Pixel Damage

Old image barely salvaged from poor Photoshop editing

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.

Obsessive Clicking Disorder*

A gesture and decisive moment at a sidewalk cafe

How many images do you click off of a scene? Why? Our wonderfully fast cameras have enabled this thing I have heard called “Obsessive Clicking Disorder”. When we see a scene that looks promising we can blast away at 5 or 10 or maybe 20 frames a second to “make sure” we get the shot.

I claim that that is often self-defeating, even lazy.

Machine gunning

So we point our camera at the scene and machine gun it for 30 frames. We are afraid we might miss “the moment”. Machine gunning is a brute force technique.

Think about the shooting metaphor. A rifle allows a skilled shooter to place a single clean hole right where he wants it. A machine gun sprays bullets all over the place in an uncontrolled way. The single rifle shot is elegant and controlled and disciplined. To me it is craftsmanship.

Those of us shooting fairly static and predictable subjects can usually take the time to wait for the right moment and fire off just one or two or a few frames. And, of course, if you are taking long exposures you’re not going to be firing away at high speed. Less can be more.


Another time where lots of images are captured is bracketing. In certain situations this is completely appropriate. Our marvelous sensors have a great dynamic range, but sometimes scenes require more. Exposure bracketing might come to the rescue by allowing an HDR compression of the range.

Do very many of your situations actually require this? I couldn’t put a percentage to my work. But I know it is only the occasional high contrast situation that forces me to use it. The extra work and the varied results of HDR processing make me try to avoid it where possible. And scenes with movement are often not good candidates.

Be aware

But what is the alternative to obsessive clicking? How can you get the shot of the fleeting moment?

To me the answer is being aware and attuned to the action going on. If we train ourselves to anticipate the “decisive moment” and be ready for it, we can capture it and know we have it. A good DSLR is fast (10-20 mSec to trigger an image capture, maybe even faster if using electronic shutter). Compare that to machine gunning at 10 frames a second. That is one image every 100 mSec. But within the regular, unvarying 100 mSec ticks a person can move a few inches or blink. You are just hoping that the odds will work in your favor. And often they do.

An alternative, though, is to focus on the moment, the gesture. You might be amazed at the ability you can learn to recognize and capture that peak time when the gesture and the eyes and everything is right. Triggering the shot then will usually get the scene you hoped for.


The incredible Jay Maisel describes this as waiting for the gesture. That is his version of the decisive moment. When we get in the flow and are completely attuned to the subject we can usually anticipate when these great gestures will happen. Wait for it. If you are concentrating, you will have time to press the shutter and get it.

“Such moments are fleeting, requiring more than fast autofocus and reflexes. It demands that the photographer be able to read a scene as it’s playing out. He or she had to understand that all moments evolve, having a beginning, middle, and end. With that understanding, the photographer can anticipate that peak moment where all the visual elements or light and shadow, line and shape, color and gesture culminate in a moment that can only be captured in a fraction of a second.” Ibarionex Perello

I find this is a wonderful and rewarding skill to learn. It is precise and immersive. You become highly engaged in the scene and the action. You learn to grasp the whole gestalt while still triggering on that perfect instant. It is a great feeling.

Have you experienced it? You know it’s coming. You are in the right place to view it. Almost, Wait for it. NOW! When you hit the shutter you know you have the shot. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment to know you captured exactly the gesture you were anticipating.

There is a time

Do I ever blast away at high speed? Well, actually no. I stopped doing that when I didn’t have any more family doing sports that I was shooting. I do use exposure bracketing at times. On occasion I even take exposure bracketed panoramas.

I recognize that there are times when any of us will take lots of frames. I’m just trying to convince you that machine gunning is a sort of backup plan, not a primary strategy.

As an example of where I would do it, I love taking images of reflections in water. This is a dynamic scene that never repeats. I may take a several frame sequence to capture variations of reflections so I can choose the one that works best for me. But by the argument I used before, this is not an attempt to capture a peak moment by brute force. I expect each frame to be an excellent image but hopefully one will speak to me as the best.

Be disciplined

At the root it is about being disciplined. Closing down our options and forcing ourselves to take one frame of the decisive moment is kind of like the exercise I recommended of going out with 1 lens. It requires us to practice and develop our skill and use our mental quickness rather than brute force.

I believe mental discipline and the ability to make fast decisions is required for photography. Learning this skill will, I believe, help us make a higher percentages of images we are proud of.

This is just my own value, but I have discovered that if I can help it, I really don’t want to spend the time editing through 500 shots only to throw 400 of them away. At some level it seems to me that I am shooting randomly and grasping at straws rather than being deliberate and disciplined about my work. Photography is an art and a craft. Training and experience and discipline will improve our art.

Try it. Let me know who it goes after you practice a while.


*Yes, it is a pun on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I know that is a potentially debilitating disease that 1-3% of the population has. It is not something to make fun of and I am not doing that or denigrating anyone suffering from it. I am just using this well known phenomenon to make a point.