Breaking Bad Habits in Photoshop

I've been a regular Photoshop user for almost a decade, which makes me feel old. But Photoshop 1.0 came out in 1990 which means some of you were learning to think in Layers while I was listening to NKOTB and wearing slap bracelets. After ten years of Photoshop use you'd think I'd be a pro. And yeah, I'm decent. But I've got some lousy techniques deeply ingrained in my psyche. Many are amateur methods I learned as a beginner and should have outgrown. Some are just outdated ways of working with an ever-improving piece of software. They all impact my speed, efficiency, and quality. But it's never too late to address a bad habit, so here are a few I'm working on curbing:

Not organizing layers and folders from the start

Bad habit: Often, I jump into a project with so much enthusiasm and excitement that I can't be bothered to name my layers or create folders. That's fine when the file you're working on is 10-20 easily recognizable layers. But when it creeps up to 100+ mini bits with their own layer and absolutely no semantics, it becomes ridiculous. I find myself clicking like crazy trying to find the layer holding a the 1px solid line seperator named "Layer 121". Not cool, and definitely not efficient. Easy fix: Impose order form the start with a few basic folders. Mine typically include Header, Main, Sidebar, Footer and Background. If I'm working off of wireframes I label the folders to match them. I always keep these base folders in all-caps, with subfolders labeled in lowercase. Once I have nicely named folders I try to keep the momentum going by naming my layers as I create them. It only takes a few extra seconds. If other designers or developers are going to be working with your files, this type of structure will save everyone some headaches.

Using the Marquee tool to create basic shapes

Bad habit: Before Photoshop 6, you made all your basic shapes with the Marquee tool. When you wanted to resize the shape without getting fuzzy edges, you had to do a whole bunch of futzing or just make a brand new one. If you wanted to change the color of the object, you had to do more silly futzing. Embarrassing as it is to admit, up until a few weeks ago I was still doing this and it was a major p.i.t.a. Easy fix: Start using the Shape tools. It's formed by using a layer mask and simulates vector art and will give you the crisp, clean edges you're looking for. As long as you don't rasterize it you can easily change the color by double-clicking, and you can scale your shapes without losing quality. Photoshop CS3 has quite a bit of built-in vector goodness, so use it!

Erasing instead of masking

Bad habit: I STILL catch myself making a duplicate layer of an image and removing the background with the Eraser tool while keeping the original copy in an invisible layer as a "backup". I didn't learn how to use Masking until a few years ago for some reason. In fact, I was masking in Flash and AfterEffects well before I got around to it in Photoshop. No idea why. Laziness is my best guess. Easy fix: No need to have extra layers or backup copies - now I always make a mask. It's easy and undoable. You can use the same tools you'd use to delete, and you can reuse that mask on other layers as well.

Not saving swatches and styles

Bad habit: Instead of saving my color palette as swatches, which takes all of two seconds, I end up using the color picker to grab colors from elements I've already created. This results in lots of missed grabs and slightly-off colors. Also, instead of saving styles to the palette for reuse, I often copy/paste layer styles. Easy fix: Web designs always have a pretty clear color palette and set of styles so it makes sense to save them as you go along. For one thing, they're more easily reused. Not to mention it ensures your colors are consistent across the board. If you've got a color you want in your Foreground Color palette, just click on the "New Swatch" icon to add it to your swatch palette. The Styles palette works the same way.

Not taking advantage of Smart Filters

Bad habit: Smart filters were one of the biggest bestest additions to CS3, yet I rarely remember to use them. You can often find me applying a blur to something, only to kick myself later for doing it the old-fashioned undoable way. Easy fix: Smart Filters are nondestructive, meaning they leave your original image intact and re-editable. Once you've created a filter, you can save and copy/paste it as well - so there's no need to remember the exact settings to use it on other layers. To use Smart Filters, select the layer you you want to work on. Then go to the Filters Menu and select "Convert to Smart Filters". It'll make this layer a Smart Object, another something we should all be using.

...Or Smart Objects

Bad Habit: I make duplicate copies of some type of element for a web design - for instance, a set of table data that I want to repeat 10 times in the layout. When I decide I want to tweak something about the style or layout of that element, I have to repeat the change 10 times.Pfffft. Easy fix: If I make these things Smart Objects instead of duplicates, I can change it once and have the edits be applied to all instances. Another reason to use Smart Filters is that you can transform and alter them without ruining the original information - whether it's a vector or an image.

Not Using Shortcuts

Bad habit: I use the mouse far more than I should. With this one it's not really laziness. I've got a dodgy memory so I have trouble remembering all the various shortcuts. Easy fix: I haven't found one yet, although this keyboard skin would be perfect for me: http://photojojo.com/store/awesomeness/photo-app-keyboards/ I could go on forever, but those are definitely my worst Photoshop habits. What are yours?

Mindy is a managing art director in our Durham, NC, office. She emphasizes clarity, communication, and connection for client such as The Nature Conservancy.

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