January 5, 2013

Photoshop and Six Tools


I use a very simple workflow and for years I hid it from others because I thought it  unsophisticated and backwards. As I listened to other photographers talk about their process, I was embarrassed to let them see my rudimentary procedures.  What if they started talking about layers, I didn’t even understand them!

Fortunately with time I came to the realization that it’s not about the process, it’s about the image.  Nothing else matters.

There are many ways to use Photoshop and I doubt many photographers use more than a small percentage of its many tools.  There is no right way or wrong way to use it and not one workflow will be right for everyone.  My procedure works for me and I’d like to share it to illustrate a point: that you don’t need to know a lot about Photoshop or have a complicated workflow to produce beautiful images.  

Here are the six tools that I use to process most of my images:

1. RAW Converter – I use Photoshop’s RAW converter to set my image to a 16 bit, 360 ppi, 10X15 TIFF file.

2. B&W Conversion tool – I like Photoshop’s b&w conversion tool and play with each color channel to see how it affects the different parts of my image.

3. Levels – One of the most basic secrets to a great b&w image is to have a good black and white. I use Levels to set the initial black and white point and I use the histogram to judge this, never my eyes.  Throughout my processing I keep my eye on that histogram to maintain a true black and white.  Something else I do while in Levels is to adjust the midtones, which can radically change the look of my image and tends to set the direction I will take it.

4. Dodging and Burning – This is where I do most of my processing and where I have the most fun!  I feel most at home with dodging and burning because that’s how I did things in the darkroom.  However the primary difference today is that I can take my time and exercise minute control over every part of the image. I use a Wacom tablet to dodge and burn because you CANNOT do a good job with a mouse.

5. Contrast Adjustment – After I have the image looking great on screen, experience teaches me that it will print flat, and so I add some contrast.  A monitor uses transmitted light and a print uses reflective light, so that means it will take a lot more work to get your print to look as snappy as it does on the monitor.  Contrast helps.

6 Clone Tool – I use the clone tool to spot my images.  Cloning is so much better than the old days when you had to spot every single print and your mouth tasted like Spottone all day!


My point isn’t that you should imitate my workflow, but that a workflow need not be complicated.  Did you notice that I didn’t make mention of special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves or layers?  I also don’t use monitor calibrators, profiles, RIP’s or special inksets.  

I use Photoshop and six tools.  Ofttimes there’s beauty in simplicity!



26 thoughts on “Photoshop and Six Tools

  1. Thanks for the insight Cole. As simple as your process is you also exercise absolute control over the final image which is essential for your art. it is inspirational to see how your process is true to your vision.

  2. Great information Cole. And I’m sure a surprise to many people.

    I used to have a general rule for my color images; if I couldn’t work the image to my liking (in PS7, or more recently LR) in about three minutes, it wasn’t a good enough image in the first place.

    Now that I’m at the beginning of the B&W conversion learning curve I don’t have any time restraints, but still use a minimum of tools to get to the final product. I do have NIK SEP and while I’ve used it quite a bit I still find I’m content with the conversions right in LR, especially after I learned about the use of the color channels.

    I do have one question. You mentioned the use of levels after the color channels, is this the order of your workflow? I have always set the levels first, with minor adjustments as needed during the conversion.

    Also an excellent point about the light difference between the monitor and the print. Not understanding that difference cost me a few cents early on.

  3. Mark, good question. I do set levels after the B&W conversion because I need to see the B&W image in order to know how to process it. What I probably should have mentioned about my use of Levels (and I’m going to go back and add this to the article) is that I also adjust the midtones whch really can radically modify the look and feel of the image, which sets the direction I’m going to take the image.

  4. Hi Cole:

    I love the quality of the tones in this image, especially the proximity of the bright backlighting highlights to the dark trees. Photoshop knowledge is good, but can never substitute for the judgment of the artist in creating visual impact like this!

    Can I ask how often you are typically using selections to work on your images? Which selection methods do you most often use?

    Hope all is well!

  5. There’s a bias toward complexity, but as Thoreau advised: Simplify. Simplify. Your post is a great reminder of that; very refreshing. Thanks for the emphasis on a core fundamental: simplify.

  6. Thank you for this, Cole. It is refreshing and somewhat validating to know that other photographers limit their use of post-processing also. “Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.” I have sometimes felt, shall we say, inferior as far as editing goes because of my simple workflow. Granted, I should probably learn more about the tools available in Photoshop, and I will. But I think I have a good thing going. Like you say, it’s all about the image. And, as I often like to say, Keep it Simple.

  7. Great that you shared this with everyone. It helps to remove some of the “guru” propagated mystique surrounding Photoshop.

    The Six Tools you mention are indeed at the core of Photoshops usefulness. A mastery of them will take you anywhere you need to go in the production of a fine print. Which, as you said, is the only thing that matters.

    For the benefit of your readers allow me to further emphasize your point.
    Let me start by saying that I’ve worked professionally with Photoshop for +20yrs, by most standards, I would be considered an “expert”.

    There is NO such thing. Anyone professing to being an expert, with few exceptions, is probably just trying to take your money. The program is limitless in its scope. The majority of that scope is not necessary in the making of a fine photograph for exhibition purposes.

    By way of explanation, Photoshop began as an experiment in trying to reproduce a grayscale on a computers monochrome display. It has since evolved into the industry standard for the preparation of images to be lithographically reproduced on a printed page. The “pre-press” procedure, as it’s called in the printing industry, requires an extraordinary amount of precision tools to be included in Photoshop’s software package.

    Cole stated, “I doubt many photographers use more than a small percentage of its many tools…” A true statement. As a large part of my professional experience with Photoshop, involved the pre-press process, I can assure you that you really only need to know that “small percentage”. Simply put, there’s a whole bunch of stuff in Photoshop that you don’t need to concern yourself with.

    What you should concern yourself with are the six tools that Cole defines as the most valuable to him. Learning them, will be the single most beneficial use of your time.

    That said… here are some things I’ve learned along the way that some of you may find helpful.

    FILTERS, a very cool, seductive feature in Photoshop AND extremely hard to use effectively. Aside from the blur/sharpen/noise tools, their use in commercial application is limited. However, they should definitely be explored as the artistic selections are endless, but I would advise caution, they can quickly and easily become obvious and trite.

    LAYERS, as Cole eluded to, can be a tad complex. They do have a place though, especially when you need to perform a variety of tasks on an image. Essential… no, not really. Some would argue yes, but layers can be left alone until you’ve become more proficient and feel they can help your efforts.

    SELECTION, can’t say enough about this feature. Learn how to select and then count your blessings. For you now have the ability to orchestrate your image in ways that those of us who whiled away in a darkroom could only dream about! The ability to selectively work on specific areas of an image is Photoshop’s greatest gift.

    TRANSFORM, a personal favorite of mine, so I’m a bit biased. Photoshops ability to shape and mold the structure of an image has literally “transformed” photography. Learning to precisely and purposefully distort areas of the image can be an invaluable tool. An artist I know said that photography’s biggest problem is “reality”… not anymore.

    TABLETS, sorry Cole… I’ve got a WACOM too and have concluded my mouse wasn’t broken and I shouldn’t have tried to fix it! The Wacom sits on my desk gathering dust, frowning and sneering at the mouse 🙂

    “…conversion programs, pug-ins, curves, … RIP’s or special inksets.”
    Ya, I have to agree. Save your money and learn those Six Tools instead!

  8. Laura, some people think you must know how to use all the tools so that when the need arises, you are ready. I’ve taken the opposite view; when the need arises, then I’ll learn what I need.

  9. Misha, on an image like this I would not select a part to process separately. But on other images I do exactly that.

    I might initially use the magic wand tool to make the large selection, but then I’ll magnify the image and clean up the selection with that straight line tool (not sure what it’s called) or the tool that you can draw freehand with. I put a lot of work into making the selection “clean.”

  10. The KISS method is the best approach and not just with Photography. I use Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5. I may upgrade to Lightroom 4 but don’t feel the need to upgrade from CS5 as I think it has everything that I need to edit my images.

  11. I could go on and on about the importance of RAW conversion, non-destructive editing using adjustment layers, always using Curves and NEVER touching Levels or Brightness/Contrast tools and how essential monitor calibration and printer profiling is to achieving consistent output. I could also mention that one of the most powerful (and overlooked) tools in Photoshop, the Quick Mask is not on this short list of essentials.

    I could argue the importance of mastering ones medium as Ansel Adams did with the Zone System, via intensive testing and precise control of exposure and development times.

    I won’t do my preaching here however as Cole is on to something. What I have learned in my 15+ years of Photoshop experience is that there is no right way to do things and everyone has their own unique way of creating images. What has always attracted me to photography is the delicate balance between technique and artistic vision. Photography is about individual expression and I completely agree with Cole that in the end it’s not about the tools or techniques used, it’s about the image.

  12. Great point here, Cole, and simply stated. I carry this mantra of simplicity right through my workflow – so even on location when using the camera I keep it as simple as possible. I set the camera up following a simple routine of steps based on an image I am designing in my head as I look at what I am seeing – I am giving myself the raw materials I need for that finished image starting right there in the field. Many photographers try to make photography a dark art but it is so simple – apart from focus and composition we only control three things, ISO (usually set and forget for the day, or part of the day) so we are down to two things to control, just shutter speed and aperture. I choose my aperture for the depth of field I am after and then all I do is speed up and slow down the shutter to get the exposure I am after. Its not rocket science. Couple this with a simple digital darkroom workflow and we can clear our minds of the technobabble and focus on being artists. Great read, as always Cole, thank you for your inspiration

  13. Hi Cole- can’t help but wonder about the not-profiling your monitor bit? I thought that was supposed to be real important? Hmmmm. I agree with everything else you said tho! Happy New Year sir!

  14. Nate, I purchased a Spyder monitor calibrator and found it to be complicated, time consuming and provided me no benefit. I suspect that it would be of some value to a color photographer however.

    I simply visually adjust my monitor’s brightness and contrast to match a print, and that’s all I’ve needed.

    To all: I’d like to reiterate the purpose of this post. It is to demonstrate that you can produce a very nice print without all of these “extras.” If you’ve seen my prints, then I hope you’ll pause and consider this.

  15. I recently got a copy of CS6 and must admit to feeling a little (ok, a lot) overawed by the whole thing! It can do so much and I feel I am only scratching the surface (and will probably only ever do so). You have quashed my anxiety and given me hope! As always, you are an inspiration …

  16. I love the combination of clone-tool and healing-brush. clone tool brings the right spot into place, healing brush makes sure it fits there seamlessly (and makes the clone-tool unnecessary sometimes:) ). Works flawless as soon as you got used to it 🙂

  17. Cole you are the best Every time I read anything from you it makes my heart swell and gives me hope that I can make beautiful black and white digital images like I used to in the dark room. Thanks for always inspiring me and for sharing.

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