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How To Use Photoshop’s History Brush

Using Photoshop’s History Brush

For years and years, professional photographers and digital artists in the know have promoted the idea of non-destructive image editing through the use of Photoshop tools, such as layers, masks and more. But just as many photographers prefer to go their own way by doing things such as capturing JPEGs instead of RAW and avoiding great tools, such as layer masks and adjustment layers, plenty of photographers are diving into image editing without first ensuring they’re utilizing best practices for non-destructive editing. To each his own.

While we certainly encourage readers to at minimum duplicate the background image of any photograph they’re editing in Photoshop to provide a basic level of non-destructive editing, we can’t force you to play by our rules. Likewise, even photographers with the best intentions sometimes simply dive in out of a wealth of enthusiasm and before they know it they’ve made a bunch of edits on an original image layer.

But what if someone in such a situation wants to go back and selectively undo any of the edits they’ve already made? That’s where Photoshop’s History Brush comes in.

Using Photoshop’s History Brush

Sure, the history palette makes it easy to go back in time (virtually, of course) and throw out any changes made up to a certain point. In Photoshop’s preference pane, you can control how many steps the History palette will track for you. Twenty is a fine place to start, but saving 100 steps is a great way to ensure you can always easily go back to a much earlier point in the process.

The problem with this virtual trip back in time is that selecting an earlier history state necessitates throwing out every edit made after that point. So if 10 steps ago you did something you regret, undoing it means you’ve got to throw out the nine steps you did after that. And if you like those steps, you’re out of luck.

But remember the history brush! It means you’re not actually out of luck in terms of selectively undoing edits without undoing everything. The history brush quite simply allows a photographer to paint away the edits on a given area of the image, revealing the “original” pixels behind.

Take a look at the history palette. At the top of the window you’ll see a thumbnail of the original state of the image you’re working on. Immediately to its left is an icon that keen eyes will note is an exact match of the history brush. That’s indicating that the thumbnail pictured is the history state to which the history brush will allow you to return.

Using Photoshop’s History Brush

In practice, this makes for a great way to get rid of a slip up you didn’t notice at the time—which I find happens sometimes when I’m using the spot healing brush, for instance, and didn’t realize I accidentally spot healed an unsightly streak right through someone’s face. Or it could be simply that you apply some effect to the entire image—sharpening, let’s say, or noise—that you later decide is too intense in specific areas of the image. Maybe you want less noise on a face, for instance, or reduced sharpening of elements in the background. Painting with the history brush allows you to erase away the edits to just those pixels.

If you want to split the difference, try setting a 50 percent opacity to the history brush. If that’s still too much, try 30 percent. You can also use the fade command (Command+Shift+F) immediately after brushing away part of the scene in order to dial the effect back or make it more pronounced.

You can also use history snapshots to give yourself more options when it comes time to utilize the history brush. Just click the camera icon at the bottom of the history palette at any point in your process to create a new snapshot. Then when you want to paint away the history with the history brush, you can click the appropriate icon in the history palette to dictate what history state you’re returning to.

The history brush is a great way to make selective “do-overs” on parts of the image without throwing out the rest of your hard work. So if you’re happy with 99 percent of the changes you’ve made to an image but would like to start over on specific spots, try painting away the edits with the history brush.

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