The Destructive Workflow (Erase, Merge and Flatten)

Hi again folks! I’m happy to be back here on Scott’s blog and I thought I’d change it up a little this time. See, I took a look through some of Scott’s old blog posts and looked at some of the really popular ones. It seems you guys love it when he does that Q&A thing to himself, so I’m going to borrow (OK, steal) it for my guest post too. Here goes:

So Matt, Scott made this post seem really controversial. What’s the deal?
I’ve been toying around with the idea of this post for a while now. It first hit me about two Photoshop Worlds ago in Orlando when I had quite a few people ask me about how to follow a non-destructive editing workflow. I spoke for a while with one gentleman and asked him how many times he had to go back and change his work after he was done. He said, “Well… never really”.

Then, my idea was solidified at the last Photoshop World in Las Vegas when I taught a Photoshop Restoration class. In the class I use the Eraser tool and I flattened and merged layers a lot. After class I always look through my evaluations (usually right after the class if I can) to see how everyone felt about it. I came across an eval that told me I should be ashamed of myself for showing people such a destructive editing process. That’s when this idea was born. I mean, after all I was just showing people the way I actually work. Isn’t that what they came for? I don’t think people don’t want to see me teach a bunch of techniques and tools that I never use.

First off, please stop asking questions in your answers. That’s our job!
Sorry.

Are you the only one who feels this way?
Nope. What’s really interesting is that, at the same conference, Scott taught a retouching class (mind you, Scott and I had never had this discussion yet either). Retouching is full of places where you can try to keep a non-destructive document, or you can merge, erase and flatten like heck. Scott asked how many people worked with some type of art director or client that would (or could) continually push back on them to change their work after they’ve already submitted something. The results were really interesting. Two people (out of 800) raised their hand. I taught a class in San Francisco to 500 people last week, and asked the same question; four hands went up. So to answer your question, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way at all.

So what really is a non-destructive workflow?
Non-destructive seems to be a big buzz world these days. Throw the other buzzword, “workflow” on the end and you’ve got the uber buzzword. So what’s the big deal? Well, I think the idea behind non-destructive is a good one. You give yourself a way out. A way to change if you ever need to. The RAW format does a really good job at that because no matter what we do, we can’t permanently harm it. As a photographer I like that. It’s my negative and as long as I back it up, I know I’ll always have access to the original photo if I want.

That doesn’t sound so bad. Camera Raw seems to take care of all the non-destructive stuff for us. So why are you such a hater?

See, after we get out of camera raw, and into Photoshop, we get into all the other things that we may want to do with our photos. Retouching, skin softening, enhancing eyes, whitening teeth, removing crack pipes, changing the color of a shirt, removing a telephone wire… the list goes on. Are there ways to do that stuff non-destructively and save every layer at every point throughout the editing process? Sure there are. But do you really need to? Now that’s the big question.

Before we move on. Didn’t we warn you about asking questions in your answers. We’re giving Scott full permission to pick on you in the next episode of Photoshop User TV!
(Cat sound!!!) I’m sorry! Last time, I promise.

No sweat. Don’t let it happen again though. Now…Does that mean you use the Eraser tool?
Yep, I erase constantly. When I want something gone from part of a layer I erase it permanently. I could use a layer mask and do it all non-destructively, but if I know I’m not going to want it back then it’s history. Gone. Deleted. Erased. You may be thinking that I must inevitably erase something that I didn’t want to at some point, and wish I could get it back, right? Yep. I do. Ya know what I do when that happens though? Undo. I get 20 of them by default with Photoshop, and can increase that number if I want to.

Surely you don’t merge and flatten your layers too?

There’s no badge of honor for creating a Photoshop document with 167 layers in it. In fact, I like to work fast and for me, the less layers the faster I (and Photoshop) move. Sometimes when I work on a portrait, I duplicate a layer and blur it to soften the skin a little. Then I’ll ERASE the blur away from the areas that I want to stay crisp (eyes, mouth, hair, etc…). If I’m happy with the results then I press Cmd+E to merge that duplicate layer down with the original. Might I want to go back and un-blur the skin? I suppose – but I never have. No one has ever asked me to do that so why save that layer. It makes the Layer’s palette harder to navigate and it makes my PSD file size larger, which, in the end, takes longer for my computer to process.

Any other crazy destructive things you do to your photos?
Well there is one. I’ll warn you though. This one elicits death threats from some people out there and I’m sure I’ll get some hate-mail from it, but 90% of the time I open my files in 8-bit mode and I don’t care one bit what my histogram looks like because of it. You may be thinking, “Hey, that’s not erasing or merging or anything destructive like that!”. Ah, but it is. You’re tossing away a lot of image data (I hate the word “data” when it comes to photography by the way) when you use 8-bit. Is it data that you need? Probably not. I’ve got prints on the wall that no one can tell me if they were shot in Raw or JPEG, Canon or Nikon or edited in 8 or 16-bit mode. Unless I’ve got a major exposure or color correction to do in Photoshop (which I usually don’t since I’ve already done that in Lightroom or Camera Raw) I open as an 8-bit file. And if I do decide that I’ve got a photo that needs some extra lovin’, you know what? I’m smart enough to know this and, in those cases, I open the file in Photoshop as a 16-bit image. So what does 8-bit buy me? File size mainly. It’s half the size of the 16-bit file and with these huge megapixel cameras these days, I’ll take everything I can get to help me work faster rather then non-destructively.

Let me get this straight Matt, didn’t you write the Layers book?
Yep I did. In fact, you can buy it here if you’d like :-)

The real irony here is that I teach this non-destructive editing stuff. I teach it A LOT! My Layers book turned out to be my best selling book ever by a pretty large margin, so it must have struck a chord somewhere.

I gotta tell ya’ Matt. It sounds somewhat counter productive that your Layers book and blog post here are at odds with each other.

Yeah, I agree. Here’s the thing: I still believe wholeheartedly in the premise behind that book. Why? Because it makes me a ton of money (I’m totally kidding!). Seriously, I believe in it because I think Layers are still the key to everything in Photoshop. Even when I work destructively in Photoshop, a layer is always involved. See, layers and masks don’t go away in my destructive workflow. My need to preserve them at all costs does.

So what you’re saying is I should learn Photoshop like I learn many things in life. I need to learn the rules and know why they’re there. Then I need to learn when to break them. If I’m just starting out in Photoshop then I’m probably better off trying to save as much as I can because I’m still learning my way around. As I become more comfortable though, I shouldn’t feel like I have to work the same way I was taught in the first place?
Yes, exactly.

Alright, to sum this all up, you’re telling me to go forth and destroy pixels?!
No! I am not telling you to go forth and destroy, so please please please don’t go telling everyone “Matt Kloskowski said to erase, merge and flatten”. I’m not saying that at all. All I’m saying is to think about it. This is what I do because it works for me. Think about the type of work you’re in and who your clients are. Do they often request changes? If you don’t have clients (or your client is yourself) then consider how many times you actually go back and edit the images that you worked so hard to non-destructively change. This will vary for everyone and only you know the answer. But if that answer is “Never” or “Not very often” then at least consider whether it’s worth the hassle and extra file size to try to do everything non-destructively.

Is that it?
Almost. Two things.
1) Please do me a big favor and leave a comment here. You won’t hurt my feelings if you don’t agree – I’m looking for a realistic gauge to see how you folks feel about the topic. Is it a “Yeah, you’re right!” or a “Dude, you’re crazy. I live for non-destructivity!” reaction? I’m honestly interested to see what the general consensus is here.
2) I’ve included a short 5-minute video below to show you an example of my destructive workflow. Watch it and see if it makes sense. Finally, thanks again for reading. Even if you don’t agree I hope it’s at least got you thinking. Now let the hate-mail/comments begin!

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