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Photoshop Tips

By Harry O'Connor

I used to teach classes in Photoshop at my local art college and I would like to share some of my knowledge of the program with those that are interested in learning it.

For those of who have never used Adobe Photoshop I suggest that you are missing out on one of the most powerful tools used by visual artists and photographers. The name is slightly misleading as the program does a lot more than edit and manipulate photos.

Photoshop is used by photographers, web designers, illustrators, fine artists, graphic designers and a host of other professions. Photoshop is the industry standard for image editing and is far superior to programs such as PaintShopPro and Macromedia Fireworks. (By the way Macromedia has recently been bought out by Adobe so who knows what's round the corner!)

In my opinion there are only two main drawbacks with Photoshop. Firstly, and most importantly is the price. The current version retails at around £500 which is out of budget for many artists and start-up companies. However there are ways around this. There are cut down versions of Photoshop called Photoshop Elements which is a fraction of the price at around £50.00 and has many of the same features as Photoshop. Ok, so it might not be as good as the full program but it could be a good way of evaluating the software, and it would give most people an insight into the world of Photoshop. You can download a demo of Photoshop or Photoshop elements at the following website: http://www.adobe.com/products/tryad obe/main.jsp

The second drawback is Photoshop can't do everything! It tries, but its not very good at vector based artwork and should not really be used for desktop publishing, and if you are into technical drawing or desktop publishing I would suggest another program such as Adobe Illustrator or Quark express respectively.


1. Have Fun

Photoshop has so much depth, I have been using it almost daily since version 4.0 and I am sure there are many things I still don’t know about it. To really get to know this software you should play about with ideas and generally have fun before setting yourself a serious project.

2. Easy on those filters

There are hundreds of plug-ins and filters available for Photoshop and in my experience many beginners get immediately wooed by the instant effects that can be applied to a piece of artwork. For example it is possible to scan in a photograph of say, your back garden, and select the watercolour filter, turning it into an instant piece of art – to the untrained eye! The most overused effect has to be the lens flare effect, and I am sad to say that when I see one I cringe. Please use these filters sparingly!

3. Learn about selecting

One of the most important processes in Photoshop, and one that is often not learnt well is the use of selection tools. These tools enable you to select, cut out, move and edit specific areas of an image, instead of the whole image.

  • Lasso Tool
    This allows you to draw freehand style around your selected area
  • Polygonal Lasso Tool
    With this tool you can click around specific areas in a linier fashion. This tool is very accurate if you zoom in on the area first. Holding the shift key while using this tool restricts the angels between each click.
  • Magnetic Lasso Tool
    This is a fairly recent tool (introduced in version 5.0) and not one I personally use often. How it works is that it tries to guess what you are trying to select by measuring the tonal and colour values of the area that you are drawing around. It can work accurately and quickly if you adjust the various setting at the very top of the screen whilst having this tool selected.
  • Rectangular Marquee Tool
    A very simple tool that draws squares and rectangles as a selection. Press shift whilst drawing your selection to make it a square.
  • Elliptical Marquee Tool
    Draws ellipses and circles as a selection. Holding the shift key ensures that a circle is drawn.
  • Single Row and Single Column Marquee Tool
    I never use these, but they simply draw a 1x1 pixel selection.

By the way, if ever you can’t get rid of a selection, simply double click your mouse or press Ctrl and D to deselect. With all of these selection tools you can find more options but having the tool selected and changing the settings at the very top of the screen.

You can also add to a selection by pressing the shift key and drawing a new one, and you can subtract from a selection by doing the same with the Alt key. There is also a magic wand tool, which selects areas of similar colour.

4. Size Matters

Even though it may sound a little technical, it is very important to try and understand the basics of image sizes early on when learning Adobe Photoshop. To see image size properties go to Image>image Size. You should be able to see:

Pixel Dimensions and Document Size.

As a general rule work intended for print based output should have the width and height (Document Size) as it is to be printed and the resolution should be 300dpi (Dots per inch, or as Photoshop calls it ‘pixels/Inch’). Increasing any of these factors will increase the file size exponentially, but will not substantially increase image quality. Similarly reducing these factors will reduce the file size and image quality. I have had many discussions with many people about image size (how sad am I?) and I have come to the conclusion that the most important fact with image size is not the dpi, or the width in inches or centimetres, but the file size.

For an A4 image intended for print the file size should be around 24 megabytes. Screen based work such as web design is normal outputted at 72dpi. I believe the best way to get image sizes right for things like the web and multimedia projects is to view the image as it would appear onscreen.

To do this simply choose View>Actual Pixels.

Now you can see if the image is too big or small. If you know the exact width the image should be you can type this into the image size properties. Generally screen based images do not need to be bigger than 1024x768 pixels as this is the size of the average monitor in pixels.

5. Understand what you are saving

Hopefully there are still few people that will have read this far and won’t be completely scared off by all that technical talk above! Anyway, as with all programs Photoshop has the ability to save your work as you produce it (duh!). However, unlike most other programs, with Photoshop there are a host of different formats in which you can save as. I have listed a few of the most commonly used below:

.psd - Photoshop Document.
This is what you should save as if you intend to work on the file again. This format saves everything from fonts to layers, however remember that not everyone has Photoshop, so if you wish to distribute your image you should consider another format.

.tif - TIFF file.
This is the most commonly used format for bitmap based (pixel based) artwork. It does not loose quality, but you can compress TIFF files to reduce the file size if you wish.

.jpg - JPEG
Introduced by a group of photographers and journalists as a standard way of distributing compressed files, this format is great for the internet and emailing work. With JPEG’s you can choose the quality vs. file size ratio when you save. I normally save my jpegs at 60-70% quality. JPEGS make big images into tiny file sizes.

.gif - GIF.
GIF’s are another way of reducing file sizes but work best with images that have few colours such as a 3 colour logo for a website. If you are saving a photographic image and want to keep the file size down you should use JPEG.

Above are just some basics to get you started using this useful program. As I said earlier, the best way to learn about it is to practise and have fun. Should anyone need any specific help with Photoshop, they can email me at [email protected] . Please do not send files to me, simply outline your problem and I will see if I can help.