For quite a few years now at my live seminars I’ve been saying that one of the challenges with learning new techniques in Photoshop is that we are creatures of habit. We tend to do things the way we always have, because, well, we just do.

In an effort to figure out how to our Photoshop habits are formed I went looking for more information on habits, and found the following (interestingly enough on a blog by Ian Newby-Clark called “Creatures of Habit”).

“As creatures, we have needs. We need to eat, and so we eat. As rather intelligent and social creatures, we like to chat with one another, and so we do. We take turns and finish our conversations gracefully. And there are dozens and dozens more behaviors that are just as complicated, if not more so. How on Earth do we get all of this done?

That’s where habits come in. Habits help us through our day. When we are doing something that is habitual, we are not engaged in the task in the same way as when we are doing something that is not habitual. Just as an example, consider making breakfast in your own kitchen on any given weekday. Next time you do it, watch how effortlessly it happens. It’s not exactly like an out-of-body experience, but it’s close. Your movements through the kitchen are stereotyped. You grab the milk out of the fridge, turn toward the counter and give the door that little nudge you with your foot that you know it needs. If something is on your mind, you might not notice that you’re sitting at the table and munching on your second piece of toast until you’re halfway through it. Now, compare that to getting breakfast at a friend’s house. Maybe you’re dog sitting (you’re so nice!) Where’s the milk? The bread? Oh my goodness, so complicated!”

So true, right? At home we do things almost unconsciously, to some degree “going through the motions”.

I think for many of us, working in Photoshop (or that other program that starts with L) is the same. We open a photo and immediately go into our habitual methods of cloning, brightening, fixing or editing. Unfortunately, sometimes that may mean that we are missing out on methods that are faster, easier, more accurate or more flexible because these “new” techniques involve change.

Here’s an example: for years I’ve been preaching the non-destructive workflow idea, using layers and making merged copies rather than flattening. I would keep my layers and then press Command-Option-Shift E (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E) to make a merged copy, giving me the equivalent of a flattened layer but with all the layers below. Problem is, if you need to make any changes to the underlying layers you have to delete the merged layer and make a new one once you’ve made that changed. It works fine, and it’s definitely better that flattening.

So that’s been a habit of mine. Almost happens without thinking sometimes.

Then the other day it struck me that it would be much easier better faster more efficient to use a Smart Object. (In case you’ve been hiding under a rock – or Photoshop 7 – Smart Objects have been around the last few versions of Photoshop). So I tried taking multiple layers and making them into a Smart Object before continuing to edit. (Insert Angels singing sound here). Wow! So much simpler, and yet it took me a while (and some effort) to break my old habit and try this.

(Here’s a tutorial I recorded for the NAPP site, complete with one of my traditional goofy endings)

So the point is, where the pressure’s on to get something done, we tend to go with the tried-and-true ways: our habits. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, I encourage you – neigh, I challenge you – to try some of the new features of Photoshop (or even existing tools and techniques that you’ve never tried). Maybe you’ll find some great timesavers that will become part of your new work habits…until the next version of Photoshop comes along. Then maybe it’ll be time to break those habits and develop some new ones.

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  1. Hey Dave,

    Thanks so much for the post; the technique in the video is soooo what I needed.
    I’ve been using the ‘merge all layers above to the top’ command for a long time too and yep regularly have to start over to change something. I also make use of Smart Objects, but not in this way…until now!

    Great tip / technique which is I’m going to be using from here on in without any resistance to change I can tell you :)

    Thanks again and all the best to you,

  2. Dave, thanks for filling in! Loved the tip. Definitely something that will be incorporated right away.

  3. Very insightful article…unfortunately I don’t see myself using Smart Objects for a number of reasons..increases file size..eats up memory..many kinds of distortions and stuff cannot be applied as easily..gets a bit clunky..

  4. Hey Dave, is reading your blog daily a bad habit ? Just Kidding, I will read your next post tomorrow. Thanks

  5. I really love the Smart Object tutorial! I work with massive amounts of layers and this is so much, well, neater. To my way of thinking, this is the opposite of clunky! Very *cough* smart of you!

  6. Is the demo in Flash? I can not access it using a iPad.

  7. Hey Dave,
    The Smart Object tutorial is great like all of the other stuff you teach. In fact I teach a lot of your techniques to my students. The book (one that I wouldn’t choose) is very confusing, so I show it’s stuff and then demonstrate a Dave tutorial that is much easier to get the same or very similar results.
    Thanks man,

  8. Great tutorial. I got a kick out of the fact that he use “neigh” instead of “nay”. There’s so much that can be read into that. :)

  9. Smart, Dave! Very smart! Definitely something I’ll be using.
    Thanks, from your former colleague and fellow Ottawan.

    Trev J.

  10. Thanks Dave for taking the time to fill in on Scott’s blog. Very insightful, and very useful.

  11. Dave, That “creatures of habit” thing that we all have is also used in my field (law enforcement). We put our right sock on first every moring, etc. We catch the bad guys that way because they do the same things every day! Kind of off subject. Ask Brad M if he got my photos I sent him via text from today.

  12. That’s awesome and one of those “DUH” moments for me lol Thanks Dave!

  13. Thanks Dave! I honestly don’t use Smart Objects enough. Great technique.

  14. Wow! What a timesaver. Thanks. Ditto on not being able to view on iPad, but I know you guys are working on it.

  15. Nice! I rarely use smart objects, this’ll get me on the right track!

    I know you prefer to use that program that starts with a “B” over Lightroom, but you never really say why on PhotoshopTV. Now is your chance! :D

  16. They don’t call them
    without a reason…
    If breaking habit means getting smart…

  17. I handled tech support for a Mac CADD program back in the late 80’s. I noticed that most users developed a set of about a dozen tools that they used for everything.

    The tools would usually fit their standard work perfectly. But when they came across a new or maybe just a rare task, they would try to use those same tools to beat it into submission.

    Now working with different people I notice the same tendencies. When I answer the all too common question about which program I use to process my images they’re a bit put off by my extended answer.

  18. Hey!

    First, I just wanna say that I think you are amazing good at photoshop, and I hope I’m as good as you once! :D But I have a little question I hope you can answer me. :)

    I’m considering to buy me some DVDs where I can really learn Photoshop. Not only the usual editing of photos, but making cool effects and stuff (something like the pictures to Erik Johansson). But I do not know which videos are best for it. Preferably, it must be easy to understand for “derivation”, when I come from Norway, and my English is not on top. It would be very great if you could mention some good DVDs!

    Sincerely, Ingrid Marie, 15 years!

    • Hey!

      First, I just wanna say that I think you are amazing good at photoshop, and I hope I can become as good as you once! But I have a little question I hope you can answer me.

      I’m considering to buy me some DVDs where I can really learn Photoshop. Not only the usual editing of photos, but making cool effects and stuff (something like the pictures to Erik Johansson). But I do not know which videos are best for it. Preferably, it must be easy to understand for “derivation”, when I come from Norway, and my English is not on top. It would be very great if you could mention some good DVDs!

      Sincerely, Ingrid Marie, 15 years!

      • Ingrid, you can get all the training you need and the best anywhere by getting a subscription to ! Scott adds to them frequently (weekly I believe) and you can watch them over and over. They also remember where you stoped each episode. I am on my third year and they are a great learning tool and reference tool. Don’t worry, my English is teribble too and I have been here all my life (and thats been a long time ;) ).

  19. I don’t know about that “resistance to change” theory. In fact I think it’s a load of bunk. All that happened here is that you weren’t aware of the better technique. Same applies to me. I wasn’t aware that could be done with smart objects. Now that I am I will use it. Why would I resist it?

  20. Nice post Dave,
    I have been telling myself to use smart objects more and here is a great reason to do so. I have so many techniques I have been using forever, but I do keep adding new ones, when I see the need and that it will make my life easier!

    Thanks much!

  21. Thanks Dave. Exactly what I needed and keep it coming!
    I’m sitting on a bench (by the”beaches” in Toronto), looking across the lake and reading your post… what a beautiful day. Mmmmm… I just need that brew now.
    Thanks again.

  22. Very nice read. Informative. Time to get somethings on the right track ;) The video is real good.

  23. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. The video is short and sweet and contains much more information than I expected. Thanks for filling in for Scott!

  24. Well, nuts! It looks like I may have to rethink my “hiding under a rock” strategy re: smart objects. Not having to backtrack from the “snapshot layer” to fine tune or change something is very cool. Thank you!

  25. Dave, what a great post. As a college professor, I try to teach my photo students to experiment and learn new things every day. We all need to make sure we don’t get into a rut and resist learning new techniques be it in our workflow or our shooting. I believe as photographers we need to examine our work on a regular basis. Are we approaching a subject from the same perspective or are we “working” the photo and looking for different ways to tell the story? I try to reinforce that to my students all the time. Look for new ways of seeing.

    It’s works in our everyday lives too. Friday evening, my wife and I headed out for dinner at our regular restaurant. I had heard about Ken Toney’s restaurant – The Flounder, but never had eaten there. On a whim, we drove an extra 15 minutes to try someplace new. I mean to tell you, the food was Great!!

    Dave you’ve given some great advice – break out our regular photo habits and try something new in your workflow – you just might find a new “habit.”

  26. Dave,

    As always, your technique stuff is great.

    But, I want you to know how much I appreciated the philosophical/psychological underpinnings of the post. More important than one technique is the challenge to always look for a better alternative — in life and in Photoshop.



  27. Someone mentioned costs to using Smart objects – size and memory.
    Anybody able to suggest what these are likely to be / quantify them ?

    I don’t go back to re-edit that much so it may not be worth it in the end.

  28. Creature of habit!…..I’m using CS4 and still use ChOPs for stuff.

  29. Dave!! I have wondered how to deal with that for so long!! I would sometimes not use smart objects simply because if I later saw a blemish or something I missed, I thought I had to flatten it or something to be able to use tools unavailable on a smart object. I thought that ruined the whole idea of using smart objects, so I knew there MUST be a better way. You just showed it to me!! Thanks tons! Great fill in blog for Scott.

  30. Dave, your posts always challenge me to try something new. Now if you could just come up with a quick way to add an extra couple of hours to every day, I could try it all. Going to work on the Smart Object thing later today. Like you, I automatically tend to veer off into the comfortable zones where I can speed through the process. Thanks for giving me the nudge I needed.

  31. Awesome tips! I love articles like this that help you think in new and different ways!

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