Top Non-Destructive Photoshop Techniques

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The creative process is not a linear one. As artists and designers, we often set off in one direction only to decide that the proper solution lies somewhere else completely. Unfortunately, many of the creative software packages we use (Photoshop in particular) can be pretty unforgiving when in comes to making changes late in the game.

Sure, we’ve got “Undo” for a quick change of heart, but often we don’t realize we need to make an adjustment until several steps (or days) later. Luckily, Photoshop has some great features built in that allow us to work in ways that protect our precious pixels—truly freeing us to do our best work.

In this video post, I’ll show you some of my favorite techniques and tools for keeping your files flexible, including Smart Objects, Smart Filters, Layer Styles, Adjustment Layers, Masks and more. The approaches shown in this video should provide a solid starting point. But like anything in Photoshop, there is no “one right way” to approach it. The key is to find the method that best supports your workflow so please feel free to add your favorite non-destructive tricks in the comments section below!


Designing or editing photos is a pretty organic process. Allowing yourself to make edits to your document that don’t affect the original pixels provide you with a lot of flexibility when making decisions throughout your design process.

Chime In With Additional Tools And Techniques!

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Adrian is an Interactive Creative Director and Principal at Pushstart Creative, a multidisciplinary agency focused on the convergence of physical product, interactive technology and brand experience. While much of his current work is focused on research, strategy development, and UX he will always have a passion for pushing pixels. Stop by designtaylor.com or find Adrian on Twitter.

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  1. 1

    Nice tricks!
    Thanks!

    4
  2. 2

    That was awesome! A good brush up on masks for me really.

    1
  3. 3

    new and useful for designers! Brushes of all kinds are always useful

    -2
  4. 4

    Great video, Adrian. Thank you. Adding smart filters, such as the blur effect in your example, opened my eyes and will bring some added ease to my work.

    I might mention that whenever working with multiple layers in Photoshop, be sure to label your layers as you go. It is quite easy, at least for me, to get lost in a mountain of layer masks and adjustment layers and not remember what is what. It definitely pays off to take the 5 seconds needed to put a name to each new layer created.

    6
    • 5

      One of my tasks at work is to evaluate potential incoming designers. If the layers in their psds aren’t reasonably labelled and organized they have zero chance of being hired. So, yes, yes, yes, and yes again — it definitely pays off to keep organized as you work. Start those good habits early whether you’re a dabbling hobbyist, a dazzling professional, or somewhere in between!

      3
    • 6

      I would point out that select too + alt + right click selects layers from the canvas. Not to say that this is a replacement for labels and folders, but it helps navigating around.

      0
  5. 8

    Awesome tips! Really helpful!

    0
  6. 9

    One tip that can be useful is when using adjustment layers such as curves or levels in a layer set. The default blending mode for layer sets is “Pass Through” which allows the curves or other adjustment layers to affect all layers beneath. If you make the layer set blending mode “normal” the adjustment layers will only affect layers within the layer set.

    Also, when adding weight using curves (adding equal amounts of all channels), setting the blending mode on the curve layer to “Luminosity” will keep all of the colors in balance.

    5
  7. 11

    Thank you very much Adrian.

    1
  8. 12

    I’ll admit, I’d been ignoring smart masks & filters until I watched this video.

    As usual, I’m left wondering why I waited so long to pay attention.

    Thanks!

    2
  9. 13

    Using gradients within layer styles or actual drawing them can limit you when it comes to dithering and gradient shapes. I find myself using gradient layers more and more (Layer>New Fill Layer>Gradient). My only complaint is that I often find the dialog doesn’t let you scale high or low enough. Also using clipping layers and effects helps me reduce the number of internal layer groups (Hold AltOption & click in between two layers).

    0
  10. 14

    Video doesn’t work with my htc sensation :(
    Error : bo h246

    -3
  11. 15

    I love video tutorials! thanks!

    0
  12. 16

    Nicely done. Learned a new trick or two in there. Thanks.

    0
  13. 17

    Very helpful video, thanks.

    0
  14. 18

    Nice tutorial, dynamic layer are indeed really powerful.
    With a pattern layer as noise, it’s even more non-destructive, in case of scaling or re-size. Also take less action.
    There is also feather for vector mask (mask window) that really helps for non-destructive mask/shapes.

    1
  15. 19

    I always scare of editing photo in Photoshop. I felt that if I did something wrong for many steps I have to undo manythings and redo manythings also. This article encorage me to feel free with Photoshop again. Thank you for the new techniques.

    0
  16. 20

    Fantastic. Great refresher on technique.

    0
  17. 21

    Wow that was awesome man…. :)

    0
  18. 22

    I normally work on this non-destruction approach but this article have some very good tips which I think will refine my work flow for this approach.

    Thanks Adrian for the article. Please post some more articles like this, which are rarely found on any other place.

    0
  19. 23

    Great Tutorial :-) … Thanks for Sharing <3

    0
  20. 24

    Aravind M Potadar

    March 13, 2012 6:39 am

    This is Awesome!!! Really it will save lot of time while editing photos. It will be great if you share the tutorial of creating icons with Vector shapes :)

    0
  21. 25

    Great tutorial – I’ve been using most of these techniques for years, but you still gave me some fantastic ideas that hadn’t occurred to me. Props.

    0
  22. 26

    Jordy Ringeling

    March 13, 2012 9:20 pm

    The first thing I do when I get behind a new copy of Photoshop is hitting CMD/ctrl+K and set the History cache to 200 instead of 20 (:

    6
  23. 27

    Adrian, I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to share your expertise. You packed a lot of info in a short space of time…and I understood it! Heading over to a project of mine to practice!

    0
  24. 28

    Thanks for sharing… Really Helpful.

    0
  25. 29

    The principles of industrial photoshoping – for PROs piece of cake – but it is important for the freshers! Good one anyway.

    -4
  26. 30

    With every layout I’m starting I try to to keep all the settings editable. Sometimes it’s sad that we don’t have such abillities like in AfterEffects with its editable parametric settings of an effect. Why do we still have to rendera Lensflare, Blurreffect or … to the image instead of having a layer with all the filter settings? And why can’t we still edit the origin of the radial blur inside the effectsettings? Since when? Photoshop 8? Photoshop is great but I’m still missing some improvements. It looks like Adobe is focused on UI-Design instead of pimping the tool.

    2
  27. 31

    great tutorial to teach photo editing with photoshop! thank you.

    1
  28. 32

    Thanks for the positive feedback! I’m hoping to share more technique in the future. I did want underscore Joseph’s comment about naming your layers and groups, the sooner you get in that habit the better, this becomes especially critical when collaborating with a team.

    3
  29. 33

    Thank you so much mate!

    1
  30. 34

    Great tutorial! I love how you’ve packed a lot of helpful information into a short video! Thanks a lot!

    0
  31. 35

    Thanks! Very helpful.

    1
  32. 36

    Great tutorial Adrian! I find these techniques really handy too… I’m on CS5 now but I remember running into a lot of problems with smart objects in CS3 because you can’t link the mask directly to the smart objects because they were pretty new then… a good way around this problem is to make sure you put the smart object into a group folder. Then if you select said folder you can move the smart object without having to worry about your smart objects mask slipping, I couldn’t tell you how many times I got into trouble because my mask slipped.

    A very well hidden non destructive technique is actually in your history panel I think it has been in there since at least CS2 (don’t quote me on that though). If you go into the history panel then click on its options then go into ‘History Options…’ a dialogue box will pop up. Tick the Automatically Create New Snapshot When Saving, this comes in very handy especially if your working on multiple versions of the same file. It means you can go back to a previous save if either you overwrite something you shouldn’t or for example the client changes there mind and proffered a previous version. Be careful though if close the document all your auto-save snapshots will be lost. My advice is to always keep previous versions anyway, but it’s a good safety net.

    1
  33. 37

    Thanks for that. I’ve never used smart object before and always end up with lots of duplicate layers on my images. I’m going to give that a try.

    Appreciate your efforts here.

    0
  34. 38

    Thanks, man! It’s always good idea spread the non-destructive workflows

    0
  35. 39

    Thanks for a really useful tutorial!

    0
  36. 40

    I definitely was not utilizing the layer masks like I could/should be. Thanks for the info!

    0
  37. 41

    Thanks Adrian ! this is very useful and packed with techniques.

    0
  38. 42

    Great! I will try this on my pictures.

    0
  39. 43

    I was super excited the day that adjustments became non-destructive … yes a blessing!

    0

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