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Don’t destroy those pixels! Try these five non-destructive Photoshop techniques

Added on Friday 23rd of April 2010 05:16 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3/CS4

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Image editing techniques can enhance your digital photos or destroy them. For best results, stick to these top five non-destructive pixel-pushing methods.

Your pixels never did anything to hurt you, did they? You, on the other hand, are likely roughing them up every time you enhance an image. Directly adjusting color, contrast, or focus—all staples of image digital enhancement—physically alters your original data (i.e., munches your pixels). Now you may not really care all that much about your pixels now, but you will when you realize you’d like a “do over” and they shrug and say, “so sorry.” Fortunately, Photoshop has a whole host of techniques that fall under the category of non-destructive editing or NDE. These techniques allow you to make all the changes you want without ever touching your original data, and you can always go back and do touch-ups later.

1. Don’t slack! Make sure you back up your file

The simplest start, of course, is to make a backup of your file before the pixel plundering process begins. We highly recommend this practice, irrespective of whether you follow the remaining suggestions in this article. Next, always duplicate your background layer by dragging it onto the Create A New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel before doing anything else. By preserving that background layer, your Photoshop file will always contain the original pixels.

2. Love adjustment layers

You can find Photoshop’s image enhancing commands under Image > Adjustments from the main menu bar, as shown in Figure A. There are adjustments to fix contrast, color, exposure, convert to black and white, etc. This last adjustment, Black & White, is a great example of a problem with these adjustments. When you select the Black & White adjustment, Photoshop, with some settings from you, converts your image to black and white, throwing away all of the color information. Not only is the color information gone, but the conversion settings are also history.


There is a better way: Adjustment layers. Just above your Layers panel, and new to CS4, is the Adjustments panel shown in Figure B. If you don’t see it, select Window > Adjustments from the menu bar. Most of the adjustments listed under Image > Adjustments are available here. But the difference is that these are adjustment layers, not commands. When you select one, it shows up as a new layer in the Layers panel and its settings become available in the Adjustments panel, as shown in Figure C. Adjustment layers are also available in earlier versions of Photoshop. Click on the Create New Fill Or Adjustment Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel for a complete list.



Rather than actually adjusting pixels, an adjustment layer stores the adjustment instructions, pixel by pixel. The image displayed by Photoshop is as if the adjustment was performed. In fact, you can turn off visibility on the adjustment layer (by clicking on the eye icon) and the adjustment will disappear. Furthermore, if at some later time you wish to modify the settings for the adjustment layer, you can select that layer (assuming visibility is back on) and all of your original settings come back, available for tweaking. This is the essence of NDE. The original pixels are untouched and the original settings are always available.



Other articles of interest


If you’re looking for help in applying some of these great non-destructive editing techniques to your images, look no further! With your online access to our archives you can log on to our website and check out these great tutorials:

“Get used to CS4’s new Adjustments panel” (April 2009) located online at