Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Non-destructive or not?

In my seminars I generally teach methods that are very flexible, allowing you to change your mind and make adjustments even after the document has been saved. Many people refer to this as a "non-destructive" workflow. Over the last six months or so I've been hearing some discussion as to whether this is really "necessary" or not. In fact, going back to December, my pal Matt Kloskowski churned up the waters on this topic with his guest spot on Scott Kelby's blog. If you didn't read it then, it's worth a look.

Matt makes some great points, including saying things like (me paraphrasing here) "I've never had to go back and make changes to a document". At my most recent seminar, a few people questioned whether they should "always" use non-destructive methods. So here's my take on this topic.

Most of the time I use flexible, editable - non-destructive - methods such as adjustment layers, layer masks and smart objects for two basic reasons:

1. just in case
2. why not

Just in case:
Although I agree with Matt that I don't often have to make changes to an exiting document, sometimes I do. For example, I don't know about you but quite often my images look a little different when I print them, so having the opportunity to make some tweaks - very easily - just makes sense to me. Now and then I do work for clients (these days that means family and friends) and it's not unusual for them to ask me to "just change this one thing". Preserving layers (and pixels) though flexible methods gives me the ability to do this.

Why not:
Yes, this is one of my reasons too: why not use non-destructive methods? Generally speaking it doesn't take any longer to clone on a separate layer, scale a Smart Object, use adjustment layers versus the Image>Adjustment menu or a layer mask rather than erase. (Okay, in a few cases it might take a second or two longer, but not much). What's the downside of using a non-destructive workflow? You have more layers, your file size is a little bigger? So call me paranoid, but I'll happily live with a few extra layers......just in case.

Maybe this stems from something that happened to me years ago. I designed a magazine cover that was a collage of 20 or so photographs, so lots of layers and masks. Once the project as done, and after repeated promises from the client that they'd never use the cover again, I chose to flatten and save it so I had a copy. Well, six months later they called me to say that they had decided to reprint that issue (for the first time in their magazine's history) and "just" needed me to make a few changes. At the time I remember thinking, I wonder if I can say, "no I can't" but realized that wasn't going to work. So I had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch. (and they certainly weren't going to pay me to rebuild it - they were expecting a bill for an hour's worth of "tweaking")

So perhaps that's where my philosophy of "just in case" comes from. Still, it just makes sense to me.

Do I ever pull out the Eraser and delete some pixels? Sure, now and then. But most of the time it's a Layer Mask.

As an aside, it appears the Adobe is gently nudging us in the direction of non-destructive methods in Photoshop CS4 with the changes to Adjustments layers (must more visible than before), the Masks panel and ongoing tweaks to Smart Filters and Smart Objects.

Needless to say, it comes down to personal choose. But do me one small favor: before you flatten, merge down, erase, etc, consider the words "just in case" .


DrKoob said...

I'm with you Dave. I had a similar experience with a client asking me to make a change to something I had not saved in layered. It only takes once. And as you said, "Why not?" I do it that way and I teach it that way.

Matt said...

I agree. Smart objects, layer masks, etc have saved me lots of time and headache — especially when doing samples for clients.

Anonymous said...

True that, when you work for a client, even if the design was published, you never know when they are gonna call just asking for one little tweak 'cause they want to use the same design. I rather working on non-destructive methods too, and I have to send the editable artwork and then just create a copy of the document and merge the layers I consider they wont need to edit or make changes to... so.. I'll way non-destructive... he he

marcus said...

In the case of layer masking, I can't see why you wouldn't use a non destructive method. I find that painting use a broad brush, then coming back through with a smaller brush saves me much more time than having to get it exactly right on the first pass.

IbrahimZen said...

I agree with you Dave, I mean the printing issue is enough! specially when you're not expert enough in that field (talking about myself, i gotta print couple of times and keep tweaking to get a good one!)

So if it's as easy and as time consuming as the destructive, why not?

Janine said...

I totally, 100% agree with the non-destructive philosophy! I keep all the layers separate when I do photo restorations, and have been extremely thankful more than once! Not the least is when I go back and write tutorials for restorations I've already done - since the methods I use vary from restoration to restoration, it's invaluable to have all the work I did to accomplish that result!

Eric said...


I totally agree. Every time I see Matt or Scott do "destructive" edits on PhotoshopUserTV I cringe. Especially when Scott does he is so vocal about backing up his images but then goes and performs permanent changes.

I attended on of your classes several years ago in Kentucky Cincinnati Area with a coworker and remember leaning over and telling him "thats why you use masks."

Russ said...

I try to use non-destructive means when I can, mostly on photographic projects. I've gone back a number of times and adjusted things that way, and I really like it.

But my illustration projects can get very complex with quite a lot of layers, and getting more than a few smart objects/filters (in CS3) really bogs down the system. Most things I create from scratch, and to get around the problem of a future change I tend to copy a layer (or group) when I do some major change.

onegoodphotographer said...

I always save my layers as PSD files. I try to make all of my adjustments on a separate layer. I have not used smart objects. What is the difference between smart objects and just using separate layers and masks? Once in a while I come across an old file that I have not saved with it's layers. It is very frustrating and hopefully I have learned my lesson!

Matt Kloskowski said...

Great discussion folks. One thing to keep in mind... I specifically say in the blog post that if you have clients that can, and are likely to, ask for changes then you should probably try to work as non-destructively as possible. So don't get me wrong. All of you that wrote that you have clients that have asked for changes, I absolutely think you should try to protect yourself.

In the blog post, I simply asked folks to evaluate whether or not you do that type of work. If not, and your client is yourself then I still believe in... MERGE, FLATTEN, and ERASE!!!
Go forth and destruct!!!!

Take care everyone.
- Matt K

Mike said...

I'll admit that I use the eraser on occasion, as well as minor cloning on the bg layer. But the majority of time I use masks and save the layered document, remembering your written comment when you autographed my seminar workbook:

"Flatten" is Photoshop's F-word....

Thanks, Dave!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for brining this up. Matt and Scott obviously only work on their own images and do not make their living working for clients (must be a nice life of luxury). In my job I am routinely asked to make what should have been a simple change, but because the person before me took Scott's and Matt's advise to flatten their files, ends up being a complete nightmare. Thanks a lot Scott and Matt.

Toby Fairchild said...

I don't see a rational reason to work destructively. File size is a non issue for most of us and hard disk space is dirt cheap. Also by keeping individual layer integrity and by using layer masks instead of erasing pixels, you have an archive of re-usable elements for perhaps another project. When working on your own stuff I can sort of see where you could get away with it but for doing work for a client....you are really asking for trouble somewhere down the road. I always work non-destructively, but more power to those who don't see the need. At least we have a choice.