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  • Austin James Jackson

4 Useful Photoshop Tools Most Photographers Don't Know About

Do you ever feel like there must be a better way to do what you're doing? If you feel that way when working in Photoshop, that's probably because there is...

By trade, I'm actually a graphic designer, which has helped immensely with photography on the software side of things. Even though designers and photographers use different programs, Photoshop is the one program where both professions overlap. Learning Photoshop from a Graphic Designer's perspective has helped me learn things that I otherwise would not have learned that I've then been able to apply to my photography. This week's blog post will focus on 4 tools I use that I know you'll be able to apply to your own workflow.



What It Does:

The ruler allows you to see how big your canvas size is. This is pretty much useless when we're working on a digital scale. However, by activating the ruler (Command+R on Mac, Control+R on a PC), we allow ourselves the ability to make guides. After the ruler is open (you should see it on the edge of the canvas), you can click and drag on the top ruler to make a horizontal guide, or the left side ruler to make a vertical guide.

Guides can help us do a lot of things, including straightening the horizon, sectioning off certain parts of our photo, and aligning subjects in the frame.

ruler guide photoshop tool
Using a ruler guide to check my horizon.

Why You Should Be Using It:

You should be using guides to make sure your horizon is straight, as well as using them anytime you warp your image. Often times, I'll warp one side of my frame to balance it with the other side, and I can use a guide in order to see where each side needs to be in order to be balanced.

Also, it can be a great tool to straighten the horizon. If you shoot using a lens with a lot of distortion, your horizon may be curved. You can set a guide across the horizon and then warp until your horizon hits the guide all the way across the frame.

useful photoshop tools ruler guide
Using guides to make sure my image is balanced.

Patch Tool

What It Does:

The patch tool is another way to spot heal. When healing an image, many people use the clone stamp tool or the spot healing brush, but the patch tool is one of my favorites. The best thing about the patch tool is that it will actually match the brightness and color in an area, to an extent.

To use the patch tool, select it from the toolbar and make a circle around the area you want to patch. Then, click and drag from within the circle to another area that want to sample from. In this way, it works much like the clone stamp tool.

Let's say you had a pretty large spot on the corner of your frame with a lot of dead leaves. If you wanted to replace the dead leaves with ones that are alive, you could use the patch tool, and it would match the brightness in the area. It does usually take some trial and error to successfully use the patch tool.

Why You Should Be Using It:

Often times, I find the spot healing tool to not be good enough for what I want to do, but I can't seem to get the clone stamp to match up. The patch tool is a great cross between the two, as it allows you more freedom of choice than the spot healing tool, and has more automation than the clone stamp tool. Give it a try the next time you need to heal an area of your photo, and see how you like it!


Selective Color Adjustment

What It Does:

The selective color adjustment can do so many things with color. While it's primary use is to change colors, that is actually not what I'm going to recommend you use it for. The reason why I love the selective color adjustment (found in the adjustments dropdown) is it's ability to make saturation masks. A saturation mask is basically a layer mask where pure white would be 100% saturation, and pure black would be 0% saturation. This kind of mask works great if one part of your frame seems oversaturated compared to another.

In order to make the mask, you'll need to go into the selective color adjustment layer, and start on the color "Red" (in the dropdown menu). Go down to the "Black" slider (NOT the "Black" color tab), and decrease to -100%. Then, switch to the "Yellow" color tab, and do the same. Then, go through green, cyan, blue, and magenta, decreasing the "Black" to -100%. Now, under "Whites", "Neutrals", and "Blacks", you'll have to increase the "Black" slider to 100%. You should then see a black, white, and grey layer mask.

Photoshop selective color adjustment
Photoshop selective color adjustment.

Then, in order to select what is on your screen as a layer mask, you'll need to switch to the channels tab, and Command+Click (Control+Click on a PC) on the RGB layer. The saturation layer is now a selection. If you open up a Hue/Saturation adjustment, the selection will automatically be applied as a layer mask.

Photoshop layer mask tool
Command+Click on the "RGB" channel.

photoshop layer and layer mask
Make a new Hue/Saturation layer, and the selection will be applied as the layer mask. Then, you can decrease the saturation to even out the scene.

Why You Should Be Using It:

I see so many photos where one side of the sky is around 50-60% saturation, and the other side is around 20-30%. Whether this was actually the case when you took the photo or if it was the result of a bad editing job, it does not look natural and you'll want to remove it. It's such an easy fix once you make the saturation layer mask. Give it a go on the next photo you edit!


Gradient Tool

What It Does:

The gradient tool is amazing for making layer masks. I love putting a gradient mask on brightness/curves layers. You probably don't want to use the gradient tool when you're trying to make an adjustment to the sky and not the foreground, but any global adjustments look great with the gradient tool. When used on a layer mask, the gradient tool basically makes soft transition from black to white, which helps your adjustments go unnoticed. If you don't use a gradient, often times it is very easy to tell when you've made an adjustment because the contrast between where you made the adjustment and where you didn't is so strong.

To use the gradient tool, simply select a layer mask, grab the gradient tool, and click and drag. Every time you make a new black to white gradient, it pastes over the old one you made (so you don't need to worry about deleting or undoing mistakes). Just keep clicking and dragging until you find the right amount of gradient.

gradient layer mask photoshop tool
Before gradient layer mask
photoshop gradient layer mask tool
After gradient layer mask

Why You Should Be Using It:

It helps hide your adjustments and edits you make! Nothing is worse than having someone comment on a photo you post just to mention that they can see a particular adjustment you made, and this tool will help that not happen to you.


Photoshop is such a deep program, and a lot of us get locked into using the same tools, continually pushing the limits of certain tools, even when a better option exists. This blog post will hopefully help you get out of your comfort zone to explore more tools to use in your workflow. If you continue to find Photoshop to be confusing, I'd highly encourage you to join one of my 2020 Workshops, where you'll learn everything you need to know about Photoshop!

As always, feel free to comment or email me with any questions or comments you have. Thanks for checking out this week's 5 Minute Photography Blog Post!