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10 Photo Manipulation Tips for Beginners


10 photo manipulation tips for beginnersThe  initial steps of learning Photoshop is all about experimentation – creative play that familiarises the user with the software and learning through trial and error. If you would like to further develop your skills and produce visually pleasing work, there are a few simple tips that can aid in your progression. The following advice was devised by viewing photo manipulation submissions on DeviantArt and identifying common traits affecting work produced by beginners.


1. Use of Filters

To the un-initiated the artistic filters on Photoshop may seem like canned magic, but to everyone else they are easy to identify as a ‘one-click’ effect. The main issue here is the garish visuals that are often generated, coupled with the fact that they require no real thought in the execution. With the exception of Blur, Noise and Sharpen – generally filters should be avoided as they cheapen the work you have produced.

Alongside Filters, another common offender in the production of bad art is the heavy use of layer styles eg. Emboss, Outer Glow efftects etc. Layer styles can be an amazing resource, but apply them with moderation and think about reducing the opacity when necessary so the effect is less prominent. Mind those lens flares too!


Offensive use of Stroke and Outer Glow

2. Magic Wand / Quick Selection Tools

Jagged, unclean edges in your manipulation ruin any chance of delivering a believable illusion. The Magic Wand / Quick Selection tools just arent able to remove objects with the finesse required to create pleasing work. Using the eraser to remove parts of an image is another big no no, as you have very limited control and cannot go back and amend anything if you decide to change something later down the line. To remove objects it is best to use a combination of Layer Masks and the Pen Tool. Layer Masks are great for general blending and removing objects with softer edges whereas the Pen Tool is more suited for objects with more defined, harder edges. See  Pen Tool Video Tutorial for more.


3. Quality of Stock

Low-res, badly shot stock will result in low-res, badly shot manipulations; putting it bluntly, garbage in = garbage out. Being more selective with the resources you use will most definitely yield higher quality results. This is a point of such importance, it has it’s own article: Selecting Stock Photography.


Resolution comparison


4. Levels Tweak

To ensure the elements of your photo manipulation are unified in your piece, usually you will have to amend the contrast of the stock images you use. There are a number of ways achieving this, my preferred method is the use of Levels (however Curves does the job quite well too). When the various parts of your manipulation are matched in this way, the piece becomes more of a coherent whole as opposed to a series of photographs pasted together. Levels can also help iron out any tonal issues you may have with your stock too, check out the Levels Video Tutorial for more info.


5. Focal Point

Many of the principles of traditional media hold true in Digital Art; one of the main issues I encountered during my research was artwork that was too ‘busy’ or generally chaotic. The human eye likes to lock onto focal points and navigate around a piece – complex work is great, but there needs to be some sense of hierachy. To simplify, can the viewer clearly determine the foreground objects from the background? Do the various elements merge to become a giant pixel soup?

Creating a sense of depth is one method for creating stronger focal points. A great rule of thumb to take into mind when starting out  is that the closer an object is in the foreground, the sharper it will be – further back, generally things become more blurred / hazy. This creates the illusion of depth and allows the eye to lock on to the defining elements of the piece.  The example below by Irene Langholm (WilderWein77) has an ethereal quality, however the piece maintains a strong visual impact. The foreground items are sharper with greater tonal density, allowing the eye  to identify a greater sense of realism.


The Silent Murder by WilderWein77

6. Over Saturation

Colourful images are great, but sometimes users can go overboard with the intensity. A repeat offender in photo manipulation submissions was lack of control with colour, with differing tones and over-saturation. A simple method for beginners to reign in their colour is the use of a Hue / Saturation adjustment layer.  Paying more attention to the overall colour will elevate your work and you can sidestep the trap many hobbyists fall into. To set a Hue / Saturation adjustment layer go: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue / Saturation, and adjust as necessary through experimentation (check out the Adjustment Layers tutorial for more info). The beauty of adjustment layers is that you can return to the Hue / Saturation adjustment and update the values at any time.

7. Matching Sharpness

Compositing photos usually entails the use of images with differing sharpness. Being conscious of matching the various elements of your manipulation in terms of their clarity helps bind the image together as a single whole. It may be the case that you simply have to apply a simple Gaussian Blur if one element is overwhelmingly sharp in comparison to the rest of the piece. More often than not the strength of the blur only has to be tiny in order to get the desired effect (To access go: Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set the value you require).

At times the opposite may be true, and you may need to sharpen an element. My preferred method is to use the filter ‘Unsharp Mask’, which can be accessed by: Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.

Here is a great example of coherent visual elements with a sense of unity. Lirim by octobre-rouge:


Lirim by octobre-rouge


8. Pure Black

Getting to grips with lighting is pretty tricky to start off with, and a trait that many beginners are prone to is creating shadows with a large soft-edged brush, set to black. The problem with this is that the black destroys the colour information underneath, making the shadows look unnatural and fake. This is something that I personally struggled with myself when starting out, but theres a number of simple methods to create more realistic shadows.

One such method, which is arguably the most straight-forward is to use a darker tone of the desired area as opposed to using black. To do this, sample the colour of the area you would like to have shadow using the Eyedropper Tool (I), make the selected colour darker in tone (double clicking the foreground colour swatch and selecting a darker shade in the dialog box), with that colour paint in your shadows using your new colour on a new layer set to multiply.


9. Brushes

As with Filters and Layer Styles, Photoshop custom brushes seem to be quite prevalent in their over-use. One problem with brushes is that they often lose their image integrity in larger image sizes and become ‘jaggy’ or pixellated, thus lowering the quality of the manip. Sparkles, shapes, light swishes, grungey illustrations and other effects should be used in moderation; if the custom brush makes up the focal point of your manipulation, you are showcasing the work of the brush designer as opposed to your own creative vision. I use brushes, they’re great for texturing – but ideally they should be used to enhance the piece you are producing as opposed to constituting the main image itself.


10. Patience

To achieve a higher level of work, it is often the long-route that you have to take. Many of the points outlined above are related to ‘quick-fix’ workflows, automatic selections and instant effects etc. The great work you see online is usually the result of the artist doing things manually, where they have maximum control over the results they wish to achieve. Starting out, it is tricky to get your head round the ‘better‘ way of doing things as there is so much to take in – but spending a little more time with the overall presentation will get you on the righteous path to digital excellence.

People argue that talent is the overriding factor in creative success, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. It’s the most boring advice anyone can receive, but it does all literally boil down to practice.



Hopefully the points above will assist you in avoiding many of the pitfalls hobbyists fall into; and remember – art is subjective, so you don’t have to adhere to any scheme of work. These are merely some of the technical factors that differentiate amateur work from the more accomplished, helpful if you wished to take your digital art to the next level.

Feel free to share any of your own tips in the comments section below, and be sure to repost / retweet so others may find this article.

Conzz 8-)

Follow on Twitter >> @Conzpiracy

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14 Responses to “10 Photo Manipulation Tips for Beginners”

  1. Irene says:

    Ace article. I am so glad you brought up the importance of a focal point because I find that is highly underestimated in photomanipulations. Also, spending enough time and effort for a quality piece of work would seem apparent, but sadly I see a lot of ‘rushed’ work out there. But there is no quick fix in taking care of details, and details is everything.

  2. i follow every single tutorial and article and i found them all very useful!

  3. Bogdaniki` says:

    Interesting :-?

  4. Fantastic tips. I’ll be forwarding this post on to several aspiring Photoshoppers I know :)

  5. Sandra says:

    I’m so glad, that i found your page with all these useful articles!!:)

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  8. Gammy says:

    This is so useful to me. I basically learn photoshop on my own and trying new things. I will recommend this to newbies like me

  9. [...] • 10 Photo Manipulation Tips for Beginners >> Avoid the pitfalls that many hobbyists fall into and instantly improve your photo manipulation skills. Ten bitesize tips to get you on your way. [...]

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