3 must-know Photoshop tricks for beginners

Keep these up your sleeve

I’ve been using Photoshop for a long time. Like since Photoshop 2.0. That’s not CS2 or CC that’s TWO DOT O. I don’t think it was even an Adobe product back then! In the years since, I’ve gobbled up knowledge at Photoshop conferences, and stood in the aisle at Barnes & Noble, frantically jotting down Photoshop tricks from Scott Kelby’s Hot Tips books — remember those? Well, Photoshop has come a long way, and in that time I’ve tucked away a few must-know Photoshop tricks.

The three Photoshop tricks I’m sharing with you today have been so useful that I’ve pulled them out of my sleeve nearly every day of my design career. They’ve become so second nature in my workflow that I’m surprised when a designer friend is looking over my shoulder and says, “Hey! How did you do that?!”

I’m always thrilled to share, so let’s dig in!

Trick #1: Make things BIGGER with the crop tool

You’re probably shaking your head right now thinking, “Um, Sarah, the crop tool is for cropping. Which means it makes things smaller, not larger, right?” Well guess what? Not true! Actually it is true, but it’s also true that you can crop things larger.

This example file is one of the mockup template files that I teach people to use in their Etsy shops. I want to make my design area larger so I can insert a frame into the scene, next to the champagne glasses.

Resizing the “old” way (Photoshop menu)

If you want to make your image bigger the old fashioned way, here’s what you do:

1. Gather your original image.

Photoshop Resizing Original

2. Go up to the menu and select Image > Canvas Size.

Photoshop Resizing Canvas Size

The Canvas size window pops up.

Photoshop Resizing Canvas Size

3. Estimate how big you want your canvas to be, and type that into the width and height.

Photoshop Width Height

Then you get your result … and realize you estimated wrong and it’s too large.

Photoshop Resizing Too Big

4. Use your crop tool to fix it.

Then you’re ready to finalize your design. This is an acceptable way of adjusting canvas size — unless you’re in a hurry. Then it’s one step too many!

Resizing the “new” way (crop tool)

If you use the cropping technique all you have to do is hit “C” on your keyboard (to get the crop tool), grab a corner or an edge, and drag it out to wherever you want. The image is instantly larger. Nice!

1. Press “C” on keyboard to get your cropping tool (or choose from left toolbar).

Photoshop Tricks Crop Tool

2. Drag out from corners and edges until desired size.

Photoshop Tricks Drag Edge

Done! Now you can finalize your lovely new layout.

Photoshop Tricks Crop Tool Final

Trick #2: Save time and effort with Smart Objects

Next on my must-know list of Photoshop Tricks is Smart Objects. This is one of the most amazing features of any program that I use. I’d pay the monthly Creative Cloud fee for just this feature alone if I had to. Adobe defines smart objects like so:

“Smart Objects preserve an image’s source content with all its original characteristics, enabling you to perform nondestructive editing to the layer.”

What this really means is that you can create a special layer in your document that has filters applied to it, or blurring, or weird angles and perspectives, and then replace the image in that layer with a new one with just a few mouse clicks.

For example: say you want to switch out the image showing on the monitor in this design.

Photoshop Tricks Smart Objects

When you first created this design, you brought in a screenshot and angled it, and added effects to it so it looked great in the scene. If you aren’t using Smart Objects, then you have to do these steps all over again:

1. Bring screenshot into design and use transform tool to reduce size.

Photoshop Reduce Size

2. Transform to change angle.

Photoshop Change Angle

3. Transform to alter perspective.

Photoshop Alter Perspective

4. Apply any additional effects, and then you’re done.

Photoshop Add Effects

We don’t want to have to repeat these steps with every new screenshot that comes along. There’s an easier way! If your screen is a smart object, all you have to do to change out the image is:

1. Double-click to open the smart object.

Photoshop Tricks Click Smart Object

2. Paste in your new design.

 Photoshop Tricks Paste Design

3. Hit save.

Photoshop Tricks Save Smart Object

4. Close your smart object tab.

Photoshop Tricks Close Smart Object

And you’re done!

Photoshop Tricks Smart Object Final

Trick #3: Save out all your design ideas FAST with Layer Comps

Have you ever worked on a design and come up with oh, about 500 ideas for how it should look? Then you make, oh about 1,000 layer combinations for those ideas? Then when you go to show your ideas to your client (or yourself), you can’t remember which layers to turn on and off to see your 500 designs? Yeah. Me, too.

This is where Layer Comps come to the rescue. Layer Comps allow you to click once to turn on and off all the necessary layers to show your designs. You can make a layer comp for every design iteration you have tossed into your layers palette :D

This is useful for two reasons:

  1. Now you can quickly view your design iterations by clicking on them in the Layer Comps palette and letting Photoshop turn on and off the requisite layers for you.
  2. And you can even use Photoshop automation to save out all the Layer Comps to a folder for you so you can send them to a client for review!

For example, this document has six layers in it, showcasing my six designs.

Photoshop Layers Palette
Layers palette
Photoshop Designs
My designs

We want to be able to click through each of those designs without turning on and off layer visibility on each layer. So the first step is to make layer comps for each of them.

1. Turn on your layers palette by going to Window > Layer Comps.

Photoshop Tricks Layer Comps

2. Turn on visibility for the first layer (“Layout 1”) by clicking the “eye” icon next to it.

3. In the Layer Comps menu, click the little dog-eared page icon that’s next to the trashcan to make a new Layer Comp.

4. Click in the box to name it.

We’ll call it “Layout 1” to match the Layer name. Now it will appear in your Layer Comps palette.

Photoshop Tricks Layer Name

5. Repeat this step until you have six layer comps representing the six layers.

Photoshop Tricks Repeat Layers

Now when you want to see a layout, just click it in the layer comps and it will turn off the visibility of the layer you’re on (ie: Layout 6), and turn on the visibility of the layer you want to see. (ie: Layout 2):

Photoshop Tricks Layer Visibility

You can see how this is a speedier way to see different iterations of your designs. But the excitement doesn’t stop here — you can also have Photoshop automatically save all your designs out to a folder with just a click or two.

Saving out Layer Comps

1. Go to File > Export > Layer Comps to Files, and choose a folder for them to save into.

Photoshop Export Layer Comps

2. Then hit Run and sit back while Photoshop does all the work.

Photoshop Run Layer Comps

All the files export into the folder you chose, ready and waiting for you!

Photoshop File Export

Share your Photoshop tricks

So what do you think? Will you be cropping your images larger and saving your design iterations with the help of Layer Comps? Or perhaps you see a sudden need to turn everything into a Smart Object? Share in the comments if you do – I’d love to see what you come up with for Photoshop tricks of your own!

Also published on Medium.