10 tips for a more productive Photoshop workflow

Peter Vukovic

I admit it: there really is no alternative to what Photoshop can do. That being said, it’s an exceptionally complex program with lots of moving parts. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to learn the basic tools that help turn your ideas to reality—not to mention there’s always at least three different ways to use every tool. Fact: Photoshop is a jungle and we need to learn how to survive in it every day.

In this article, I’ll share ten of my most important tips, shortcuts and tricks for a faster Photoshop workflow to get you up to speed in no time!

1. Use smart objects

Photoshop smart object
Left: Resizing a smart object to 50% then again to 100% gives you the same initial quality; Right: Resizing a normal layer to 50% then to 100% again will give you a blurry result.

If you’ve ever resized or rotated a layer several times in a row, you most likely noticed some blurring or jaggedness. This is perfectly normal — each time you transform a layer, Photoshop moves its pixels around. The more you move them, the worse it gets and this can become a big problem on projects with lots of “make it bigger/smaller” type of changes.

Smart objects are Photoshop’s way of addressing this problem. You decide which layers should become a smart object and Photoshop memorizes and protects their pixels from any permanent damage. Now whenever you rotate, resize or apply an effect to a smart object layer, Photoshop will calculate the end result based on those original pixels — giving you a perfect image quality every time.

As you can imagine, smart objects are a smarter way of working with compositions. For example, you could create a large version of a website icon, then convert it to a smart object and use it at a smaller size in your final design. If the client decides to make it larger, you simply hit a transform tool and change it to the desired size — without any blurriness or loss of quality.

To convert a layer or a group of layers to smart object:

  1. Select layers in the layer panel
  2. Right-click, select Convert to smart object

To edit original contents of smart object:

  1. In the Layer panel, right-click the smart object you want to edit
  2. Select Edit contents
  3. Photoshop will open the smart object contents in a new window, as a separate temporary file
  4. When you’re done with changes, hit File > Save
  5. Go back to your original file — it should show an updated version of your smart object

2. Use layer masks

Photoshop layer masks
Layer masks are a convenient way to hide portions of your layer without actually erasing the pixels. Photo by Howard Lake (via Wikipedia)

If you want to hide portions of your layer without actually erasing the pixels, layer masks are your new best friend. They’re so easy and convenient you’ll wonder how you did without them in the first place.

The logic behind layer masks is simple — anything 100% white will reveal 100% of your layer — anything in between will show pixels with varying degrees of opacity.

Just try it — you’ll be happy you did.

To add a layer mask to a layer:

  1. Select part of the layer you want to keep or hide
  2. Go to Layer > Layer Mask, then select Reveal Selection or Hide selection
  3. You should see a layer mask appear next to the layer thumbnail

Hint: If you want to reveal or hide an entire layer with a mask, you don’t have to make a selection. Simply select a layer and go to Layer > Layer Mask, then pick Reveal all or Hide all.

To edit a layer mask:

  1. Click on the layer mask thumbnail
  2. Start editing using any Photoshop tools you like (brush, eraser, effects, etc.)

To remove a layer mask:

  1. Select the layer from the Layers panel
  2. Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Delete

3. Use clipping masks

Photoshop clipping mask
In this example, text HELLO WORLD is acting as a clipping mask for the Earth layer.

This tip is very similar to the layer mask mentioned above but somewhat different and more flexible.

Layer clipping masks allow you to use the transparency of one layer as a mask for one or more layers above it. It’s actually easier to do than to explain, so fire up Photoshop and let’s give this a try:

  1. Position two or more layers on top of each other. Place the layer you want to use as a clipping mask on the bottom
  2. Select top layer, then go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask (or hit Alt + Ctrl + G on Win / Option + Ctrl + G on Mac)
  3. Your layer will become masked by the layer below it

4. Quickly hide all layers but the selected one

If you’ve been using Photoshop for some time, you probably know you can show or hide a layer by clicking the eye icon in the Layers palette.

However, did you know you can instantly hide all other layers except the selected layer if you hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click the eye icon?

Very handy for when you want to declutter your canvas so you can focus on details.

5. Quickly increase/decrease brush size

This one is really simple but indispensable — use left bracket to decrease the brush size and right bracket to increase it.

6. Convert between point text and paragraph text

If you need to convert a straight line text to a paragraph text, no need to copy and paste the work: Photoshop provides a simple but little known solution.

In the Layer panel, right-click on the text layer, then pick Convert to Paragraph text or Convert to point text, depending on what you’re working with at the moment. That’s it!

7. Move selections or shapes while creating them

If you hold a space bar while creating a selection or a shape object, you can move it across the canvas. This is especially convenient when you’re using circle selection to isolate a simple round object from the image.

8. Spice up photos with Instagram-style actions

Retro look is here to stay and Instagram knows it. Their photo filters are so good looking that rare few users ever publish “regular” photos anymore. Moreover, retro look is making a big comeback in both design and illustration.

But, achieving that particular look requires some curve manipulations, vignette effects and stuff like that. Although that makes for a great exercise in color manipulation (see this Abduzeedo tutorial), sometimes it’s easier to use ready-made actions.

Check out these resources to get started:

9. Stock up with shapes, brushes and patterns

Photo by Doegox

While Photoshop comes equipped with a wide variety of tools, it’s rather stingy when it comes to brushes, shapes and patterns.

These elements are a design staple and you can never have enough of them — so make sure to surf the web every now and then for fresh packs.

These sites will definitely start you off in the right direction:

10. Name and organize your layers

Photo by Things Organized Neatly

Naming your layers and organizing them into logical groups is what good housekeeping means for designers. You make it easy to find the stuff you need, and you make it easy for your client or a colleague to move around.

Here’s a simple system I follow but feel free to make up your own:

  1. Layers are grouped in logical units — i.e. header, footer, page content, login form, etc.
  2. All layers and groups are stacked relative to their vertical position on the canvas. For example, if there is line of text at the bottom of the page, that layer is going to be near the bottom of the layer stack. This gives me an instant visual hint on where to find the layer.
  3. Each layer has a descriptive name — i.e. red dot, left arrow, button, button container, etc.

Conclusion

Photoshop is a big application and moving around quickly is paramount for doing great work fast. To do that, it’s useful to know some basic shortcuts, tips and tricks for common or repetitive tasks.

And the tips I’ve shared above are just a tip of the iceberg (no pun intended).

Help make this even more useful by sharing Photoshop shortcuts and quick tips below!

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