Destructive vs Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop

You don’t want to destroy your photos, do you? When you hear the words “destructive editing,” they can sound a little scary. Especially if you don’t know what’s going on or what types of edits are “destroying” your images. 

Hey there, I’m Cara! If you’ve read some of my tutorials here on Photoshop Buzz, you’ve probably noticed me mentioning this concept. I often give you tips about how to perform a certain edit non-destructively. 

And this brings us to an important point. There are ways to edit both destructively and non-destructively in Photoshop. To save yourself a lot of time and frustration, it’s good to know how to make all or at least most of your edits non-destructive. 

So let’s take a closer look at destructive vs non-destructive editing in Photoshop!

What is Destructive Editing?

First, let’s understand what we’re talking about. Destructive editing makes permanent changes to the base image. When you delete the background, it’s gone because you deleted it and there is nothing to get back. 

And that might be fine because you want to delete it. But, what happens if (after performing a bunch of other edits) you notice that your selection wasn’t perfect in a small area? Perhaps your subject’s finger got cut off or part of their hair is missing. 

Because you deleted the background, you can’t recover that little piece that you need. 

Your only option is to undo all the edits you made afterward to go back to the point where you deleted the background. Then you’ll have to redo everything again (while keeping your fingers crossed that you didn’t miss anything else.

Furthermore, Photoshop only lets you undo a certain number of times (50 by default). If you’ve already made more than 50 edits, you can’t go back. Your only option may be to revert the image and start over completely. 

What is Non-Destructive Editing?

To save you from this awful fate, you should always edit non-destructively. This entails placing edits on new layers, using layer masks, smart objects, and other tools that work non-destructively. 

When your edits are on separate layers, you can simply go back and choose the layer you want to adjust. You can even delete the layer to remove the edit entirely, which means no undoing is required. 

Back to our earlier example, let’s look at removing a background by masking it off with a layer mask instead of deleting it. All the information is still there, it’s just being hidden by the layer mask. 

If you then discover that missing finger, you can simply adjust the layer mask to bring back the missing portion that you need. 

This is the power of non-destructive editing. You don’t make permanent changes to the image, so you can always come back and adjust (or remove) your edit later. 

Editing Non-Destructively in Photoshop

Does Photoshop edit destructively or non-destructively? It does both. So how do you know your edits are being made non-destructively? 

In some cases, you have to know what you’re doing to ensure that Photoshop is making the edits non-destructively. This is why I mention this concept in many of my tutorials. I’ll remind you (or show you) how to ensure the specific technique we’re using is happening non-destructively. 

We’ll look at the basics here to give you an overall idea. 

Working on a New Layer

One way to ensure that your edits are happening non-destructively is to work on a new layer. Before you start your technique, either click the new layer button at the bottom of the layer’s panel or press Ctrl + J or Command + J to make a copy of your image.

How do you know when to choose which? Well, if you need to interact with elements in the image, you’ll need to make a copy. 

For example, when you want to use the stamp tool to clone parts of the image. If you create an empty layer to work with, Photoshop doesn’t have any information from the image to pull. You’ll need a copy of the image. 

If you’re adding something on top of the image, you can work in a new layer. For example, when you’re painting elements with a brush. You don’t need information from the image, you’re adding something on top. 

Adjustment Layers

Now this is something you need to pay attention to when you’re using your adjustment tools. There are multiple ways to access certain tools in Photoshop, but one way works destructively while another way automatically creates a new layer first. 

Let’s look closer at an example. Let’s say we want to use the Levels adjustment. We can get there by going to Image, Adjustments, and choosing Levels, or pressing Ctrl + L or Command + L.

However, notice there is no new layer. Any changes you make with this Levels tool will be applied destructively to the original image. 

But what if you access this tool through the Layer menu (New Adjustment Layer, Levels) or through the Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel? 

The system will automatically create a new layer for the edits to be applied non-destructively. 

Several adjustment layers work this way so be sure to keep an eye out. 

Using Layer Masks

What if you want to remove parts of the image? Or perhaps you want to make a copy of the image, but only want certain parts to show through?

You can use layer masks to keep this non-destructive. 

Here I’ve selected the subject and added a layer mask. Remember, black conceals and white reveals. So we can see black covering the background in the layer mask while the white subject is the only part of the image we can still see. 

At any time, you can click on the layer mask and make adjustments to it. The background hasn’t been deleted, it is merely hidden behind a mask.

Filters with Smart Objects 

What about when you add filters to your photos? You can create a copy of the image and apply the filter to the copy. However, once you apply the filter, you can’t access the settings again to make adjustments. You’d have to delete the filtered layer and start over with a new one. 

However, you can make this edit fully adjustable by turning your layer into a smart object first. Right-click on the layer and choose Convert to Smart Object

You’ll see this little icon appear in the bottom right corner of the thumbnail to alert you that this layer is now a smart object.

Now, let’s apply the Gaussian blur filter again. 

But, you’ll notice something different in the Layers panel this time. There’s a Smart Filters section nestled under the layer. Under that, you’ll see the filter(s) listed that you have applied. At any time you can double-click that filter to reopen the settings and make adjustments. 

This works with all the filters, including the Camera Raw filter. With this filter, you can make Lightroom-like adjustments to your images without leaving Photoshop. This is a huge benefit for those already comfortable in Lightroom. 

Don’t Destroy Your Images!

So there you have it. Pretty much all Photoshop edits can be made non-destructively, though you may need to know the workaround.

However, this is an extremely useful skill to cultivate. Editing non-destructively will save you a ton of time and frustration in the long run. 

Ready to dive into something exciting you can do with Photoshop and put your new knowledge to good use? Check out how to create composite images here.

About Cara Koch
Cara fell in love with photography circa 2014 and has been exploring all corners of the imagery world ever since. When she felt limited by Lightroom, she dove headfirst into Photoshop to learn how to create the images she wanted.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *