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A Guide to Basic Photo Editing With Photoshop

M. T. Dremer studied graphic design at Muskegon Community College and has been using Adobe Photoshop for more than a decade.


Adobe Photoshop is an incredibly complex photo-editing program that can create professional-grade graphics for large-scale distribution. But, what if all you want to do is remove that scratch or add a fancy filter? Well, you're in luck, because Photoshop can work for you too. What you'll find below is a handful of tools you can use to enhance and repair your digital photos. There is no silver bullet for improving a picture, but the more of these techniques you know, the more adept you'll be at photo editing.



Often times you will have a photograph that you like, but it’s just a little too light or too dark. In this case, the Brightness/Contrast option is your best friend. Go up to the menu in the upper left corner, click on Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast. This will launch a new window with two little bars and an adjustment arrow for each. There are also spaces to enter a numeric value, but for the purpose of this tutorial, we’re just going to play around with the arrows to see how we would like to enhance or tone down the photo.

The Brightness bar controls how light or dark the image is. Drag the arrow to the right and the image gets lighter, and drag it to the left to make it darker. When used alone, the brightness option doesn’t always produce the best results. Often times the image will appear washed out if it’s too bright, and too faded when it’s darkened. This is where the Contrast option comes into play.

The Contrast bar controls the difference ratio between colors. For example, if you make an image darker using the Brightness bar, it will darken everything, if you make an image darker using the Contrast bar, it will darken the existing dark areas and brighten the light areas. Also, the Contrast bar increases the boldness of the colors in the image. So, if you slide the arrow to the right, the image will become more colorful and defined. If you slide the arrow to the left, the image will become more grey and flat.

Using these two options in conjunction is the best way to get your desired results. The numeric value can be useful if you like the settings and wish to apply the same amount to a different photo. If you keep these written down you can be sure you are getting the same results each time they are entered.


Color Balance

Another very useful tool is Color Balance. Like with the Brightness/Contrast option, go to Image > Adjustments > Color Balance. This will bring up a window similar to the Brightness/Contrast window, except now there are three bars to be adjusted instead of two. You’ll also notice that a color is listed on either side of the bars, such as Cyan to Red and Yellow to Blue. If, for example, you wish to add more blue to your photo, you can drag the arrow towards the word blue, and Photoshop will automatically distribute a blue hue into your photo. All of the colors can be mixed and matched for better results. For example, if I wish to create brown, I will need to combine various amounts of green, red and yellow.

This tool also comes in handy if you have a black and white photograph that you wish to add color to. It is important to note, however, that if you have a black and white photo, you can’t give it back its original colors with photoshop (not easily anyway), but with the color balance tool, you can give it a sense of color that makes it look even better.

For my example, I will add a bronze/brown color to give the photograph a sepia tone.

Extra Options When Using Color Balance

At the bottom of the Color Balance window, you will see three selection options (Shadows/Midtones/Highlights). This controls where the majority of the color goes. If you wish to add a darker red to the shadows in your image, you’ll want to use the shadows selection. And if you wish to add yellow to the brighter parts of the image, you’ll want to use the highlights selection. Each selection is the same in terms of interface so feel free to play around with each one to get the best results.


Tools to Know and Love

Photoshop has a lot of tools to play with, but for the purposes of general photo editing, you will want to focus on a select few. All tools can be found on the left hand side.

Magnifying Glass

The magnifying glass is pretty self explanatory. It allows you to zoom in on parts of your image so that you can work with the finer details. If you wish to go further with Photoshop, the magnifying glass is a good tool to become acquainted with.


This tool is actually three in one. When you left click on the button and hold it down, you will be given a smaller menu that includes these three tools. These tools are like miniature versions of the brighten/contrast option I mentioned above. That option would change the brightness/contrast of the entire image, but the nice thing about these tools is that it allows you to brighten/darken select parts of the image. The Dodge Tool is used for lightening any area you draw over. The Burn Tool is used for darkening any area you draw over and the Sponge Tool is used to remove the color from any area you draw over. It operates in much the same way as a paint brush. Just pick the part you wish to darken and ‘paint’ over the area. Doing so repeatedly will increase the intensity of the effect.


The Patch Tool can be one of the most useful tools in photo editing. Once you select the tool, your mouse cursor will turn into a tiny patch with thread coming out of it. Let us say, for example, that there is a black mark on your photograph that you don’t like. Select a portion of the photo that matches the area with the mark. Your selection doesn’t need to be perfect. Drawing a small circle, larger than the black mark, will be sufficient. Once you have your selection, click in the center of it and drag it over until it is completely covering the black mark and release. The selection you used will now be covering the black mark as if it never existed.

It is important to reiterate that you must select a part of the image that looks similar to the area you are ‘filling in’. The patch tool essentially copies part of the image and then blends its edges with its surroundings when it’s put in place somewhere else.


Blur and Sharpen

The blur and sharpen options can be used at any point during your photo editing process since it does not affect the color of your photograph. For the sake of simplicity we will focus on the most basic options for sharpening and blurring.

Go up to the menus at the top of the page and locate the menu called “Filter” click it and scroll down the list until you find “Blur”. When you move your cursor over this menu a new list will appear to the right giving you all the different blur options. For now, only worry about “Blur” and “Blur More”. The names say it all. “Blur” will give your image a slightly fuzzy quality and “Blur More” will do it to a greater degree.

If you wish to sharpen your image, open the Filter menu again and scroll down until you find “Sharpen” and wait for the secondary menu to appear on the right. This is the same layout as the blur menu with “Sharpen” and “Sharpen More” but it will give your image a slightly clearer quality. Both, however, should be used sparingly, as too much will muddle the picture.


Photoshop Has Much to Offer

Each of these methods can be used alone or in conjunction with each other to enhance your photographs, but they hardly breech the surface of what Photoshop can do. Therefore, I encourage you to take this information and play around with the various options the program has.

Additional Tips

  • Edit > Undo will undo the last thing you did, but if you wish to go even further back you can look for the “History” window on the right hand side of the program. It keeps track of everything you did and will allow you to go back much further than the undo option.
  • If you wish to turn a color photo into a black and white photo, simply click on Image > Adjustments > Desaturate.
  • If you are unable to produce any visible results with the Dodge/Burn/Sponge tool, check to see what brush size you’re using and what the flow percentage is. If the brush is too small or weak, you may not see any difference in the image when it is applied.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


M. T. Dremer (author) from United States on June 30, 2010:

ainehannah and Baileybear, thank you both for your kind words. I always try to think of what I wanted to know about photoshop when I was first starting out and I go from there. Hopefully it helps! :D

Baileybear on June 30, 2010:

thanks for a great overview. The images provided to illustrate are helpful

Aine O'Connor from Dublin on May 21, 2010:

Another bookmarked hub! You're playing a blinder, thanks for the info :0)