7 Minute Read

Design 101: How to Work Non-Destructively In Photoshop

When you’re editing photos in Photoshop for your design work, you might be using the magic wand tool and eraser. Maybe you use the lasso tool as well for editing photos. What you don’t know is that you might be destroying your photo if you’re making these edits directly to the photo. Make sure you don’t by using nondestructive editing. In this article, I’ll explain the difference between destructive and nondestructive editing and how to edit non-destructively.


Destructive Editing vs. Nondestructive Editing

Non-destructive Editing is making edits to a photo that happens on the image in a separate layer so both the edited image and original image are saved. This allows the user to go back to the original image at any time since it hasn’t been edited directly.

Destructive Editing is making direct edits to a photo. Any edits you make to the photo save over the original image, and once saved, you can’t go back to the original image since it has been saved over.

By definition, non-destructive editing is the best route for editing photos. This way, you can make as many edits and as many different types of edits to your photo you’d like without damaging the original.


Could you be using Photoshop destructively? Learn how to use it to your advantage: Click To Tweet


The Essentials of Nondestructive Editing

There are many different ways to edit non-destructively in Photoshop. Before starting any nondestructive editing, I like to have the original image hidden and have a duplicate image used for all non-destructive edits. Create a duplicate image on a separate layer and hide your original before beginning.

The first essential method of nondestructive editing is to simply place a pixel mask over your layer, which allows you to adjust the brush to any setting you’d like to mask or “paint away” what you don’t want to be visible. To do this, select your layer and click the mask icon at the bottom of your layers panel. Now set your brush to your desired settings and use it to mask out what you’d like. Remember that masking relates to RGB channels. Design.Tutsplus.com explains this as:


“White = Visible / Black = Not Visible. Any shade of Gray is a form of partial visibility (Transparency) and it relates to the spectrum range. For example, the closer the shade of gray is to white the more visible it will be from the mask. Dark gray will be less visible because it’s closer to black.”


For quick adjustments, you can use adjustment layers. These types of layers are another essential tool to use for nondestructive edits. According to Adobe, “adjustment layers apply color and tonal adjustments to an image without permanently changing pixel values.“ To make adjustment layers, simply click “Layer” from the top menu bar, then select “New Adjustment Layer” from the drop-down menu and select any adjustment you’d like to make. Once selected, you will be prompted to name the layer and set the color, mode and opacity of it. After that, you can make your adjustments in this separate nondestructive layer.


What you don’t know is that you might be destroying your picture in Photoshop. Click To Tweet


Vector Masks and Other Non-Destructive Editing Techniques

Besides the essential pixel mask, another type of mask you can use for nondestructive editing is a vector mask. These masks use the pen tool and paths rather than painting with the brush tool for masking.

In a vector mask, the content inside the layer is clipped out and becomes a “resolution independent path.” To learn how to create these types of masks here’s a tutorial video about creating vector masks, which also shows how to combine pixel and vector masks as well.


One last nondestructive editing technique I recently found is that you can retouch your work with the clone stamp, healing brush and spot healing brush on separate layers. Simply create a new layer by clicking the icon “Create a new layer” at the bottom of the layers panel. Next, under the options for the tool you’re using, select “All Layers” for the “Sample” option (see the reference photo to the left). This will allow you to use these tools on a separate layer non-destructively.

For a complete list of nondestructive editing techniques, visit this Adobe page and go through each of the tutorial links under the “Adobe also recommends” section to learn how to do them!


Using non-destructive editing techniques in Photoshop will not only save your original photo from being damaged, but it will save you time as well. You can have as many different adjustment layers and masks as you’d like and make them visible or non-visible when you want them to. You can even go back into these layers and make additional adjustments while your original photo stays intact. Use these layers and masks to your advantage so you can export multiple versions of your photo from this single file by making layers visible and non-visible before exporting. Make nondestructive editing a part of your workflow today to save time and increase your productivity!