. The great thing about the Pen Tool is that by dragging any of the points, you make it possible to create curvy lines to any degree. This means any complex shape you can think of can be drawn with the Pen Tool.  

Once you have all your points drawn around your object, it's just a matter of right-clicking with the mouse and asking Photoshop to make a selection for you. This selection can then be easily used to separate an object from a background or used in an image mask on various adjustment layers. While the Pen Tooll can take some time to get used to, I urge users to hang in there, as it still is the best way to get consistent and accurate sections of difficult objects. 

The Shadow/Highlight Tool

Sometimes, you will take a picture that is generally well exposed but is still lacking some detail in the shadow or highlight areas. When one or both of these parts of the image need some adjustment, the Shadow/Highlight command is a great tool to use. To access this tool, head over to "Image" in the menu at the top, then down to "Adjustments," where you will see "Shadow/Highlight."

Be sure that the preview option is selected in the dialog box so any adjustments you make with the controls are visible in real-time. Once you are happy with the changes, you can hit ok and the adjustments will be made. I think you may be surprised at how powerful this tool is at rescuing detail in both the darker and lighter parts of the image. The great thing about this particular tool is that no manual selections are needed. Photoshop knows where the shadows or highlights are and alters their value based on your input. For most users, the main Shadow/ Highlight sliders will get you where you want to be. If you want to fine-tune those adjustments even further, there are more options available to you if you click the "Show More Options" button. I have to admit that although I use this tool regularly, I have never needed to fine-tune those adjustments with the extra tools that are made available when you click "Show More Options." For most users, the original Shadow/Highlight sliders will get you where you want to be.  

Repair Tools

I have grouped these two tools, as the pair work well to fix problem areas in your photographs. Both these tools can be found in the same place just above the brush icon in the toolbar. By right-clicking on this particular icon, you will be greeted with several tools all related to repairing the image in some way. Both the tools we need can be selected here.

The Spot Healing Brush

The Spot Healing Tool is reasonably self-explanatory and is used to remove spots or blemishes from your work. Spots on someone's face, unwanted specks on clothing, and sensor dust on your images are just a few examples of where this tool works well.


Because you apply this tool with a brush, you can tell Photoshop exactly what you want to be fixed. One point worth mentioning is that you don't necessarily need to apply this tool in just small spots. Thanks to the fact you apply it with a brush, you can click and hold the brush down and draw any shape you need. For example, an unwanted thread of sensor dust can easily be fixed with a drawn squiggly line that follows the offending piece.

The Patch Tool

The Patch Tool works slightly differently in that you create a selection around something in your image and then tell Photoshop to source a particular area in the image to patch in a repair. I have this tool set up to "Patch source from destination," although you can also "Patch destination from source." Both of these options can be selected in the toolbar at the top of the screen.

I then use this tool to make a selection around a problem area in my work and then drag said selection to a part of the picture that I want the program to reference from when repairing. The great thing about being able to drag the selection around is that Photoshop shows you in real-time the area you going to potentially use to fix things. This visual preview can be invaluable when you are trying to line something up in your work. Think trying to fix a problem area on a tiled wall or trying to remove something on a visible horizon in your landscape work. I find that many photographers underestimate the power of this particular tool and prefer to use some of the newer tools for repairing areas in their work. What I especially like about the Patch Tool is that you tell Photoshop exactly where to "look" to repair. Most of the other repair tools in the editor do this automatically, which can sometimes lead to undesirable results.

The Curves Tool

I think many people find the Curves Tool a little intimidating and tend to shy away from it. This is a great shame, as this one tool alone can do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to changing the appearance of your images. Head to "Image" in the menu at the top, then down to "Adjustments," where you will see "Curves" is an option.

An example of an "S-Curve" in action.

From here, you can make changes to the image’s tonality by adjusting the straight diagonal line on the graph. By changing the shape of this line, you can affect the highlights, midtones, or shadows of the image. You may have heard photographers talk about adding an "S-curve" to their work, which means they have taken the straight line you are greeted with when you open the curves tool and changed the shape so it more resembles an "S" shape on the graph. S-shaped curves are one popular tonal tweak used for boosting contrast and color saturation.

If all that wasn't enough, the Curves Tool can also be used to adjust individual color channels of an image too. This is really where this tool comes into its own in terms of controllability and possibilities. In my work, I love using curves to change the values of just the blue channel to give my pictures a more stylish look. It's amazing what a few small tweaks in this tool can do to transform your work.

While there are certainly many more tools that the program has to offer, the six suggestions mentioned above will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to editing your work. The main reason I wanted to write this article was to help readers to cut through the noise that is out there when it comes to using such a versatile piece of software such as Photoshop. If you can master a few key concepts when it comes to using the editor, you will be able to get your images where you want them to be in a fraction of the time. The way I see mastering Photoshop is a lot like becoming comfortable communicating in a foreign language. You'd be surprised how little you can get by with if you learn a few key phrases. Memorizing every single word in the dictionary may be impressive, but it isn't necessary.

Do you use all the techniques mentioned above? Any key features you think are missing from the list? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.

If you'd like to take your photo editing to a new level, make sure to check out the variety of Photoshop tutorials and plugins that will speed up your workflow and help you create stunning, professional work.  Save 15% by using "ARTICLE" at checkout.

Paul Parker's picture

Paul Parker is a commercial and fine art photographer. On the rare occasion he's not doing photography he loves being outdoors, people watching, and writing awkward "About Me" statements on websites...

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I use most of those and don’t even touch a computer, much less photoshop. I have to deal with some interesting odors and my fingers and clothes get stained, but I’ll take that over a computer monitor.

I am a heavy LR user and have been looking for ways to quickly learn a few PS tricks that I can incorporate into my workflow when I need some heavy lifting. Its article's like this that help me get there without having to sit through endless Videos or noise as you put it, that may or may not address the things I want to learn but I have to sit through all that blah blah and ultimately lose complete interest, bail out and never actually pick of up any tips .

Thank you for writing an article with details and illustrations that I can easily reference back and forth as I explore your suggestions instead of a blurb with a redirect to someone else's Youtube video.

Would really like to see more !

I do all these steps with "darktable", plus a few more that are best done with the RAW files. Even the healing of negative "scans". Only at the very end of the process do I possibly use a normal image editing programme ("The Gimp") together with a graphics tablet. But only if that is necessary.
I have several reasons for this, but the two most important are: If you realise later that the edits weren't so good, you can change them without having to start all over again, and the source is a RAW file anyway. (If it's just JPG, I would do as you do). Just changing the white balance is one reason to work with RAW files. The other reason is that there is much more data in RAW files than in JPG files, which directly affects the quality of the final image.

This list is good in theory... In practice the dodge/burn tools are terrible way to achieve the editing requiring. They don't work like actual dodging and burning in a darkroom and are a destructive edit. Using the layers mask on a curves layer is far superior. The pen tool is good but quickmasks and the selection tools are about as fast and more precise. I use the pen tool in vector software and it works great but when you are dealing with a photo where everything has rough edges it seldom is the most effective tool. The others I fully agree with

IMO mask skills are mandatory if you are doing retouching at all in your business. This allows non-destructive editing of the images.
PS has added a lot of useful features that can be used in adjustment layers.

The pen tool is a good skill to have but the most challenging selections are the highly detailed edges of foliage or hair that are far beyond the pen tool.
Selecting complex forms and colors is possibly the most important skill one can learn.

All the advances in selection tools and techniques these past few years have made things better but still show how limited the machine is compared to human eye.

I agree with all, but, I use Masking and Blending a lot, in every image. I like Dodge and Burn, but I wish when you are burning that it uses the tones of the part you are burning, instead of just using light to black. It would be so much better.

Yeah color is definitely an issue with Dodge and Burn, which is why I tend to use Frequency Separation more and more. While it's usually only brought up for skin retouching, I find it can be really useful for everything from landscape to product photos.

Pretty sure I saw this article a year ago, or more. Has it been updated?

Or you could just buy a Fujifilm camera and shoot JPEGS and get it right in camera and save the money you spend for photo editing software and perhaps spend it on a new lens ! :-)

Skilled photograph enthusiasts and pros are not fixing their errors. They are crafting the image they envisioned when they created the raw material in the camera.

As Ansel Adams famously said, "The negative (file) is the score, the print is the performance."