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As with all unfamiliar and complex programs, the newbie to PhotoShop can find that it is confusing as to just what changes to images are actually possible, and therefore his abilities to show his photos at their best are limited. Even someone who has been using PhotoShop for some time will continue to be surprised at the next trick that PhotoShop has up its sleeve. Until you have built up a collection of techniques, you will not be able to process your photographs to their best advantage. It is very important that the newbie realises this simple truth, and takes active steps to improve his knowledge, as otherwise you could find yourself discarding images that could otherwise be winners.
When photographs have been taken and imported, and you start assessing whether the photo is useable, you need to know just what can be done to change or improve it before you can make an informed decision. Some techniques that PhotoShop can provide are nothing short of miraculous in their ability to recover an otherwise unuseable image. One example of this is the Shadow/Highlights tool, found at Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlights. An image that appears sunk into the background shadows, or lost in the highlights can be brought back to its full prominence. The Shadow/Highlights tool is one that many photographers use routinely, but unless you have discovered it, you may never know how useful it can be.
What can be done about this lack of awareness? Reading Tutorials can help, even if you do not follow them closely at that time. The most useful thing is to know what actually is available, and what changes are possible - it is then relatively easy to find out *how* to do it. Why do so many people only read the PhotoShop 'Help' guide when they need help? There are a huge amount of resources in there, so it is most useful to make the Help Guide your regular reading.
There are some other resources on this site that can help. See my Retouch Workflow Tutorial for a suggested PhotoShop Workflow. This covers the typical steps that I use when tackling a new image, and may contain some ideas that you are not familiar with. Perhaps you can write something that suits you, too. I'd suggest making a list of possible changes to a photo that you have made and have found useful, then glance at this list from time to time when seeking inspiration with a difficult image. After all, can anyone really remember what all of those filters do, or the neat ways to adjust things, especially if you haven't used PhotoShop for a few months?
There are many more resources on the web, but as always, the challenge is to find them. An internet search will only return pages based on the keywords that you type in, so try a variety of ways to define the problem, using a variety of different key phrases. Build up a bookmark library of sites that are important to you, and check out the suggestions of others on the Photo Forums that you visit. Ask for help on the Forums: people are always happy to share their own favorite techniques with others.
So what are the basics of photo manipulation? I'd start with lightning, darkening, color balance, color choice, color saturation, image blurring, or sharpening. All of this can be done globally or selectively: if the latter then you will need to know what areas of the image can be selected, and how to actually do it. Selections can be made with a variety of tools, and can be based on color, luminance, or shape. Special tools are also available that can help with selections. More advanced manipulation makes use of image distortion - this might be to correct a perspective misalignment, or to introduce a distortion to add prominence or emphasis to an area of the image. The Filter Gallery can be helpful to show what the standard filters will do.
I'll finish this page by reminding you that our personal photo-processing knowledge is always increasing. Likewise, the programs available and their technical competency is always increasing as well. We can never predict the capabilities of the next program to come along, so therefore it is important not to discard images just because you can't make anything out of them today. We may even find that a section of the image can be incorporated in another one. Storage is relatively cheap these days, so its always worth hanging on to whichever images have any kind of a useable section. You will then need to find a way to locate these images again, though! Try the next of my Tutorials: Organising Your Photos for help with this as well.
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