Pixel Damage

Our images are precious. They are our vision, our creation. We need to treat them with care. Photoshop makes it too easy to damage your pixels. But with some training we can learn to avoid the damage.

Photoshop and Lightroom Classic are the main editing tools I use and am familiar with. I acknowledge that there are other good tools, but I don’t use them. LIghtroom (I will just call it Lightroom because I think Adobe’s branding scheme is dumb) has the distinct advantage of being totally non-destructive. It is impossible to do any edit on a RAW file that damages or destroys the original pixels. This is a huge win.

Unfortunately LIghtroom does not have the ultimate power and fine-grained control of Photoshop. So it is often necessary to take images into Photoshop to finish them. But Photoshop is a power tool. As with most any sufficiently powerful tool, it can be dangerous, even magical. I still see instructors training people to edit in ways that damage pixels. This is counter productive and seldom necessary.

Photoshop can do any amount of damage you want to an image

I love Photoshop. It is one of the finest pieces of software I have ever used, and I speak as a long time software architect and developer and long time Photoshop user. But is is dangerous. It will freely let you do anything you want to an image.

Many of the tools in Photoshop operate directly on pixels. You can edit, delete, modify, blur, sharpen, recolor, or paint on your pixels. These operations are destructive after saving and closing the file. That is, you can never get back to the original pixels.

This amazing power is a two-edged sword. It gives you total freedom to do anything you can imagine, but you can find out later that you cut off your foot in the process. I have images that have been severely damaged in the past because of a lack of sophistication in my editing techniques. I destructively modified the original file and saved it. Even though I have better knowledge and technique now, I cannot go back to start over with the original data.

If you use Photoshop seriously you are continuously learning new and improved techniques for doing your work. This means you sometimes change your mind and want to go back and modify images you have worked in the past. But if you have painted yourself into a corner because of poor technique, you may not be able to do that.

I hope to encourage you to learn that there is a better and safer way. One that lets you do anything you want in the confidence that you can change or modify anything in the future.

Non-destructive editing

Non-destructive editing is a holy grail of many of us who use Photoshop heavily. It is based on some fairly simple principles that are easily learned. It works very well, is no harder to do, and leaves us able to change our mind about an image any time in the future.

This is not a Photoshop non-destructive editing tutorial. It cannot be in a short blog. I hope to motivate you to consider a more powerful way of using the tool and give you a few hints of what to pursue in your training. Dave Cross is a great instructor to learn from, as is Ben Willmore. They both have their own tutorial programs or catch them on CreativeLive.

So here is the quick cheat sheet: use smart objects, adjustment layers and blending modes. Avoid stamps, layer merge, erase, rasterize, and flatten. There, all you need to know. 🙂

Avoid these

I suggest you should avoid using stamps, layer merge, erase, rasterize, and flatten. Probably I hit one or more of your regular tools. Sorry. But every one of these permanently commits the edit state. Each one is unalterable once you save your file.

If you go back to your image a few months later and decide you had too much contrast in a certain area it is very hard to change it. You have to re-select, re-mask, try to make the changes without damaging the rest of the pixels. You are also doing a whole new edit and the result has now permanently changed the pixels to be the way you see the image right now. A few months from now…

The Stamp specifically

A favorite technique in many workflows is the stamp. You know, the “hold down the entire left side of the keyboard and E command. This is not the same as the clone stamp tool. The stamp avoids the problems of destructive edits, right? Well, sort of. Yes, it builds in “frozen” points that capture all the edits in an image below it and allows changes without destroying the underlying layers. That is good.

I hope to convince you you can do better, though. The stamped layer is a roadblock in the editing flow. It marks a point where you can’t go back. When you inevitably decide to edit a layer below the stamp the edit is not reflected up to the stamp and above. You have to delete the stamp layer, recreate it then try to remember what you did to it before and re-make those edits. You may or may not remember what all you did. Adopting a non-destructive workflow avoids this problem.

Another issue with the stamp is that it makes a copy of all your pixels. File sizes are growing almost unmanageable and the stamp makes it worse. I have many files that must be saved as psb format because the size exceeds the 4GByte limit of tiff. Large file sizes make for slower file open and save, slower editing, the need for lots of RAM, and the requirement for lots more disk space (plus all the backups; you backup religiously don’t you?).

Use these

Some things to get in the habit of using are smart objects, adjustment layers, and blend modes. Getting comfortable with these powerful techniques can have a dramatic effect on your editing. A major characteristic of all of them is that their settings can be modified any time and they do not alter pixels, just the way they look.

Smart objects are your friend. They allow you to wrap a certain state of an image in a container and use it non-destructively. That is, it is in a protective bubble that prevents any operations from the outside that damages its contents. And the smart object can be opened and edited in any way at any time in the future. So it can be changed at will. All edits to a smart object automatically flow back into the file you are using it in. Sounds like magic. Until you get comfortable with them, it kind of is. Good magic.

Adjustment layers are a simple concept that has been in Photoshop a long time. The subtlety is that there are adjustments that alter pixels but there are also adjustment layers that put a transparent sheet over the image and do their changes to that. Always use the adjustment layer. It is lightweight (doesn’t make a copy of the pixels), can be changed at any time, and can have a mask to restrict its effect to selected areas.

Blend modes come in 2 types, the blend modes on a layer or brush and the blend-if controls to feather things between layers. I don’t have the space to go into them, but they can have a very beneficial impact on your editing. And they are forever changeable. And they do not grow your file significantly. All good things you will like.

Don’t paint yourself into a corner

This non-destructive workflow is all about not painting yourself into a corner (sorry if that is an American idiom that doesn’t translate well). It means not trapping yourself down a path you cannot recover from, a position where you cannot escape. This flexible way of working allows you go go back to any stage of your work and make changes. If you need, you can even strip off all the edits you have made and start over from the original pixels. Everything is preserved.

No more unrecoverable originals.

When you get comfortable with this way of editing you will not go back. For me, when I consider doing something that permanently alters pixels something stops me. It feels dirty or wrong. I can always find a non-destructive way to accomplish what I want and it is just as fast and easy.

I find that when I come back to an image after a period of time I often want to make changes. Sometimes small tweaks but sometimes a complete reinterpretation of what I want the image to be. A non-destructive workflow allows me the freedom I want to be able to do this. And I never go down a path I cannot recover from.

I consider that working in this way is a sign you are well on your way to Photoshop mastery, if there is such a thing.

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