Self-Directed Learning Project

Want to design a logo for your new start-up? Photoshop.

Want to remove a couple of other tourists from your photo in front of the Eiffel Tower? Photoshop.

Want to create a surreal photo montage just for fun? Photoshop.

As graphic design skills are incredibly useful both in school and in extracurricular activities, expertise in this program is becoming more and more common. My life would have been so much easier had I known to use Photoshop for brochures and posters, rather than agonizing over the limited formatting options in Microsoft Publisher.

It’s an incredibly powerful tool that I always wanted to know how to use, but never got around to learning. I kept starting to practice, completing one or two tutorials, then giving up. As soon as the project was introduced, I knew immediately that my goal would be to master the basics of the photo editing program.

And of course, part of me just wanted to make gorgeous lyric edits for Tumblr.

project summary

I wanted to learn to use four specific tools:

(1) brushes: brushes are a basic painting tool you can use to paint on any layer of your image. You can change the colour, size, hardness, and opacity of brushes to achieve the desired effect.

(2) blending modes: blending modes determine how a layer will blend with the layer below. For example, the Colour Burn blending mode makes the image darker and increases contrast.

(3) filters: filters are used to create various effects, like motion blur or watercolour.

(4) masking tool: the masking tool allows you to combine multiple images by hiding parts of a layer to reveal lower ones.

The second part of my project was to better learn to use the features of my camera. I’ve loved photography since I was in elementary school, so I was slightly ashamed that I still sometimes found myself thinking, “Wait, what’s ISO again?” I didn’t really follow anything photography principles – it was easier to just wing it.

my learning


On their own, the tools were pretty easy to figure out. The difficult part was combining them all to create various effects and make a scene look more realistic.

The first tutorial I did was meant to teach me to add texture to images. This gave me a lot of practice with colour channels, which are red, green, and blue channels created automatically. To be honest, before this tutorial, I had no idea they existed. I also experimented blending modes, looking at the effect of each one on my layers for future reference. Sadly, this one didn’t turn out too well – the clock is darker and its face looks slightly cracked, but the layers of cracked desert ground didn’t make it look nearly as textured as I intended. Looking back, I probably could have played with the adjustment layers a little more, changing the colour balance, saturation, and curves to fix the problem.

BEFORE                                              AFTER


I continued with a colour accent tutorial to practice using adjustment layers and brushes. It turned out to be pretty simple – all I had to do was reduce the saturation of the original photo, use a curves adjustment layer to obtain optimal contrast, and then use a soft black brush on the saturation adjustment to uncover the bright red bus. I love how this one turned out.

BEFORE                                             AFTER


My ultimate goal was to create a photo montage, so I made several as practice, featuring everything from ghosts in a warehouse, to fish flying over a mountain. They allowed me to learn about using masks and brushes to extract an image from its background and combine it with another, as well as using several tools, from gradients to filters, to create various effects.

The last project I did was creating a surreal ocean scene, with my cat in a shoe. I’m really proud of this since it’s not just a slight alteration to pre-existing photo, it’s a creation from scratch, mostly using my own photos. Click here to see a video depicting my editing process! For a project like this, it’s not enough to just follow the tutorial and hope for the best –  the changes to lighting, colours and positioning that have to be made depend on the chosen photos, so I had to use everything I’d learned about Photoshop to figure out how to manipulate the photo to make it look as realistic and appealing as possible. As long and difficult as it was, I had a lot of fun making this.

Ocean Scene copy


I spent the first week of winter break in Colombia, so I used the opportunity to practice my photography skills in an interesting new setting. Besides basic photography principles, I learned to better make use of Manual mode on my camera.

The ISO should be kept as low as possible to keep photos less grainy. The aperture controls not only the diameter of the lens opening, but the depth of the field of view. Along with aperture, the shutter speed controls how much light the camera lets in. Using these three simple facts (that I honestly should have learned years ago), my photos are now turning out much better.



Instead of mastering one new program, I ended up having to learn to use two. When I submitted my project proposal, I decided to present my original final product, the fruit of all my efforts, in the form of a fast-motion editing video, like the ones I see online all the time. At the time, this seemed like a simple, quick task – all I had to do was record my screen while editing and speed it up. Right?

Boy, was I wrong. Finding a good screen recorder is harder than it seems. All the really good ones with powerful editing capabilities you have to pay for and most of the free ones have recording time limits under 10 minutes. I ended up buying a yearly license for an amazing program, GoPlay Editor, which has a simple, intuitive user interface, clear instructions, and useful capabilities like splitting and merging audio and video, transitions, free audio downloads, and filters.

I didn’t expect that editing my video would take so long. I had to find and cut out all my mistakes and moment of hesitation, as well as edit the monotonous parts, like masking the shoe, kitten, and birds, so that the audience would only see the most important (and interesting) parts of the process.

At the time, this tedious splitting, deleting, and merging was annoying, but now, I’m glad I gained some experience with video editing using a program other than iMovie, which is unbelievably easy to use.

This assignment basically gave me the motivation to do something I have wanted to do for years, and I really enjoyed it.


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