How to Use Photoshop: 5 Basic Steps to Edit a Photo

Before and after pictures of a flower pot with flowers

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Many of us, from professional photographers to complete beginners, get the urge to try Photoshop. Whatever you are, you shouldn’t be suggested by the prospect of editing in Photoshop; it only takes a few steps to make your photos look great.

Adobe Photoshop offers users endless possibilities to edit their photos and create images, which is why it has become my personal favorite over the years. There are several ways to edit in Photoshop. Which one you choose depends on your preference. In the steps below, we will cover a very simple method of editing a photo.

How to use Photoshop

Step 1: Open your image in Photoshop

Screenshot of a computer screen with a drop-down menu in Photoshop

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Open Adobe Photoshop and go to File in the menu at the top of your screen. click on Open to view the file browser and select which photo you want to edit. I chose a photo taken by my five-year-old.

Below is a Photoshop window: Tools is located on the left side of the screen, Options is at the top, and the Adjustments and layers are on the right.

Screenshot of Tools, Options, Adjustments, and Layers features in Photoshop

Photoshop allows users to choose their workspace layout. This is the Essentials layout, which is the default.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Photoshop works with layers, so when you make adjustments like brightness and contrast, you add an adjustment layer on top of your image. If you later decide to remove that layer, the brightness and contrast adjustment will be removed with it.

Arrow pointing to the Background Image layer below the Brightness/Contrast layer

Always keep your image layer below the adjustment layers.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

It’s also important to keep the order of your layers in mind. When you edit a photo, that image should be the first layer. Everything below that image layer won’t be visible unless you erase part of your image (by cutting, using the eraser tool, or deleting it) to reveal what’s underneath.

Step 2: Crop and Straighten

Selected Crop tool to the left of the screenshot

The Crop tool is on the left side of the window.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Select the Harvesting Tools† Then think of the photo as a canvas. The first thing I do when I open an image in Photoshop is adjust my canvas to the size and composition I need. Just click and drag the corners of the cropping frame to resize it. When you’re happy with the new frame, you can move your cursor just outside any edge of the Crop tool’s bounding box until you see it turn into a curved double-ended arrow. By clicking and holding, you can move the frame to rotate and straighten your image.

Image composition is something that a photographer takes into account when taking a photo, but you also have to take it into account when cropping. This ensures that the elements you want to include are not cropped out and also ensures a good composition.

Crop and straighten a photo of a flower pot with flowers

Use the lines as your guide to ensure the shot is straight.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Straightening is the key to a good photo. A good rule of thumb is to always use the horizon as a guideline to straighten out photos. If you have a specific horizon line you want to use, click straighten up in the Options section. Allows you to draw a line to which the image will immediately rotate. Not all photos have to be straight, however, and you can choose a tilted composition for artistic freedom. Play around a bit to see what looks right for you.

When you’re happy with cropping and rotating the image, click the Finch in the Options baror hit Enter on your keyboard to apply the changes.

Step 3: Play with your levels

Arrow pointing to the Levels tool on the right side of the screenshot

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Select Levels below Adjustments to add a layer over your image so you can play with the levels and familiarize yourself with a histogram. Levels can be used to adjust exposure and make photos look brighter or darker.

To adjust Levels will display the photo’s histogram, which is essentially a graph showing the light levels of an image. The left side of a histogram symbolizes black and the right side symbolizes white. Adjusting the indicator arrows below can drastically change the dark and light levels in the photo.

Screenshot with white text over the flower pot image saying levels can be adjusted by dragging the arrows

The indicator arrows can be moved right or left to adjust the shadows and highlights of the photo.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Both ends of the waves on a histogram should theoretically taper evenly until they are flat; if a curve ends abruptly on one side, it is an indication that the photo may be over- or under-exposed. However, a great photo doesn’t have to have the curves that are tapered in the histogram. For example, if a photo was taken in the dark, the histogram may look more like the histogram below. The bottom line is that a histogram is simply a tool for seeing how light behaves in a photo.

Graphical representation of under and overexposed histogram graphs

The histogram on the left is from a photo taken at night; the middle is an afternoon photo; and the photo on the right is the photo we’re editing right now.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

There’s a lot more to reading a histogram, but this is a place to start for Photoshop beginners. Adjusting levels is a more advanced way to edit a photo, but it helps beginners to familiarize themselves with a histogram.

Step 4: Adjust the color balance

Screenshot showing an arrow pointing to an icon that reads color balance

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

below Adjustmentsselect Color balance to add an adjustment layer that allows you to change the colors in the photo. The photo I chose has a red tint because my five-year-old doesn’t know how to adjust white balance on a camera. i will use one Color balance layer to make it look like it would with the naked eye.

Screenshot of a photo of a flower pot with flowers

I removed the reddish tint in the photo to give the planter the color it really is to the naked eye.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

This is not always necessary, as many cameras automatically adjust the white balance when a photo is taken, especially smartphone cameras. But it is a great tool to learn for the times when it will be necessary.

Step 5: Remove All Unwanted Spots

This was a very popular request in my time with Photoshop and photography. There are a few ways to remove stains, but one of the simplest uses the Stain Healing brush and the clone stamp tool.

The on-site recovery brush tool

Before and after photos of flower pot from which the wear spots have been removed

I removed the smaller scuffs and water spots from the planter.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

The Stain recovery brush is an automatic tool to remove spots and stains by clicking on it. It removes protruding marks and bases the correction on what is near your chosen spot. To use it, first select On-site recovery brush tool from the toolbar on the left.

Screenshot of Spot Healing Brush selected from Photoshop Tools menu

One way to remove unwanted highlights from a photo is to use the Spot Healing Brush.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Make sure the photo layer – not an adjustment layer like Levels or Color Balance – is selected on the right and rasterize the layer if necessary (right click on the photo layer, select Rasterize low† Then just click on the imperfections that need to be removed in the photo.

The Clone Stamp tool

Before and after photos of a flower pot with stripes removed

Before and after removing the larger wear and water spots in the photo.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

The Clone Stamp tool is useful for larger marks that need to be removed, especially on a smooth background. Make sure the photo layer is selected and rasterized, and select Clone Stamp Tool

Screenshot of the Clone Stamp Tool on the left side of the window in Photoshop

Select the Clone Stamp Tool on the left side of the window.

Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

Find a spot on your photo where you want to replace the stain. If it’s on a smooth area, I usually pick a spot right next to the stain to avoid issues with shadows and highlights. Then click on it while pressing . press alt or Alt Opt, and this will clone the spot. Move the cursor to the stain you want to remove and click to stamp it.

I removed some scuffs in the photo above, but for simplicity I kept the larger drop mark. It adds character, if you ask me.

This is obviously a brief introduction to a very comprehensive program, but it will help you familiarize yourself with Photoshop’s tools and navigation. Hopefully this guide will inspire you to explore other adjustments in Photoshop.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I zoom in or out in Photoshop?

Zoom in Photoshop
Image: Maria Diaz / ZDNet

The zoom tool is located on the left side of the window, in the toolbar. Click on the magnifying glass (or press Z on your keyboard) and the options at the top of the window will indicate + to zoom in on an image or – to zoom out so you can select the one you need. Zooming is useful when you need to work closely or adjust small details in an image.

Can I learn Photoshop in a week?

While you can learn the basics in a few days (with a lot of trial and error), Photoshop is immensely rich in options and features. I’ve been using it for almost two decades and still learning new things. Adobe also updates it regularly, so new features are added all the time.

How much does Photoshop cost?

Adobe began offering software through the Creative Cloud in 2013. Since then, Photoshop and other Adobe software titles have become available as subscription-based offerings. Here’s a little more about their Photoshop plans:

  • Photoshop and Lightroom (20 GB cloud storage) $9.99 per month
  • Photoshop and Lightroom (1 TB cloud storage) $19.99 per month
  • Photoshop (100 GB cloud storage) $20.99 per month

What is the difference between Photoshop and Photoshop CC?

Photoshop refers to the photo editing program itself; it is the brand name of the software. It also indicates an instance purchased as a standalone product. Photoshop CC or Creative Cloud is the subscription version of the software from Adobe available through your CC account.

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