When you’re trying to learn a skill (however long that road may be), there are just going to be certain pieces of advice, certain pieces of information, that will make much greater impacts than others. This is as applicable in learning languages, as it is in learning something like Photoshop.
If you speak English natively, but want to learn another Latin-based language, learning where pronouns and adjectives go, relative to your subject/noun in sentence structure, will take you far. If you want to be in the top one or two percent of all Photoshop users, to be in that percentile requires detailed knowledge acquired over time and likely, detailed study. But if you want understanding, the difference between Flow and Opacity, how each works, and when to use what, will really take you very far in your retouching.
It’s just one of those things that’s so simple it often gets overlooked by beginners, but make no mistake that knowing how to wield the brush tool effectively, or indeed many other tools like the Clone Stamp or Eraser Tools, where flow and opacity can be adjusted, is a huge boon for your knowledge base. At their very root, they are just settings for the Brush Tool, which you’ll know is one of (if not the most), used tool in Photoshop, and refer to how the Brush Tool ‘paints’. The video below will explain how they work and when to use them in more detail, but here’s how Aaron Nace from Phlearn describes the two:
- Flow allows you to build up ink over and over again. A lot like ink on a piece of paper. The more times you go over something with Flow as your setting while using your Brush Tool in Photoshop, the more ink you are building. Imagine the effect a marker has on a piece of paper. Every stroke lays down more.
- Opacity is more of a computer generated way of painting. If you painted a canvas with 50% Opacity, you couldn’t lay more ink down on your canvas until you picked up your brush and applied it again. This method can be super useful in some cases, in others, it might be extremely limiting.
When you think of using the Brush Tool, especially if you’re a portrait shooter, understand that altering your Flow and Opacity settings are likely going to become the most frequently altered brush settings next to brush size. When retouching using the brush tool, especially for dodging and burning, I like to keep my Flow very, very low and build up gradually. This allows me to get the most natural effect without hard ‘lines.’
Typically, my Brush Tool settings are like below: Opacity at 100% and Flow at 2%, sometimes even lower. I also set up my pen settings to keep one of the shaft buttons for changing brush size and another for ‘Undo.’ This is what I find most effective for my workflow.
When it comes to dodging and burning, or balancing skin tones, there is no better friend to have, except maybe a pen tablet to help you make the most out of your tool. Any way you can get your hands on a tablet, even an old one, whether you have to beg, steal, or rent your pets, do it. Truly there is nothing that will be more beneficial to your retouching. There is just no way, as a photographer, to get near the most out of Photoshop without one, and you needn’t get the biggest, most expensive model. In fact, I typically advise photographers to get one that costs around $70, called the Intuos Pen & Touch Small, and you can read the review of it here. If you have the cash and want one you can keep for longer with all the tech, you can check out the Intuos Pro Small. But really, get one, and all of these wonderful Photoshop tips will have so much more impact.
As always, if you are a fan of Aaron’s teachings (and who isn’t?), be sure to check back here for updates, and follow along with Aaron on YouTube and Phlearn. You should also consider becoming quickly adept at Photoshop with the Phlearn Photoshop 101 & 201 sets as they are extremely comprehensive, and will have you quickly doing things with Photoshop you may have otherwise thought too complex, or didn’t even know you could do.