How do you learn Photoshop?

blackboard art

I’ve heard it said that most Photoshop users actually use only about 2 percent of the program’s features, and I can support this theory with my own experience: I know how to do what I know how to do.

I’ve learned most of what I know how to do from watching other people, either on the job or at InDesign User Group meetings and similar showcase-type events. Oh, and once, I read maybe the first half of Real World Scanning and Halftones. When I need to know how to do something else, I look it up in Help, Google what I’m trying to do, or look online for a tutorial. And then, unless that new trick is something I start doing every day, I usually forget it again pretty quickly. I don’t usually learn how to do a task by seeing it done once, but just knowing that something can be done makes it much easier to figure it out later. I would never have tangled with the vanishing point tool, for instance, if I hadn’t seen it demoed at the NYC InDUG.

This approach has worked just fine for me, in an assortment of jobs, since 1996, when I first got my paws on a copy of the program. And apparently my 2 percent is good enough.

A couple of months ago, a colleague asked if I could scan some photos that were to be included in his new book. He also asked if there was any way to get rid of some of the crap in the background (most of the photos were snapshots of dead birds lying on a messy desk). Oh, sure. I do that every day. So while he sat in my office watching, I scanned these muddy snapshots, cropped them down to the important parts, adjusted the levels, cleaned up some dust, and scrubbed out whatever distracting junk was left in the frame. Nothing special, but my colleague was impressed.

Then about a week ago, this same person—who I think it’s accurate to call nontechnical—told me he’d bought a copy of Photoshop for himself, and he wants to learn how to use it so that when he has an idea for a book jacket, he can mock it up in Photoshop and show his publisher what he’s picturing. And he asked, What’s a quick way to learn Photoshop?

Ummmmm . . . I can tell you how to learn Photoshop really, really slowly, but . . . I suggested (a) getting a workbook, such as one from the Adobe Classroom in a Book series, (b) looking online for tutorials, and (c) poking through every single menu in the program and trying to roughly figure out what each tool and option does.

Setting aside (or, at least, trying to—wince, cringe) the question of whether authors should be encouraged to get involved in the design of their own book jackets, what advice would you give to someone who wants to learn how to do basic compositing, typography, and perhaps photo cleanup, but who is not intending to make this his full-time job?

And what advice would you give to someone who is intending to make this his full-time job?

How did you learn your 2 percent? And if you know more than 2 percent, how the hell did you learn that?

Photo: blackboard art by sensesmaybenumbed / Jo; was licensed CC-by-nc-sa 2.0 on 10/30/07, but the photographer has subsequently changed the license to copyright.

19 thoughts on “How do you learn Photoshop?

  1. I probably use only 1.5% of Photoshop, but I use that 1.5% a lot.

    I find I need a project, and in the course of that project I learn the tool. But in the absence of a project, a good tutorial is my next choice. Once the tutorials are exhausted, subscribing to a how-to magazine has also helped me by showing me things I didn’t know I wanted to do.

    I like the idea of classes but in reality I invariably become impatient and spend the time rolling my eyes at everyone else’s questions — and then miss the question that I didn’t know the answer to. At least with self-paced learning the only person I can roll my eyes at is me.

  2. I know quite a bit more than 2%, though I don’t use more than 1% on a daily basis. I’ve been learning Photoshop by experimentation (the best way) since I was probably 12 or so (version 4.0, I think).

    When I can’t figure something out, step 1 is to look in the Help (a hugely underrated feature, especially in the newer versions: CS2 and CS3). The next step is to Google it. Chances are, someone else has wanted to do the same thing.

    One piece of advice I can offer is to spend the time to learn things the “right” way. If you’re straightening images by drawing rules and then using arbitrary canvas rotation, or even the crop tool, and find yourself thinking “there’s probably a better way to do this,” chances are, THERE IS.

    (Try using the Measure tool to draw a line and then choose Rotate > Arbitrary. :) )

  3. Ah, see! The measure tool! I think I’ve used it maybe once; I had to click on every single tool on the palette until I found it—and of course it’s stowed under the very last button. But hey, that’s a cool trick, and I have to straighten scans all the time. Thanks, Darwin!

    Now, the real trick will be finding a way to make myself remember how to do that.

  4. Darwin’s Measure tool tip is a good one. I’m prob’ly down in that 1.5% range also. (Maybe because I can’t draw a lick?) But I still love Photoshop for how it helps me improve scans and digital photos. I agree, too, that maybe we book designers don’t want authors getting too involved in designing their covers. But that’s another story altogether.

  5. I’d say I’m in the 1.5% on the Photoshop scale but playing with it is such fun — I learned by spending an ungodly # of hours over the course of years just clicking my way through the menus and tools of pirated copies, playing with photographs, glass of wine in hand.

    I try to remember to watch tutorials for fun, and I try to remember to type up the scrawled and sprawling pile of notes I’ve jotted, but mostly I forget until I’m flipping through photos I’ve taken and think: hmm, there’s something more I could do here… And then I just keep clicking until I’ve created the image I imagined.

    This style of learning takes a good amount of time … and a lot of wine (stock up!) … but I find having a creative and emotional impetus to learn helps whatever information I discover stick better than just picking up a book and finding how to do x y or z.

    I’m speaking as an avid enjoyer rather than a technical or professional “user” of the program — so perhaps I’m not providing the most appropriate answers to your questions. But playing with photographs I’ve taken or been sent has led me into a very creative learning process and caused me to find out how to do a number of things I would never have thought to look up in a book.

  6. Hey, I’d never thought of mixing alcohol and Photoshop. The problem is, studies have shown that stuff you learn when you’re drunk is most easily retrieved when you’re drunk. So I’d have to start drinking at work.

    Wait—maybe there’s no problem, after all.

  7. ha! i daresay, that’s what flasks are for, daaahling.

    (studies really have shown that drunken learning begets drunken remembering? nice!)

  8. It’s called “state-dependent memory.” See, for example,

    Essentials of Human Memory by Alan D. Baddeley, p. 184:

    Heavy drinkers who hide alcohol or money when drunk are unable to remember where it is hidden once they are sober; when they become drunk again, they remember (and are therefore able to get even more drunk). Goodwin studied this effect using a whole range of tests and found, in general, that what is learned when drunk is best recalled when drunk. Similar results have been shown with a wide range of other drugs, for example with nitrous oxide, sometimes used to anesthetize patients, and with marijuana (Eich, 1980).

    Also note, Moderate Alcohol Drinking Helps Memory:

    Moderate drinking among older women can benefit memory according to research at the University of Texas funded by the National Institutes of Health. . . . The performance memory tests include such topics as remembering a story, route, hidden objects, future intentions and connecting random numbers and letters. In all cases, the group who drank scored better than those who did not drink. “In addition to their actual performance on tests, the confidence of those who drank was higher and they used more strategies to facilitate memory,” Dr. McDougall said. Women who drank alcohol in moderation (defined as consuming up to two drinks of beer, wine or spirits per day) also performed better on attention, concentration, psychomotor skills, verbal-associative capacities and oral fluency.

    Now, where the hell did I put my wallet? I know I had it last night . . .

  9. State-dependent memory … how interesting. So injecting great music (in addition to wine) to your workday could potentially help you recall that information when you jumped back on Photoshop at home, if you recreated that state by playing the same music?

    This is starting to sound an awful lot like the party’s in India’s office -!-

  10. I used to be at about 2% of Photoshop, but then I started using a personal copy of Photoshop Elements and immediately jumped to around 5%. If they didn’t crap it up with “Make Your Own Baby Announcement” features, Elements is a surprisingly capable program. I do miss some of the mesh warp and text tuning features of the full version, but 90% of what I do is cutting out and layering, and Elements does that pretty well.

    On the question of delving into designing one’s own book jackets– as someone with an arts background who does IT support by day, nothing pains me more than watching end users “making the leap” to self-design. I did enough graphic design in the days before computers to quickly find that I lacked the attention to detail to lay down a straight hairline. I know enough to know that I don’t know.

    Thanks for pitching in on Pay It Forward.

  11. I actually utilize it for what it was invented for: to retouch photographs.

    And yes, probably 15%, but what the fuck do I care? I ain’t no beta tester, I mean I never got a check from Adobe…

    I miss your wisdom.


  12. My dear James, what a fellow you are—using Photoshop to retouch photos? That’s crazy! But you didn’t share with us how you learned to do that. I’m guessing that it was not something you signed up at Parsons to take a class in. Also, did you ever learn to do retouching the old-fashioned way, when you were a wee creature?

    One of the things that always slows me down with Photoshop—and with layout programs, as well, though to a much lesser extent—is that so many of the commands, dialog boxes, and palettes use terminology that I believe is supposed to reflect some analog photo retouching or print production technique that I’ve never heard of, because I am a just a whippersnapper.

    Like, what is the “Channels” palette for? There’s some keyboard shortcut I occasionally hit by accident that turns all the channels off but one, and undoing that is the only reason I ever look at that palette. I know I could read up on it, but I’ve never bothered. Anybody actually use it? And do “Levels” and “Curves” (which I do use, though ham-fistedly) refer to some pre-Photoshop printing process?

    I do know what dodging and burning are, because I took photography shop class in high school, but what about all those infernal blending modes? Soft light, hard light, multiply, color burn, . . . I usually just try every mode on the list until I get what I want. But they must actually mean something to other Photoshop users. Is that because they refer to something one used to have to do some other way? Or were they invented just for Photoshop?

  13. I did a really good all day course at an art school. The teacher was a real expert and there were only 3 of us, so you could ask all those questions.

    Unfortunately I was a real novice, so just got the basics, and the idea that it could do so much more.

    Then I used it for a few years to put photos in a (boring govt) magazine.

    I have hardly used it since, and have forgotten all but the basics.

  14. Was looking into pre-Photoshop lingo re: levels & curves & etc because I’ve wondered the same thing (I too am just a whippersnapper) … but before I found much useful information, I landed on a link that said:


    And while I don’t begrudge anyone playtime with Photoshop … this picture of sicko radiologists erasing tumors and adding bone cracks keeps surfacing in my mind… ack!

  15. Hmm. Yes, using the Band-Aid tool, I suppose . . .

    But seriously, perhaps they can make details stand out more using the Shadows/Highlights dialog?

  16. Sounds like high-pass filter, brightness, contrast, cleaning up dust, erasing patient data, and unsharp mask (the name of which does derive from an actual pre-digital darkroom process of contact printing using Mylar) are the approved uses, at least for images intended for publication (correct but don’t enhance is a recurring phrase). Beyond that, the images become “illustrations.” [That could be an interesting nextbook homepage addition…]

    The rules governing peoples’ jobs, spoken or otherwise, are interesting!

  17. I used to work in-house at a publisher. Designed a lot of book covers. Found that, if the concept for the cover was solid strategy-wise, Photoshop skills went a long way in getting quick approvals (I used to sketch concepts and present them, then I risked investing time at the early design stages and presented polished covers, usually paid off).

    I’m a bit of a Photoshop geek (like working in Lab color space). Read lots of books on the subject (favorite: ‘Makeready’ by Dan Margullis).

    I enjoy relating stuff I’ve learned to others, was thinking of advertising to do “Photoshop tutoring” locally. Anybody think that would fly?

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