Photoshop is like a magical world that is completely terrifying for anyone new to it. All these weird and wonderful spells (tools) and a baffling display of potions (options – stick with me in the metaphor) can leave even the calmest cookie running for the door.

That’s normal.

I first used Photoshop over 10 years ago and there are STILL new things I learn all the time. However, there are three basic things you need to know to make everything else fall into place. You can watch them here:

So what are the 3 fundamentals?

Photoshop Basics 1: Layers

Think of layers as a stack of paper. What’s on the bottom of the stack is at the bottom and what’s on top is on top.

  • You can move layers by clicking and dragging them up and down the stack.
  • You can duplicate layers by right-clicking and choosing duplicate (or just press CMD+J / CNTL+J) on your keyboard
  • You can delete layers you don’t want by dragging them down into the little bin (or just press backspace)
  • You can add as many layers as you want to, the more the merrier
  • You can name your layers to keep track of what each one is doing by double-clicking on the layer name and typing
  • You can group layers by selecting multiple (Hold control and click on any you want to group) and then just press CMD+G / CTRL+G
  • Layers can have pixel data (images, paint etc) on them, or they can cause an adjustment to the other pixel data in the stack

But that’s not all there is to know about layers. I personally believe that the single most important part of Photoshop to master is…

Photoshop Basics 2: Masks

Think of masks as a way to temporarily cut chunks out of the paper in your stack. You can change the chunk cut out at any time and the original piece of paper is never altered.

Masks are the way to non-destructively hide parts of layers. By non-destructive we mean that the actual layer itself is never altered, the mask is a virtual map to cut bits out of.

To add a mask you just hit the mask icon down at the bottom of the layers stack (rectangle with a circle in it). This will pop a white box next to the layer you had selected at the time. This white box is the mask.

So you’ve got a white box. You can now grab a brush (press B on the keyboard) and paint on the mask in the opposite colour (black). To switch the colours in your pallet, press X on the keyboard).

Stick with me here. The colours of the mask are important:

  • White = nothing is happening to the layer. The layer is as it was. The piece of paper is intact.
  • Black = this part of the layer is now hidden. You’ve not deleted anything from the layer itself, but you have punched through that paper mask to tell photoshop, “hey, don’t show this part, show me what’s underneath!”.

You can paint over each colour as much as you want, and you can use lower opacity on the brush (use your keyboard numbers, 1 = 10%, 5 = 50%, 0=100%) to add a little bit of grey (keeps some of the layer visible, but also shows a little below).

Anything that can be selected can be masked, but that’s for another day. When you’re confident with layers and masking, try this tutorial on masking hair in Photoshop.

Photoshop Basics 3: Blend Modes

Think of blend modes as a way to augment your layer to play differently with whatever is below it. The blend mode does what it says on the tin – it blends this layer with what’s below it.

There are a number of different blend modes that Adobe has handily explained for us. For the original source of the list, head here.

Quick terminology list:

  • The base colour is the original colour in the image.
  • The blend colour is the colour being applied with the painting or editing tool.
  • The result colour is the colour resulting from the blend.

Normal

This is the default mode. Nothing is happening here.

Dissolve

Edits or paints each pixel to make it the result colour. However, the result colour is a random replacement of the pixels with the base colour or the blend colour, depending on the opacity at any pixel location. Rarely used for us!

The darkening set:

Darken
Looks at the colour information in each channel and selects the base or blend colour—whichever is darker—as the result colour. Pixels lighter than the blend colour are replaced, and pixels darker than the blend colour do not change.

Multiply
Looks at the colour information in each channel and multiplies the base colour by the blend colour. The result colour is always a darker colour. Multiplying any colour with black produces black. Multiplying any colour with white leaves the colour unchanged. When you’re painting with a colour other than black or white, successive strokes with a painting tool produce progressively darker colours. The effect is similar to drawing on the image with multiple marking pens.

Color Burn
Looks at the colour information in each channel and darkens the base colour to reflect the blend colour by increasing the contrast between the two. Blending with white produces no change.

Linear Burn
Looks at the colour information in each channel and darkens the base colour to reflect the blend colour by decreasing the brightness. Blending with white produces no change.

Darker Color
Compares the total of all channel values for the blend and base colour and displays the lower value colour. Darker Color does not produce a third colour, which can result from the Darken blend, because it chooses the lowest channel values from both the base and the blend colour to create the result colour.

The lightening set:

Lighten
Looks at the colour information in each channel and selects the base or blend colour—whichever is lighter—as the result colour. Pixels darker than the blend colour are replaced, and pixels lighter than the blend colour do not change.

Screen
Looks at each channel’s colour information and multiplies the inverse of the blend and base colours. The result colour is always a lighter colour. Screening with black leaves the colour unchanged. Screening with white produces white. The effect is similar to projecting multiple photographic slides on top of each other.

Color Dodge
Looks at the colour information in each channel and brightens the base colour to reflect the blend colour by decreasing contrast between the two. Blending with black produces no change.

Linear Dodge (Add)
Looks at the colour information in each channel and brightens the base colour to reflect the blend colour by increasing the brightness. Blending with black produces no change.

Lighter Color
Compares the total of all channel values for the blend and base colour and displays the higher value colour. Lighter Color does not produce a third colour, which can result from the Lighten blend, because it chooses the highest channel values from both the base and blend colour to create the result colour.

The contrast set:

Overlay
Multiplies or screens the colours, depending on the base colour. Patterns or colours overlay the existing pixels while preserving the highlights and shadows of the base colour. The base colour is not replaced but mixed with the blend colour to reflect the lightness or darkness of the original colour.

Soft Light
Darkens or lightens the colours, depending on the blend colour. The effect is similar to shining a diffused spotlight on the image. If the blend colour (light source) is lighter than 50% grey, the image is lightened as if it were dodged. If the blend colour is darker than 50% grey, the image is darkened as if it were burned in. Painting with pure black or white produces a distinctly darker or lighter area but does not result in pure black or white.

Hard Light
Multiplies or screens the colours, depending on the blend colour. The effect is similar to shining a harsh spotlight on the image. If the blend colour (light source) is lighter than 50% grey, the image is lightened, as if it were screened. This is useful for adding highlights to an image. If the blend colour is darker than 50% grey, the image is darkened, as if it were multiplied. This is useful for adding shadows to an image. Painting with pure black or white results in pure black or white.

Vivid Light
Burns or dodges the colours by increasing or decreasing the contrast, depending on the blend colour. If the blend colour (light source) is lighter than 50% grey, the image is lightened by decreasing the contrast. If the blend colour is darker than 50% grey, the image is darkened by increasing the contrast.

Linear Light
Burns or dodges the colours by decreasing or increasing the brightness, depending on the blend colour. If the blend colour (light source) is lighter than 50% grey, the image is lightened by increasing the brightness. If the blend colour is darker than 50% grey, the image is darkened by decreasing the brightness.

Pin Light
Replaces the colours, depending on the blend colour. If the blend colour (light source) is lighter than 50% grey, pixels darker than the blend colour are replaced, and pixels lighter than the blend colour do not change. If the blend colour is darker than 50% grey, pixels lighter than the blend colour are replaced, and pixels darker than the blend colour do not change. This is useful for adding special effects to an image.

Hard Mix
Adds the red, green and blue channel values of the blend colour to the RGB values of the base colour. If the resulting sum for a channel is 255 or greater, it receives a value of 255; if less than 255, a value of 0. Therefore, all blended pixels have red, green, and blue channel values of either 0 or 255. This changes all pixels to primary additive colors (red, green, or blue), white, or black.

The extreme set that we never really use:

Difference
Looks at the colour information in each channel and subtracts either the blend colour from the base colour or the base colour from the blend colour, depending on which has the greater brightness value. Blending with white inverts the base colour values; blending with black produces no change.

Exclusion
Creates an effect similar to but lower in contrast than the Difference mode. Blending with white inverts the base colour values. Blending with black produces no change.

Subtract
Looks at the colour information in each channel and subtracts the blend colour from the base colour. In 8- and 16-bit images, any resulting negative values are clipped to zero.

Divide
Looks at the colour information in each channel and divides the blend colour from the base colour.

The colour set:

Hue
Creates a result colour with the luminance and saturation of the base colour and the hue of the blend colour.

Saturation
Creates a result colour with the luminance and hue of the base colour and the saturation of the blend colour. Painting with this mode in an area with no (0) saturation (grey) causes no change.

Color
Creates a result colour with the luminance of the base colour and the hue and saturation of the blend colour. This preserves the grey levels in the image and is useful for colouring monochrome images and for tinting colour images.

Luminosity
Creates a result colour with the hue and saturation of the base colour and the luminance of the blend colour. This mode creates the inverse effect of Color mode.

I know, a lot to take in – the easiest way to see what blend modes do is to just try them out!


As with all things in photography, you have to practice to get good at it – it is a skill. So practice and practice some more – it’s ok to feel frustrated, but only by pushing through will you improve.