How I Edit My Photos

free intro to photoshop tutorial

This is part one in a series of tutorials which will cover the very basics of Photoshop. It’s perfect for the beginner Photoshop user- and written in plain English, so it’s simple enough even for someone who has never used Photoshop before! :)

This tutorial, Part 1: Layers, will show you how to give your photos unique, customized enhancements by using actions- but most importantly, how to get the most out of your actions by editing the individual layers generated by those actions.

free intro to photoshop tutorial


Start by opening an original, full sized photo (straight from the camera) in Photoshop. I’m using this beautiful photo my friend Cynthia took of her daughter Abby.

The first thing you want to do is make sure you have a few windows open in Photoshop- you’ll need Layers, Actions, and History. They are probably already opened by default and located on the right side of your screen- but if you don’t see them, just look at the top of the screen and click on Window and then Layers, Actions, and/or History.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Now, the first thing I think any photo needs, especially if it’s a photo from a DSLR, is a good sharpening. We are going to jump right in and make our first new layer. Click CTRL-J (*If you are using a Mac, substitute CMD instead of CTRL in this tutorial) to create a duplicate layer- it’ll appear as Layer 1 in your Layers Palette. Then, at the top of your screen, click on Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Change the settings to:

Amount: 150%
Radius: 2
Threshold: 0

And click OK.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Now, for this image, the full amount of sharpening was a little too much. See how it’s looking a little grainy? (It’s kind of hard to convey, since these images have been resized for web, but I’ll do the best I can :)).

But luckily, since you had the foresight to create a new layer, you can easily adjust the amount of sharpening just by changing the Opacity of the sharpened layer, Layer 1.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Just click on where it says 100% and change that to any number- or you can click on the blue drop down arrow and use the slider. I changed mine here to 66%.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Just right. Her eyes are nice and crisp, but her hair isn’t too crunchy-looking. Some photos will need the full amount of sharpening- no shame there at all. Some will only need 50%, some less. It’s totally up to the photo, and you- the photographer! :)  And what you think looks best.

When your photo is just right, look at the top of the screen and click Layer > Flatten Image. That merges all your layers to one single layer, just like it was at the beginning. You only want to do this when you’re sure you’re done tweaking. :)

Now, let’s start with our first action. For this tutorial, we will be using the free actions from The Pioneer Woman. You can download sets 1 and 2 here: The Pioneer Woman Actions. Follow her 4 short, easy steps to download, install and play your first action.

*UPDATE* You can now download The Pioneer Woman actions for Photoshop Elements!

free intro to photoshop tutorial

This is what the Abby’s photo looked like after I played the action Fresh & Colorful. Not exactly the look I’m going for, but it definitely has potential. Fresh & Colorful is one of my favorite, go-to actions- but I always tweak it before saving the final image.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

First let’s start with the Soft Light layer– click on the Soft Light layer in the Layers palette and adjust the opacity to 15%.

For some more color, click on the Hue/Saturation layer and adjust the opacity to 85%.

Finally, for just a little more brightening, click on the Light layer and adjust the opacity to 50%.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

And that gives us this. Beautiful. Bright. Fresh & Colorful lives up to its name. :)

Now every photo is different-50% on the Light layer may be too bright- or too dark- for the next photo. 85% on the Hue/Saturation layer may be wayyyyyyyyyyy too saturated. That’s what’s great about layers. You don’t have to do the exact same thing for every single photo, because no two photos are exactly alike. I do almost always at least set the Soft Light layer back to 33% or less though- even if I leave the other two layers alone.

Now what else can we do? I think this photo could be a little warmer… in the Layers palette, click on the Background layer. Now play a new action, from set 2 of The Pioneer Woman actions, called Warmer. When the Warmer layer is at 100%, it’s a little too warm- but change the opacity to 44% and we have this:

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Ahhh- Perfect. We’ve lightly highlighted her sweet rosy cheeks, those gorgeous red curls, and her stunning blue eyes- without making it look too fake and over processed.

Now we could certainly stop here, and I do recommend you Save the photo at this point and also create a Snapshot (click on the History tab and then click on the little camera to create a snapshot of your image as it is right now- so that way, no matter what you do to the picture after this, you can always come back to this point, as long as you don’t close the photo.)

free intro to photoshop tutorial

But while we’re here, let’s have a little more fun. :) In the Layers palette, click on the little arrow next to the Fresh & Colorful folder to close it. Then, from set 2 of The Pioneer Woman actions, play the Seventies action.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Oh goodness gracious- so sweet! So pink! So Valentiney. Meep. Open up the Fresh & Colorful folder and play around with the layers again. I set the Soft Light layer to 0% here. Click on the Hue/Saturation layer and click CTRL-J for a double saturation boost. Click on the eye next to the layer to hide it if you don’t like it. When you love it, definitely save it and take another snapshot! :)

How about Black & White? In the History tab, go back to the first snapshot you created, Snapshot 1.  Then play PW’s B & W from the first set, adjust the Light layer like it says to do when the window pops up, and then click Play again to finish the action.

free intro to photoshop tutorial

Classic. I adjusted the Quick Edge Burn layer to 44% here.

So that’s it! If this was your first time editing a photo in Photoshop, congrats! Thanks for following along! :)

Effectively using layers is one of the most basic, but most important Photoshop tools you can equip yourself with. Actions are great, but without the ability to edit them specifically for your photo- you’re just kinda stuck with the basic, cookie-cutter look- and that may not always work. So now, hopefully, after this tutorial, you can achieve the customized look you want for your photo- everytime! :)

Thanks for looking! :)