We are now surrounded by a huge selection of softwares that promise to do post-processing, photo editing, cataloguing, and even printing. These are really powerful programs. The controls and options provided are overwhelming to most. Photographers who say that they are good at any of these programs, do not use more than one-fourth of the capabilities and features provided. Add to that, the change in the interface, tools, and workflow across various versions and across different programs and we are faced with a true challenge. So how does one tame these? How does one master Adobe Photoshop / Adobe Lightroom / Gimp / Darktable or any of these magic creators?
When I was a kid, I was presented with an electronics kit. There was a circuit diagram and all the components (resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes etc) were provided in the kit. I made my first medium wave radio using these components. I enjoyed it thoroughly. Did I learn anything new? No. I just copied the circuit and connected the components. To me, the person who had made that circuit was a genius. I was just copying his work mindlessly. To date, I get impressed by people who make their own circuits. Connecting the components, soldering them and testing them though satisfying is not as impressive as creating one’s own circuits!
The same feeling comes to me when I watch YouTube videos or instructions on doing various miracles in these image editing programs. Someone has worked hard, provided screenshots and is now trying to spoon-feed it to me. Nice! I respect their hard work and admire the details in those instructions and screenshots. I however do not learn anything new when I use these self-help sources.
(A snow-capped peak with an approaching storm. Post-processed and edited on Affinity Photo)
No, this is not going to be a one-page article to make you instant masters. This is about how to go about becoming masters. These are some suggestions based on what I have realized over the years. I have these suggestions for those of you wanting to better your skills:
Limit your choice
Choose a program, or maybe a couple of programs that you like. I presently work with Gimp, Affinity Photo, Darktable and sometimes some open-source mini-programs. I am now trying to limit myself to Darktable, for the obvious reasons that it is free and powerful, though Affinity Photo still makes up a lot of my work. If you use more than two or three programs, you may be able to learn the common features of all but will never have enough confidence with any of those. True professionals stick to one program usually. Even two is a lot for them. Sigh!, if only Serif can come up with Affinity Photo for linux (even if paid version).
Get friendly with interface and workflow
Click a few test images and play around with the software. Learn to navigate around with ease. Opening new layers, switching brushes, reaching out for curves, sharpening, knowing the location of various tools in the tool-bars and menu should become second nature. If you still have to hunt for these tools in the interface, then you have a long way to go.
Learn the keyboard short-cuts for some of the common requirements. For the beginning, learn these keyboard shortcuts – changing the magnification of the image (zooming in and out), resizing image and cropping, saving the image. Next should be shortcuts for some of the common tools that you use frequently.
Understand the tools
Next comes doing the magic on your preferred software. A quick search on the internet will bring up a list of videos, blogs, lessons, etc on whatever you are looking for. Go through these but try to understand why and how for everything. Why is a new layer required? What does a mask do? Why should the value be set to whatever is recommended? What are the other options available with the tool? Do not be a slave to the screenshots and lessons. Instead, learn the principle behind them and then play around with that tool. Some tools and steps that I always recommend mastering are – Processing raw, Mastering the various aspects of layers (including how masks work), Curves Tool, and Sharpen related tools.
Things like stacking, creating panoramas, HDRs, etc. can be learned later on also. What is required is to understand the capabilities of the program and get comfortable with the required set of tools and steps.
Learn the ‘why’ and not just ‘how’
The other day, I wrote an article about getting flawless skin (Flawless Skin). Adding screenshots of the Surface-Blur tool (Adobe Photoshop) or Selective Gaussian Blur (Gimp) would have made my post more attractive but then I too would have committed the same mistake which I tell people to avoid. If you understand what this tool does, it becomes simple to use it to its maximum. All these tools and options have impressive potential waiting to be harnessed by the user. Learn the principles and then use these. Understand ‘why the tool works’ and not just how someone recommends to use it.
Let us talk about darkening the sky in a landscape. There are a few options that come to my mind. However, the question that needs to be answered is ‘Why’ use a layer to apply a graduated filter and not directly on to the image?
Learn to ask ‘Why’!
Build your fundamentals
Sometimes the principles go back to the film period. If you know why the tools were named ‘Dodge’ and ‘Burn’, using them comes intuitively to the user (Burning and Dodging). Understand what causes an image to be soft on the digital platform, before learning to use Sharpening (Sharpening).
Another small recommendation – don’t install any plug-ins as yet. Not even the ones that show magical results at the click of a button. Try to do it on your own using your own image editor. It’ll save you money in the short-term and the headache of plugins getting out-dated or not-supported in the future. A time will come when plugins will simply seem redundant.
At the end of the day, it is the foundation that matters. If your basic understanding is good, each of these image-editing programs can be a cakewalk.
Use the ‘help’
Thanks to the wonderful teams working day and nights to create these softwares, almost all of them now have well-documented user manuals. Sometimes these are optional. If you are installing Gimp, you might have to download the manual separately. In various other programs these are included by default. Whenever you face a problem and are unable to find your own way out, do not run for the self-help videos. Instead, explore the user manual, understand the workings. This is one way of making sure that our mind learns and the knowledge can be used in the future.
(Fog on marshy land. Nikon Df with Zeiss 135mm. Post-processed on Gimp.
More about photographing fog – Fog – Capturing its Mystery)
Refer to this for choosing your photo-editing software – Best Image-Editing Program