Understanding non-destructive workflows in Photoshop

By Dan LeFebvre on December 9, 2015

We've all heard someone refer to Photoshopping. As a software developer, you know you've made something special when your software becomes a mainstream verb.

To say Photoshop is a versatile tool is an understatement. In the web design and development world, it's used for designs, wireframes and mockups. In the creative world, it's used for sketching, painting and texturing for 3D models.

Few tools can do what Photoshop can do.

And yet, it's not just the tools and features which make Photoshop so powerful. It's the techniques you use behind the tool use that help make Photoshop as powerful as it is.

Perhaps most fundamental to working efficiently in Photoshop is the concept of working non-destructively.

Working non-destructively isn't always intuitive

Photoshop is a common tool for developing wireframes and interfaces for the web, software and mobile apps.

As you've probably guessed, working non-destructively in Photoshop is the opposite of working destructively. What isn't quite so obvious is the workflows it takes to work non-destructively.

In my career, I've had the chance to work alongside creatives, developers, IT pros and engineers. Despite the diversified backgrounds, almost everyone I've come across uses Photoshop at some point.

And I've noticed nearly everyone starts off using Photoshop destructively. This is probably because working completely non-destructively often means an extra step or two.

So what exactly do I mean when I say non-destructive and destructive workflows?

Destructive vs. non-destructive

Most of today's movies and games start with concept art that comes from Photoshop.

When you hear the term "destructive" in most creative programs, it means you're changing the pixels in an irreversable way. In some cases, this is actually something you'll want for the sake of speed or a certain effect.

In most cases, though, working destructively can come back to bite you later on. After all, one universal truth across all industries is the first version is never the final version.

When you're working destructively in Photoshop, you're making changes to image in such a way that you can't get back to the original. Unless, of course, you've got a copy of the original backed up somewhere and you use it to start from scratch.

It's about being flexible

Engineers often turn to Photoshop for cleaning up plans and designs.

So am I saying you don't need backups if you work non-destructively? No, of course not. Backing up is always a good thing.

Instead, working non-destructively is all about flexibility. Let's look at a simple example:

A destructive workflow changes the pixel values of the actual layer, making it difficult to get back to the original without reverting to a backup or starting over.
Note: There's no audio in the video.

In the clip above, you can see all it takes to white balance the photo is apply an adjustment from Photoshop's menu. But if you look closely, there's only one layer.

This means to make the changes, Photoshop is actually changing the color values of the pixels on that layer. It also means the only way to get back to the original photo is to load up my backed up photo.

Let's hope I didn't accidentally save over it with my altered version.

In contrast to the workflow above, here's how you can do the same thing non-destructively:

With a non-destructive workflow, you'll notice the changes are done through a new layer instead of modifying layer with the image.
Note: There's no audio in the video.

You'll notice the process is a little different, but the end results are similar. Because all of my color adjustments are on a new layer, I only need to turn that layer off to get back to my original image.

With a non-destructive workflow, you can always get back to the original. This example is turning on and off the white balance adjustment we made earlier.
Note: There's no audio in the video.

No need to start from scratch with my original image, because I can always reverse the edits I've made.

The simple example above uses adjustment layers, but Photoshop offers a lot of tools to work non-destructively.

Tools for working non-destructively

There's way too many tools and techniques to cover in a single article, but here's some you should be using if you're not already.


Layers sit at the core of Photoshop's non-destructive workflows. To master Photoshop, you need to master layers.

Perhaps one of the most important features to a non-destructive workflow is one you've probably already used. Layers. You're working non-destructively with layers when you add a new layer to add any healing, painting or really any edits. This helps keep your original image intact. Learn more about layers in this video.

Layer masks

Layer masks use a black to white map to show or hide part of the layer. In the image above you'll see the image toggle to the layer mask.

Another powerful feature of layers is the ability to add a mask to them. Using layer masks lets you show or hide certain parts of a layer. This gives you a similar result to erasing, except instead of actually deleting the pixels you're just hiding them.

As you've probably guessed, if you've hidden part of a layer using a mask you can show it again at any time. That's a lot more flexible than actually erasing them. Learn more about layer masks here.

Adjustment layers

Adjustment layers affect anything beneath them. They're great for applying color corrections or tweaks non-destructively.

You saw an example of adjustment layers above, but you can do a lot more than just white balance a photo with them. Use adjustment layers to make your color corrections and tweaks on a new layer. Check out some of the cool things you can do with adjustment layers in this video.

Clipping masks

Clipping masks are a layer that is clipped inside of another layer. You can use them to add edits or touchups non-destructively.

What do you do when you want something to get nested inside one of your layers? Use a clipping mask. With this handy feature, you can hide the pixels from one layer if they go beyond the pixels of the layer beneath it. Sort of like a layer mask, but a lot faster in many situations. Learn more about clipping masks here.

Smart Objects

You can store any number of layers and effects in Smart Objects. It's like a PSD inside a PSD.

If Christopher Nolan used non-destructive workflow on Inception, he would've used Smart Objects. Smart Objects are images within images.

Have you ever resized something in Photoshop, then decided you wanted it back to its original size only to find your great image turn into a pixelated mess when you scale it back up? Smart Objects are the fix.

When you convert your layer(s) into a Smart Object, Photoshop nests the original inside of the Smart Object. Learn all about Smart Objects in this video.

Smart Filters

A filter applied to a Smart Object is a Smart Filter. You can adjust these again after applying them for a non-destructive workflow.

When you have a Smart Object and apply a normal filter to it, Photoshop turns it into a Smart Filter. With Smart Filters, you can always go back and change, turn off or remove the filter from the Smart Object. Add a little too much blur? Not a problem with Smart Filters. Learn how you can take advantage of them in this video.

In conclusion

Whew. That's a lot to take in. When you're new to Photoshop, a non-destructive workflow is a bit of an abstract concept. Trust me, the more you look for ways to work non-destructively, the more your future self will thank you.

Especially when you or your client wants a change made to your design.

Another great use I've found for working non-destructively is as a backup of sorts. There's a lot of times when I'm creating something new, but I want to pull something from a project I did before.

Working non-destructively, I can repurpose assets from the other project for my new project. While not all projects need this, having that option can be a great time saver when you're on a tight deadline.

No need to start from scratch. This saves a ton of time in the long run. When you're working non-destructively, you're covered for just about anything that comes your way.

Got any questions or tricks you've learned about working non-destructively in Photoshop? Drop them in the comments below!

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Dan LeFebvre

is the Creative Content Marketing Manager at Pluralsight. With a background in 3D and motion graphics, he's also a Pluralsight author of multiple creative courses. Find him on Twitter @danlefeb.