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Workflow - Adobe Photoshop CS5

Joe Kegley | E-Mail | Updated 01-21-2011

Photoshop Workspace

Four main sections of the Photoshop Workspace (excluding the document window)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 Setup

The following information describes how I setup Adobe Photoshop CS5 along with a high-level account of the workflow I follow on the next tab. This information isn't meant to be detailed instruction, but a listing and order of workflow tasks. One should realize there are many ways to accomplish the same tasks within Photoshop; there is no official right way, though there are some general guidelines that folks may follow. Also be cognizant of the fact that I don't represent the other photographers on this site. They have their own workflows which may or may not follow along with my style.

Adobe Photoshop Panels

Photoshop Panels (docked)

Before we begin take a moment to quickly acknowledge the sections of the Photoshop workspace in the image above. These may be referred to later in the document. Also note the three docked panels that I find most important in the image to the right: the Adjustments panel, the History panel, and the Layers panel. By default association these panels also have tabs for the Mask panel, the Histogram panel, and the Channels and Paths panel. This works out nicely since some of those panels are useful to photographers also.

On a Windows workstation you can open these panels by clicking the "Window" menu item in the Application bar. Select Adjustments, History, and Layers in the menu dropdown. Make sure Options and Tools are also selected. Once the panels appear on the workspace you can position them into a docked formation if you like.

Without going into too much detail, applying corrections from the Adjustments panel creates an adjustment layer, which gives you more flexibility and doesn't discard image information. Adjustment Layers can be saved with the image and re-adjusted at a later time. An adjustment layer holds color or tonal adjustments that affect the layers below it. Rather than edit image pixels directly, you can edit an adjustment layer and leave the underlying pixels unchanged. Tonal corrections include Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, and Exposure adjustments. Color corrections include Vibrance, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, and Selective Color to name a few.

The History panel lets you undo and redo operations. In addition, the History panel along with the History Brush tool lets you paint in or paint out corrections you make. This way you can selectively target corrections on your image instead of applying the correction to the whole image. This is somewhat similar to using a layer mask, but offers less versatility/flexibility and the operations can't be saved and re-adjusted at a later time.

The last panel in the image to the right is the Layers panel which works in conjunction with the Adjustments panel. Per the Adobe Photoshop CS5 User PDF, "Photoshop layers are like sheets of stacked acetate. You can see through transparent areas of a layer to the layers below. You move a layer to position the content on the layer, like sliding a sheet of acetate in a stack. You can also change the opacity of a layer to make content partially transparent." You use layers to perform tasks such as compositing multiple images or to selectively apply corrections and filters via a layer mask. In fact layer masks are what makes layers so powerful. When you select an adjustment from the Adjustment Panel, Photoshop creates an associated layer and layer mask for that adjustment. This allows you to selectively adjust specific areas of your image within the layer mask. As noted above, layers and their layer mask can be saved with the image and re-adjusted at a later time.

Color Settings

Set the Working Space profile.

To address your color settings click "Edit" from the menu (Application bar) then select "Color Settings". A working space profile sets the color gamut available to your image while working in Adobe Photoshop. Adobe Photoshop has four working space modes: RGB, CMYK, Gray, and Spot. Each of these color modes is assigned a working space profile. Most photographers are mainly concerned with the RGB working space. A recommended RGB working space profile for photographers is Adobe RGB (1998). Adobe RGB has a wider color gamut (range of colors) than sRGB and works well with color spaces available on most inkjet printers. The preferred color space for the web is sRGB. Should you need to produce images for both prints and the web, set your working space profile to Adobe RGB and convert later to sRGB during your Photoshop workflow.

If you'll be working on raw files exported from Lightroom, then it would make sense to set your Photoshop working space profile to ProPhoto RGB since that is the color space Lightroom uses for editing raw files.

Set the Color Management Policies.

The Color Management Policies section determines what Photoshop does when you open an image with a different color management profile than the one you are using for your working space. Again, most photographers will be concerned with the RGB color management policy. If you work on other folks images you might prefer "Preserve Embedded Profiles" in the dropdown. If you want to always work in the same color space within Photoshop you would select "Convert to Working RGB". It's really a matter of personal preference. I have my policy for RGB set to "Preserve Embedded Profiles".

I strongly suggest checking all the Missing Profile and Profile Mismatches checkboxes. When these checkboxes are checked Photoshop will let you know when there's a color space profile mismatch.


In addition to setting your color settings, you may (or may not) want to set your preferences. To set your preferences click "Edit" from the menu then select "Preferences" at the bottom of the dropdown, then select "General" or you can just click "Ctrl K" on a Windows workstation to arrive at the same dialog. For most of these settings I take the defaults, but there are a few I prefer to change.

Once in the Preferences dialog, I change the following.

  • Interface - In the Interface section I change the UI Font Size to Large. This setting adjusts the fonts within the Adobe Photoshop Interface to a larger size. I find this helpful for large resolution screens (good for folks who don't see well like me).
  • Performance - In the Performance section, I change the History States to 60. This affects the number of states that the History Panel will display and Photoshop will remember. The default is 20 which is too small, especially for a lot of touch up work. This section also has adjustments for Memory Usage and Scratch Disks which you may want to use to optimize performance depending on your workstation. I take the defaults on these settings. If you have a second internal hard drive Adobe suggest you switch your primary scratch disk to the one that doesn't have your operating system on it. Do not use external hard drives for a scratch disk; they are typically not fast enough.

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Adobe Photoshop CS5 Workflow

This high-level workflow assumes you have fine tuned your global tonal and color adjustments in Camera Raw before opening in Photoshop. If you are starting with a JPEG file (as opposed to a raw file) then you may want to add steps for globally adjusting tones and colors before the respective local tonal and color adjustment steps below. Note some photos may not need more optimizing after processing with camera raw, maybe just some output sharpening and that's it. The shortcuts listed are for a Windows OS, for a Mac substitute Command for Ctrl, Option for Alt.

  1. Open file from Camera Raw as Smart Object in Photoshop. By opening as a smart object you can re-adjust the Camera Raw settings within Photoshop if needed. Double click the Smart Object thumbnail in the Layers Panel to bring up the Camera Raw dialog when necessary.

    If the image will be coming from Lightroom you would click the "Photo" menu item, select "Edit In", then select "Open as Smart Object in Photoshop...". If you don't want to work with a smart object simply click "Ctrl E" to open in Photoshop.

  2. Lens Correction Filter. Use to correct distortion or chromatic aberration. Create a Stamp Visible Layer, "Ctrl Alt Shift E", to use this filter. Convert for smart filter, and then open the filter.

  3. Retouching. To remove blemishes and unwanted objects I use one or more of the following tools. If the dust removal done within camera raw was sufficient and you don't have any unwanted objects then skip this step.

    • Clone Stamp Tool. Create a new layer first using "Ctrl Shift N". Note that the source can be from other images. The "Options" bar settings should be the following.

      • "Sample All Layers" should be selected from the dropdown.
      • "No Adjustment Layers" icon should be turned on.
      • "Aligned" checkbox should be checked.
    • Healing Brush Tool. Create a new layer first using "Ctrl Shift N". The Healing Brush Tool is like the clone stamp but copies the texture and blends the color for more natural looking cloning. The "Options" bar settings should be the following.

      • "Sample All Layers" should be selected from the dropdown.
      • "Source" should be set to Sampled.
      • "Aligned" checkbox should be checked.
      • "Mode" should be set to Normal unless area is detailed then try Replace.
    • Spot Healing Brush Tool. Create a new layer first using "Ctrl Shift N".

      • "Sample All Layers" checkbox should be checked.
      • "Mode" should be set to Normal unless area is detailed then try Replace.
      • "Type" should be set to Content-Aware. Try Proximity Match as an alternate.
    • Patch Tool. Duplicate smart object layer "Ctrl J", then rasterize before using this tool.

    • Content Aware Fill. Duplicate smart object layer "Ctrl J", then rasterize before using this tool. Use Refine Edge to soften the selection before filling with Content-Aware.

  4. Local Tonal Adjustments. Use the following Adjustment Layers with the associated layer mask to make targeted tonal adjustments to select areas. See section on "Layer Masks" in Workflow Hints tab. Hold the Alt key while setting the black or white point with either Levels or Curves to see clipping.

    • Levels. Adjust white then black point for contrast and then adjust midtones for brightness. For a different result try adjusting individual colors instead of RGB.
    • Curves. Adjust white point then black point if necessary using triangle sliders. Select and adjust anchor points, move anchor point upward to lighten and downward to darken. The steeper the curve between two anchor points the more contrast.
    • Dodge and Burn. Use to unblock shadows or darken highlights on small localized areas. A better alternative to the Dodge and Burn Tools on the toolbar is to create your own Dodge and Burn adjustment layers using different blending modes. See "Dodge and Burn" in the Workflow Hints tab.
  5. Local Color Adjustments. Use the following Adjustment Layers with the associated layer mask to make targeted color adjustments to select areas.

    • Vibrance. This adjustment is recommended for composite color adjustments; for individual color adjustments use Hue/Saturation.
    • Hue/Saturation. Select the targeted adjustment icon in the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Click on the color to be modified then drag left to decrease saturation or right to increase saturation. Hold "Ctrl" while you drag to affect Hue.
    • Selective Color. Use to fine tune specific colors. This adjustment allows far more control than the above adjustments.
  6. Nik Viveza 2. Instead of (or in addition to) steps 4 and 5, I may use the Nik Viveza 2 Photoshop plug-in as a smart object to target local tonal and color adjustments.

  7. Noise Reduction. If noise is particularly bad, you might benefit by reducing noise earlier in the workflow before other adjustments are made. In either case it is best to use targeted adjustments using the associated layer mask instead of applying noise reduction to the whole image. I use one of the following tools for noise reduction.

    • Reduce Noise Filter. Use on the most recent background (pixel) layer as a smart filter.
    • Nik Dfine 2.0 Plug-in. Use "Brush" button then paint on layer mask before applying.
  8. Save Master File. Save the file as a PSD or Tiff if you wish to retain adjustment layers. Files saved with layer information can be quite large. If you're sure you won't need to come back to the file and re-adjust it, then go to step 9 and flatten the file then save as a Tiff. Name the file something that reflects that the image is a master file, such as beaverpond_master.psd.

    At this stage if you plan on producing output via Lightroom instead of Photoshop you would next open the master file in Lightroom. File type, color space, and sharpening selections can be made within the "Export" dialog. Click the "File" menu item then select "Export..." to access this dialog. Output sharpening can also be done in the Print module.

  9. Flatten or Merge Layers. Save file if you elected not to save with layers intact in Step 8.

  10. Crop/Resize for Output if necessary.

  11. Change Color Space if necessary. Use Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB for printing and sRGB for displaying on a computer such as email or for a website. My workflow uses Adobe RGB. If I plan on using the image for a web page I will do the following at this point; select "Edit/Convert to Profile" then select sRGB from the Profile dropdown. Next I select Perceptual or Relative Colorimetric for the Rendering Intent and click OK. Relative rendering tries to maintain an exact relationship between gamut colors, which may clip colors outside the range of the target gamut. Perceptual rendering tries to maintain smooth color gradations throughout by compressing the entire tonal range, even if this results in inaccuracies for colors. Note that the Photoshop CS5 User's Guide PDF suggests converting to sRGB "before" optimizing an image for the web as opposed to after.

  12. Sharpen for Output. Use targeted adjustments when warranted; there is no need to sharpen a sky or a background that was blurred on purpose. I use one of the following tools for sharpening an image.

    • Smart Sharpen Filter. Set "Remove" dropdown to Lens Blur. For web output I typically use a small Radius of 0.3 to 0.5 and an Amount of 30 to 150. Prints may need stronger sharpening.
    • Unsharp Mask Filter. The settings I use are similar to the Smart Sharpen Filter with the addition of Threshold set to 0.
    • Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 Plug-in.
  13. Save As... Rename the file and save as a JPEG or Tiff depending on its purpose. Be sure to rename the file something different than your master file, such as beaverpond.jpg (using the example in step 8).

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Adobe Photoshop CS5 Workflow Hints

Layer Masks

White areas within a mask are where changes/adjustments are applied. Black areas in a mask do not receive any changes/adjustments.

Layer Masks - Masking

Below are 5 ways of making a selection within a mask. Use the "Mask Edge" interface found in the Mask Panel to refine selection edges for a natural transition when applicable.

  • Use a Selection Tool before you create the adjustment layer.
    • Quick Selection Tool
    • Lasso Tool
    • Magic Wand Tool
    • Magnetic Lasso Tool
  • Use the Brush Tool to paint in the selection on the mask.
  • Use the Color Range option in the Mask Panel.
  • Use the Gradient Tool (select a Foreground/background gradient and Linear options).
  • Use the Channels tab next to Layers (select color with most contrast, make a copy of channel, use levels to change copy to black and white, touch up with Brush Tool, then click "Load channel as selection" button).

Layer Masks - QuickMask

  1. Double click QuickMask in the Tools panel to open dialog.
  2. Select "Selected Areas" for normal selection or select "Masked Areas" for inverse selection.
  3. Use Brush Tool to paint mask on.
  4. "Q" to toggle QuickMask mode back to Standard mode and view selection.
  5. Create a new adjustment layer.
  6. Selection will be imported as layer mask.

Layer Masks - Shortcuts

  • "D" - to change foreground and background colors to default.
  • "X" - to swap foreground and background colors.
  • "Alt Delete" - to fill mask with foreground color.
  • "Ctrl Delete" - to fill mask with background color.
  • "\" - to toggle layer mask on/off as rubylith.
  • "Q" - to toggle QuickMask and preview.
  • "Alt" - then click on adjustment layer mask to toggle preview mask.
  • "Alt" - hold while dragging a layer mask to a new layer to copy mask.

Dodge and Burn Adjustment Layers

Create the Dodge (lighten) Adjustment layer

  1. Create a new Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Don't worry; we won't adjust the sliders.
  2. Rename this adjustment layer to "Dodge".
  3. Fill the layer mask with black (click the layer mask, press "D", and then press "Ctrl Delete").
  4. Change the blending mode to "Screen" in the adjustment layer dropdown. Note there are other blending modes to try which include "Color Dodge" and "Linear Dodge". These are a little more intense on the lightening effect. We'll stick with "Screen" for this example.
  5. Set the opacity on the adjustment layer to 20% to start out. Adjust as necessary.

Use the Brush Tool

  1. Select the Brush Tool.
  2. Ensure the Brush Tool Mode is set to "Normal" in the Options bar.
  3. Paint the shadow areas you wish to lighten using the Brush Tool (use a soft-edged brush).
  4. If you make a mistake press "X" to change the foreground/background colors and paint over your mistake. Press "X" again to swap the colors back.

Create the Burn (darken) Adjustment layer

To create a Burn (darken) adjustment layer follow the steps above except change the name to "Burn" and the blending mode to "Multiply" in the adjustment layer. You will use this tool to darken areas. Note there are other more vivid blending modes worth exploring for darkening your selection; they include "Color Burn" and "Linear Burn".

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Adobe Photoshop CS5 Shortcuts

The following are the 22 Adobe Photoshop CS5 shortcuts I find most helpful. Below those are shortcuts I occasionally use. The shortcuts listed are for a Windows OS, for Mac users substitute Command for Ctrl and Option for Alt.

22 Most Helpful Photoshop Shortcuts

  1. "Space" - changes cursor to the Hand Tool.
  2. "Z" - selects Zoom Tool.
  3. "Alt" - changes cursor to zoom out when Hand Tool or Zoom Tool is selected.
  4. "Ctrl" - changes cursor to zoom in when Hand Tool is selected.
  5. "Ctrl +" - zoom in.
  6. "Ctrl -" - zoom out.
  7. "Alt Space" - switches to zoom out.
  8. "Ctrl Space" - switches to zoom in.
  9. "Click and Drag" - left or right to zoom out or zoom in while using Zoom Tool.
  10. "Ctrl 0" - maximize document window.
  11. "Ctrl 1" - to view at 100%.
  12. "Double Click Hand Tool" - maximize document window.
  13. "Double Click the Zoom Tool" - to view at 100%.
  14. "Right Click" - when using Hand or Zoom Tool to show menu for Actual Pixels or Fit to Screen.
  15. "D" - sets foreground and background colors to default.
  16. "X" - toggles foreground and background colors.
  17. "Ctrl Z" - toggle between Undo/Redo.
  18. "F" - toggles through full screen modes.
  19. "Ctrl S" - Save.
  20. "Tab" - to cycle through dialog box items.
  21. "Ctrl Tab" - cycles through documents.
  22. "Ctrl Shift Alt K" - to bring up list of keyboard shortcuts.

Tools panel

  1. "V" - for Move tools.
  2. "M" - for Marquee tools.
  3. "L" - for Lasso tools.
  4. "W" - for Quick Selection or Magic Wand tools.
  5. "C" - for Crop tools.
  6. "I" - for Eye Dropper tools.
  7. "J" - for Healing Brush tools.
  8. "B" - for Brush tools.
  9. "S" - for Clone and Pattern Stamp tools.
  10. "Y" - for History Brush tools.
  11. "E" - for Eraser tools.
  12. "G" - for Gradient or Paint Bucket tools.
  13. "O" - for Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools.
  14. "P" - for Pen tools.
  15. "T" - for Type (text) tools.
  16. "A" - for Path Selection and Direct Selection tools.
  17. "U" - for Shape and Line tools (Rectangle, Ellipse, Polygon, Line, and Custom Shape).
  18. "H" - for Hand Tool.
  19. "Z" - for Zoom Tool.
  20. "Shift" - while repeatedly pressing the above shortcuts rotates through the sub-tools.

Selection Shortcuts

  1. "L" - selects Lasso Tool.
  2. "W" - selects Quick Selection Tool.
  3. "M" - for Marquee Tool.
  4. "V" - to select the Move Tool.
  5. "Shift" - hold Shift key to add to selection (except Marquee Tool).
  6. "Alt" - hold Alt key to subtract from selection (except Marquee Tool).
  7. "Alt" - toggles between add to and subtract from (except Marquee Tool).
  8. "Shift Ctrl I" - to inverse selection.
  9. "Ctrl D" - to deselect.
  10. "Ctrl A" - to select all.
  11. "Arrow Keys" - move selection one pixel.
  12. "Arrow Keys" - with Move Tool, moves the actual selected image data one pixel.
  13. "Alt Backspace" or "Alt Delete" - fill with foreground color.
  14. "Ctrl Backspace" or "Ctrl Delete" - fill with background color.
  15. "Q" - toggle between Standard mode and Quick Mask mode.
  16. "Ctrl H" - to toggle between displaying the marching ants while keeping the selection.
  17. "[" and "]" - changes size of the brush for the Quick Selection Tool.
  18. Refine Edge
    • "Alt Ctrl R" - displays Refine Edge dialog.
    • "F" - toggle through preview modes.
    • "X" - toggle between image and preview.
    • "P" - toggle between original selection and refined selection.
    • "J" toggle radius on and off.
    • "Shift E" - toggle between Refine Radius and Erase Refinements Tool.
  19. Marquee Tool
    • "Shift" - while dragging the Rectangle Marquee Tool creates a perfect square.
    • "Shift" - while dragging Elliptical Marquee Tool creates a perfect circle.
    • "Alt" - while dragging the Marquee Tool draws from the center.
    • "Shift Alt" - while dragging the Marquee Tool constrains proportions and draws from the center.

Brush Shortcuts

  1. "B" - to select the Brush Tool.
  2. "J" - to select the Healing Brush Tool.
  3. "S" - to select the Clone Stamp Tool.
  4. "Y" - to select the History Brush Tool.
  5. "Shift" - while repeatedly pressing the above shortcuts rotates through the sub-tools.
  6. "Alt Right Click" - then drag left or right to modify brush size.
  7. "Alt Right Click" - then drag up or down to modify brush hardness.
  8. "[" and "]" - to modify brush size.
  9. "Shift [" and "Shift ]" - to modify brush hardness (25% increments).
  10. "Number Keys" - to change the opacity of the Brush, Clone, and History Brush Tool (0 = 100%).
  11. "Shift" - hold down shift key and drag to draw a straight horizontal or vertical line.
  12. "D" - sets foreground and background colors to default.
  13. "X" - toggles foreground and background colors.
  14. "Shift Click" - connect current point with previous point.
  15. "Alt" - with Brush Tool selected displays eyedropper for color selection.

Layer Shortcuts

  1. "Ctrl Shift N" - create new layer.
  2. "Ctrl Shift Alt N" - create new layer without dialog box.
  3. "Ctrl J" - duplicate layer without dialog box.
  4. "Ctrl Alt J" - duplicate layer.
  5. "Delete or Backspace" - delete selected layer.
  6. "Ctrl E" - to merge selected layers.
  7. "Ctrl Shift E" - to merge all visible layers.
  8. "Ctrl Alt E" - to merge all selected layers into a target layer (stamp).
  9. "Ctrl Shift Alt E" - to merge all visible layers into a target layer (stamp).
  10. "Alt Click Eye" - to toggle visibility off/on for all other layers.
  11. Layer Mask
    • "Alt Backspace" or "Alt Delete" - to fill layer mask with foreground color.
    • "Ctrl Backspace" or "Ctrl Delete" - to fill layer mask with background color.
    • "Shift Click Mask" - to enable/disable layer mask.
    • "Ctrl I" - to inverse layer mask.
    • "Alt" - to copy a mask, hold "Alt" while dragging the layer mask to a new layer.
    • "Q" - to toggle QuickMask and preview.
    • "\" - to toggle layer mask on/off as rubylith.

Curves Shortcuts

  1. "+" - select next point on curve.
  2. "-" - select previous point on curve.
  3. "Arrow Keys" - to change position of selected point on curve one pixel.
  4. "Shift Arrow Key" - to change position of selected point on curve ten pixels.
  5. "Alt" - to show clipping when dragging black or white sliders.
  6. "Alt" - click the graph to toggle grid size.

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