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The Easy Guide To Basic Photoshop


Not so recently I was asked if I could create an Easy Guide to some basic photoshop processes. This is it. If you already use Photoshop as a matter of course, don’t bother reading on, as the four things I cover are:

  1. Straightening
  2. Cropping
  3. Spot removal
  4. Sharpening

As I said, basic. More to the point, the above processes are mostly used to “repair” a photograph before presenting it to the world. Cropping can also be used to massive creative effect, but this Guide steers clear of preaching in that regard [or at least tries to].

The aim is merely to explain in an accessible way how to use various Photoshop tools without being a layer or masking wizard.

The order in which I explain the above 4 repair jobs is deliberate. For example, any time you straighten an image you will then need to crop it, so why crop beforehand? I’ll demonstrate this below. Also, if you know a crop is going to be done, why not wait until you do it before removing any dust or other spots? It is often the case they get cropped out anyway.


For the purposes of this Guide I have used the Mac version of Photoshop Elements 6. The interface of the PC version is almost identical, so no worries there, and all the more advanced Photoshop programs have the same basic tools.

I tried real real hard to find an image of mine which needed ALL the corrections described in this Guide, and I almost succeeded. In the end, I found an image for which I added 3 black spots just for current purposes. Here is the image, with black spots:

Canon 5D Mark II, Canon EF 24-70mm f2.8L Lens at 24mm, ISO 200, 30 seconds at f14. Avalon Beach, Sydney


Let’s face it – it’s not easy to always achieve a straight horizon, but I have to say this – many times I have seen a great photograph on RB only to discount it because its creator has not straightened it. If you are presenting a landscape image as a quality photograph and you haven’t checked or corrected the horizon, in my book you are not serious enough about your work. It’s really disappointing because it is so easy to fix, even for tired old eyes like mine.

In Photoshop Elements I am aware of 2 ways to straighten an image. One is precise, the other a bit hit and miss. I’ll show you both.

I also chose my sample image to show you how to fix a curved horizon. This normally happens when you are shooting a landscape with a wide-angle lens. You can see the bend upwards in the middle of the horizon in my sample image. This is not a capture of the natural curvature of the Earth. It is caused by the wideness of lens choice and taking the shot with the lens pointing downwards (ie the centre of the image is below the line of the horizon). The wider the lens and the more you point the lens below the horizon, the greater the curvature.

But first, the straightening. As a general rule, I always straighten my image first before anything else, especially cropping. This is because the more you need to straighten an image, the bigger the area you will need to crop in any event. This also applies to an image with a curved horizon. You need to straighten it before you can flatten it. I’ll show you how to do this.

Method 1

This is the hit and miss method. It relies on the dedicated Straighten Tool, which is located in the left hand vertical tool bar, like so:

Alternately, press P on your keyboard to open the Straighten Tool. Your mouse should now look like a cross. Place the cross on the left hand side of the image at the horizon. Click and hold the mouse, and drag it across the horizon, all the way to the right hand side of the image. Don’t let go of the mouse button yet!

You should see a line going across the horizon. Move the mouse up and the line moves up. Move the mouse down and the line moves down. When you think you’ve got a horizontal line happening let go of the mouse. The image should then shift the horizon to that line.

As I said, a bit hit and miss. I don’t use this method.

Method 2

My preferred method of straightening an image is to rotate it using a ruler. First, from the top tool bar select View, then from the drop-down menu select Grid, like so:

Your image should now look like this:

Pretty busy isn’t it? The important thing is, though, the grid is perfectly straight so it allows you to see just how far off horizontal your horizon [or other feature] is, and it allows you to gauge how much to rotate the image. Let’s now enlarge the image to focus on the horizon and make it easier to see what we are doing. First, either press Z on your keyboard or click on the icon in the left vertical tool box that looks like a magnifying glass, like so:

Now increase the magnification by sliding the bar to bring the horizon to the edge of the window, like so:

Now, select Image from the top tool bar, then select Rotate from the drop-down menu, then select Custom from the second drop-down menu, like so:

Now, at this point you may notice that instead of Custom you can select Straighten and Crop Image or Straighten Image from the second drop-down menu. I do not recommend doing so. But if you really really want to see what happens if you do, go ahead, select one of them, then select Edit from the top tool bar and select Undo from the drop-down menu. (I told you so.)

OK, you’ve selected Custom. Good. A new window should open, like so:

There are no default settings for this tool. You do not now simply hit OK. The 0.5 Right settings you see in the above sample thumbnail are mine – from the last time I used the tool. You need to adjust the settings to suit each image you are straightening. The more you use this tool, the more accurate your first attempt will be as you become familiar with the magnitude of each 0.1 degree rotation.

But first, does the horizon need to be rotated Left or Right? Look again at my sample and answer that question:

Correct! It has to be rotated to the Left, so we click that option, like so:

Now the tricky bit – figuring out how much to rotate the image. When you first start using this tool, I recommend using a low rotation factor eg 0.2. Let’s try it with this image, like so:

Here is the result, showing the left hand side and the right hand side (up to where the rocks interrupt the horizon):

Hardly made a difference, didn’t it? By my calculation we need another 1.2 degree rotation Left. (Importantly, I am ignoring the centre of the image, which is curved, and concentrating on the edges. We’ll fix the curvature in a minute.)

So, again I select Image, Rotate and Custom and then 1.2, like so:

Here is the result:

Close enough! Notice the grey portions of the image at the side. That’s the result of rotating to straighten. Those grey bits will need to be cropped (see below), but we were going to have to do that anyway because of the vignetting in the corners.

Here’s a tip – normally I leave sharpening until last. But if you need a clearer horizon to see to be able to straighten it, then save a version of your image with it sharpened to the hilt. Straighten that version, and then apply the same Rotation factor to your original version.

Now we have to deal with the curvature. Fixing this will not upset your straight horizon.

Select Filter from the top tool bar, then from the drop-down menu select Correct Camera Distortion…, like so:

An entirely new window should open with your image and a new tool box, like so:

To flatten the curvature, we use the first slide bar, marked Remove Distortion. Play around with it. See the changes it makes, then settle on the amount. For this image, I settled on +15.00, like so:

With a setting of +15.00, the Correct Camera Distortion window now looks like this:

As you can see, it’s a dramatic effect on the whole image. Normally, a +15.00 adjustment is not necessary, and mostly I find the range of +1.00, +2.00, or +3.00 is sufficient.

Now select OK. I then remove the Grid by selecting View from the top tool bar and then Grid from the drop-down menu. My image now looks like this:

Is that horizon straight or what?! Now we can crop.


I tend to firstly crop only for the barest essentials, then secondly for creative effect once I know what I’ve got to “play with”.

The beauty of waiting until you use PE 6 (or similar) rather than, say, using Canon’s Digital Photo Professional [my RAW converter of choice] is that the crop tool comes with a centre point and middle centre points left and right and top and bottom.

To open the Crop tool, either press C on your keyboard or select the double rectangular icon from the left vertical tool menu that looks like the middle one of these three:

Click and hold the mouse over the top left-hand corner of the image and drag it all the way to the bottom right-corner of the image then let go of the mouse. You should now see those marching ants going around your image, like so:

Notice the bottom right icons?

The green tick you click when you are ready to accept the crop. The red circle you click when you want to cancel the crop tool.

Now we move each side of the image inwards until we’ve cropped out all the crap. We do this by hovering the mouse near a line of marching ants. When the mouse becomes an arrow pointing in both directions hold the mouse button down and drag the line of ants inwards until you are clear of the crap then let go the mouse. After doing this on all 4 sides, mine looks like this:

You’ll notice that’s a severe crop. This was caused mainly by the black corners on the image, a legacy of using the Lee Filter Holder on the wide angle 24-70mm at 24mm. Normally I try to avoid this appearing and will sometimes hand-hold the filters over the lens to do so.

But, more importantly, notice also that I am cropping:

  1. slightly more of the clouds at the top than the rock at the bottom. This is because I want the foreground to feature in the visual impact, so I adopt the Rule of Thirds to leave the sky roughly making up one third of the frame.
  1. the top left corner so that the narrow cloud line runs into the corner.
  1. that little pool on the bottom right out of frame as it detracts from the natural border of the rocks.

Ok, I go tick the green tick and this is what I am left with:


Spot removal

There are 2 basic methods of removing spots and dust and crap from an image, but first check that the spot is on the image and not on your monitor! [Been there, done that!]

Spot Healing Brush Tool

More often than not I find using the Spot Healing Brush Tool to be the easiest and quickest method.

Either press J on your keyboard or click on the Spot Healing Brush Tool icon in the left-hand vertical tool box. It looks like a Band Aid [sticking plaster], like so:

Your mouse should now look like a small circle. You will need to increase or decrease the diameter of this circle according to the size of the spot you want to remove. This is done by using the slide bar like so:

The trick is not to use too small a circle and not to use too big a circle. Position your circle over the spot to be removed and just leave a bit of space between the spot and the inside edge of the circle, but not too little or not too much, like so:

Click once on the mouse, Wallah! This is the result of using a really tight circle around the first black spot:

It just takes a bit of practice, and remember you can always Edit and Undo.

Clone Stamp Tool

This tool is a little trickier because you have to choose what part of the image to copy over the spot. With a clear and consistent sky it’s easy peasy, but for “busy” shots it ain’t. But the Clone Stamp Tool really comes in handy when the thing you want removed doesn’t have consistent space around it to use the Spot Healing Brush Tool. For example, did you notice that ship on the horizon, right under the sun?

It’s so far away its not readily discernible as a ship, and it detracts, so let’s remove it. However, because it is sitting on the horizon, I may not be able to get a “clear shot” to effectively use the Spot Healing Brush Tool. So let’s try the Clone Stamp. To use the tool, press S on your keyboard or select the icon from the left-hand tool box that looks like a rubber stamp a Postal worker might use, like so:

Tip – when you hover the mouse over the icon, it’s name appears. If you click on the name a Help window opens which tries to explain how to use the tool, with pretty pictures.

To use this tool, you again need to decide how much space to clone by sliding that toolbar. You then decide which part of the image you want to clone over the spot, in this case the bit of sky next to it! Hover the mouse at that point then select Option on your keyboard. A target should have temporarily appeared as your mouse pointer, like so:

Notice I am not too close to the ship when selecting which part of the image to use for the clone. This prevents part of the ship being included in that clone sample. Now move your circle over to the ship and click, or hold the mouse down and slide it evenly across the ship. The spot is cloned out of existence:

There are other means of removing extraneous material from an image, but they’re not basic so I won’t cover them here. This Guide is purely for the purpose of quick repair work.


After straightening, cropping, and spot removal, our sample image looks like this:

Now we’ll sharpen it, the coup de grace. I will describe 3 ways of doing this:

  1. Auto Sharpen
  2. Manual Sharpen
  3. High Filter

Auto Sharpen

The easiest. Select Enhance from the top tool bar, then Auto Sharpen from the drop-down menu, about a third of the way down, like so:

Go and make coffee or feed the kids, because that’s how long it will take to perform this function. You should be otherwise watching the slider creep across this box:

Happy with the result?

Compare the before Auto Sharpen with the after Auto Sharpen:



Now compare a close crop Before and After:



90% of the time, Auto Sharpen will produce the goods for you.

Manual Sharpen

For greater control over sharpening, however, instead of using Auto Sharpen, select Enhance from the top tool bar, then Adjust Sharpness… from the bottom of the drop-down menu, like so:

A new window should open, like so:

For now, just move the slider across to, say, 20%, then go and make another coffee or mow the lawn while you wait.

Now compare the unsharpened image with the sharpened at 20% version:


After – at 20%

Now compare the unsharpened image with the sharpened at 50% version:


After – at 50%

Somewhere along that slider you’ll find the sharpness you desire for your image. Play around with the other settings too. But be wary of over-sharpening – it will look artificial, it will introduce noise, and it will produce a halo around objects.

For this image I settled on 10%. It’s only a subtle difference:


After – at 10%

My sample image now looks like this:

High Pass Filter

A word of caution, if your original image is not well lit, the High Pass Filter will not improve it. The main use of the filter is to simply provide a better sharpening tool because it zeroes in on edges within the image, ie clear lines, so if the image is not lit well enough to delineate the edges, it won’t be as effective.

I have been researching and learning about the use of the High Pass Filter in Photoshop to give portraits that “wow” factor, and the range of its applications is very large.

My interest peaked when reading an article in the November 2009 issue of Digital SLR Photography about creating Hyper-real portraits. The published samples were stunning to say the least, and we ain’t talkin’ HDR here. Unfortunately, the self-proclaimed easy-to-follow tutorial included in the article contains many more than the listed 12 steps, involves such things as masking, eleventy-seven layers, channelling [the spirits of the Photoshop gods no doubt], soft brushes, dodging, and is expressed in a language that basically assumes you are already a Disciple. It lost me at Step 2.

Other on-line tutorials, including one elsewhere on RB, are much much shorter and confine themselves to the High Pass Filter, but the results change the realness of the image and make it abstract.

Then, lo and behold, Peter Marin uploaded a before-and-after outdoor portrait involving the High Pass Filter and, importantly, wrote 4 lines in his Description which succinctly sets out the same “quick” method I had read about but with one extra step. And I understood it.

What follows is a much-expanded step-by-step explanation of the method as summarised by Peter, with thumbnails of what you need to do and adjust. The results you can achieve won’t be as hyper-real as the shots in Digital SLR Photography but they will look better and with more body, and they won’t look abstract or HDR.

First, go over to the right Layers Palette, right click on the Background thumbnail and select Duplicate layer, like so:

A new window should appear, like so:

Click OK.

Your Layers Palette should look like this:

Now select Enhance from the top tool bar, then Adjust Colour from the drop-down menu, then Adjust Hue/Saturation from the next drop-down menu, like so:

A new window should open, like so:

Reduce the Saturation to -100 and click OK, like so:

You have just Desaturated your image. It should now look like this:

And the Tools Palette should look like this:

Cool. Now, select Filter from the top tool bar, then from near the bottom of the drop-down menu select Other, then select High Pass… from the second drop-down menu, like so:

A new window should open. Set the Radius to 100, like so:

Your image should now look something like this:

Now go over to the Tools Palette again. See the window with Normal as the first option? Click on the down-pointing arrow on the side and select Hard Light about halfway down the drop-down menu, like so:

Your image should now look something like this:

A bit harsh? That’s normal. All you need to do now is lower the Opacity in the Layers Palette to suit, eg 50%, like so:

This is the result of using Hard Light at 50% Opacity:

Once you’re happy with the right Opacity, right click on the Background copy thumbnail and select Flatten image at the bottom of the drop-down menu like so:

Your image can now be saved! OR ….

Leave your Opacity where it is but try Soft Light or Vivid Light or Linear Light before Flattening. They’ll all produce different results. For my sample image, I settled on this is Soft Light at 85% opacity:

Now let’s compare the original image with where we ended up after straightening, cropping, spot removal, and sharpening:



A bit better, don’t you think?

So there you go, four basic Photoshop steps to repair or basically improve your image. I hope you get something useful out of it!

If you got this far with this Tutorial, you may find these of interest as well:

The NEW and IMPROVED Easy Guide to Creating the Orton Effect using Photoshop
The Easy Guide to Creating Samples of Artwork on Redbubble – UPDATED
The Easy Guide to Creating Clickable Images on Redbubble
The Easy Guide to Creating Links on Redbubble
Mirror Lock-up – what it is & when to use it
The Easy Guide To Applying Motion Blur
The Easy Guide to Adding Clouds to an Image using Photoshop
Everything you want to know about RAW but are afraid to ask
The Easy Guide to Using a Tilt+Shift Lens



  1. Tutorial created 2 January 2010
  2. Edited 2 January 2010 for typos
  3. Edited 5 January 2010 to revise some wording for clarification
  4. Expanded February 2010 to include High Pass Filter process
  5. Updated 11 April 2010 to fix broken image links with entirely new samples and to revise, expand, and update explanations, including extra sample images

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