Today we’re going to look at one of the most important decisions you can make in your Photoshop workflow. It’s one of those pesky ‘best practices’ that sound so tedious at first, but can make a huge difference in how effective and efficient your editing is. In this case, the best practice we’re referring to is using what is known as a “non-destructive workflow”.

If that phrase makes no sense to you at all, never fear – it’s actually fairly simple. You may remember from one of our previous posts that a ‘workflow’ is just a jargon name for the standard techniques that you use every time when doing your image editing. The other part is a bit more complex, but not much.

Destructive editing makes permanent changes to the pixels in your images, ones that you can’t undo without using the History tool or the Undo command. Of course, if you close your file and return to it later, you don’t have the option to use either of these tools, and the only way to undo those edits is to start from scratch!

This is probably the way you started learning to use Photoshop if you were self-taught, just because you didn’t know there was an alternative. Generally, it’s a bad idea, and it’s actually a bit hard to say why they leave destructive editing options in Photoshop at all. There is the argument that destructive editing keeps file sizes small, but with a modern computer that’s not really an issue any more.

Non-destructive editing means that the edits you make to your images are not permanent, and can be changed at any time. Adjustment layers, Smart Objects, Smart Filters, Clipping Masks, and Layer Masks are all examples of non-destructive editing techniques. They might take an extra step or two to implement in your images, but the extra second of effort is worth it in the long run.

Why, you ask? There are (at least) four great reasons to use a non-destructive workflow:

Easy Time Travel

Well, maybe not time travel, exactly, but it’s close. Often when you’re starting new editing projects, you’re not entirely sure which is the best route to take. You may find yourself experimenting with various potential edits, and this is one of the areas where non-destructive edits are most beneficial.

Sure, you can get away with using the History panel and the Undo command up to a certain point, but eventually you’ll go so far down one potential path that it becomes next to impossible to find the step where you first started. After all, one ‘Clone Stamp Tool’ entry looks the same as another in that panel, and when you’ve got 60 of them you’ll waste a lot of time going through them finding the right one.

Even if you have the History panel set to its maximum number of states (1000 in Photoshop CC), you’ll find that you quickly either run out of scratch disk space, memory, or patience for finding the right place to return to. Non-destructive edits remove the need for this kind of wastefulness, and let you get right down to business, whenever that happens to be.

Great Flexibility

Working on separate layers gives you an impressive degree of flexibility when it comes to how you arrange your edits. It may not seem necessary for a simple contrast adjustment, but it’s a great habit to get into for all your editing, and you never know when you’ll want to come back and tweak that Curves adjustment just a little bit.

As you start incorporating more complex edits including clone stamping, healing brush edits and other direct changes to your image, you’ll begin to see how having the ability to swap the order of your layers can make a big difference in your workflow.

This is especially true when you want to compare different edits, or if you want to make multiple edits to a single image such as a colour edit and a black and white edit. With a non-destructive edit, you can simply delete either adjustment or hide it with a single click, instead of all that tedious re-editing.

Impressive Control

Non-destructive editing also gives you an immense level of control over how your edits affect your image, and just how much of it. If you’re using Adjustment layers, a quickly painted layer mask allows you to edit specific sections of your image, and if you want to change it later on you simply adjust the layer mask to include or exclude other areas of the image.

Even if you’re doing something like close-cropping (also known as isolation cropping), using a Clipping Mask will allow you to adjust your close-cropping later on. Accidentally notice that you cropped out one of your subject’s ears? Someone missing a finger? It’s a snap to fix, with a non-destructive workflow. Just tweak the mask, and you’re ready to keep on editing.

The Final is Never the Final

If you’re like most people in the creative industries, your image editing folders are probably starting to look something like this:


Hilarious, because I know for a fact that I’ve been there many times both as a designer and a photographer, but it’s also an excellent illustration of a point: what seems like the final version right now rarely ever is the actual final version.

When you’re working as fine art photographer you’re more or less your own boss, but you may still find that you’re returning to past works as your skillset improves. Steve pointed this out earlier on his personal blog in the post titled ‘Photoshop Mulligan‘, and you’ll find that it happens to you too as your experience grows.

Non-destructive editing makes it a breeze to go back and re-work your old shots. Adjustment layers and Smart Filters can be quickly tweaked to reflect your new perspective, and you’ll thank your past self for deciding to use a non-destructive workflow.