Important Lessons Photoshop Users Can Learn From Motion Graphic Artists

Motion graphics are very challenging to work with. The software used by VFX artists is very advanced and it gives the user a somewhat different work flow than most graphic artists are not familiar with. In this post we will discuss some things Photoshop users can learn from motion graphic artists and their unique work flow.

I have during my time in school had the privilege to work in both Adobe Photoshop and Adobe After Effects. Having worked in both these applications has given me useful knowledge about how to work more efficiently. Practices used in Photoshop can be translated to something similar in After Effects and vise versa. Today I will illustrate 3 practices the other way around — from After Effects to Photoshop:

  • Compositing and Instantiation
  • Let the Software Do the Work for You
  • Toggling Variations

Compositing and Instantiation

When working with video you usually make up the video by combining or “compositing” elements to create scenes. This includes still footage, video, audio and effects. While this technique is commonly used in the video production world, it is not as usual when working in Photoshop.

Can you find any composited elements in this video?

Personally I think people are not compositing enough because of old habits, maybe you are used in working in a certain way. You have to embrace the new tools made available to you in new versions of Photoshop to be able to improve — both your work flow and the result produced. I see graphic designers using old practices even in recent versions of Photoshop nowadays and it is a real shame, because you can actually make good use of compositing!

How to Make Good Use of Compositing in Photoshop

First of all, this technique can only be applied in Photoshop CS2 (9.0) and more recent versions. If you have not upgraded yet, it is good time to do that now — you are working on a >7 year old piece of software for god’s sake!

Second, do not expect something magical and new — this feature has been around for a long time and you might already be aware of it. However, I think you are not using it as frequently as you should!

Example: Imagine you have this document with a golden egg.

Now imagine that you were supposed to have 3 identical golden eggs. What would you do?

Old Photoshop dogs would either merge the layers, or simply duplicating the Golden Egg group. This is a destructive behavior that never should be used, unless you are running short of application memory. It may not seem destructive at first sight, but once you start scaling all your rasters will start breaking apart and loose its quality.

Instead of merging, use a Smart Object. This way you will be able to scale and transform the egg multiple times without loosing quality. Besides, if you made 1000’s of eggs and decides later you want the shadows changed, you now only have to change one of the objects. The egg becomes an object and each duplicate is an instance of the object.

Now the egg is actually a Smart Object which can be transformed, scaled and manipulated without loosing its quality. And if you ever feel like having blue eggs instead, you can just go ahead and double-click one of the instance layers, edit the smart object document, save it and see all instances changed!

Let the Software Do the Work for You

VFX artists have always been good at using particle generators and particle fields to create stunning visual effects. The beauty in using these systems lies mostly in the movement of the particles, so using particle systems in still footage is probably not very useful (similar effects can be achieved  using the brush engine). Photoshop users can however learn from this from another perspective.

Can you imagine drawing this frame-by-frame?

VFX artists are lazy. They have to be lazy! Keyframing particles frame by frame would take forever and it would probably not even look that good either.

Photoshop artists can also should also be lazy. Recall this tutorial, where I taught you how to create a burning planet effect in Photoshop.

We created this without actually drawing one single stroke of color. Sure we did some masking, but anyone can do that!

So, use the tools provided to become efficient and more creative in your work flow.

I Am Still Creative, Right?

If you are using filters, the Photoshop brush engine, Adjustment layers etc. you take a shortcut. Why did you not draw the whole thing from scratch? Some say this is not the way to go if you are a true artist. I disagree!

Using filters and all these techniques made available to you is also creative! The traditional artist would not be an artist if he could not master the pencil. Pens, pencils, brushes and a white piece of paper is just as much tools as filters in Photoshop.

Toggling Variations

When working with video you usually have to make different adjustments to different scenes. Adjustments to set the mood, like brightness, contrast and hue make each scene transition blend together smoothly. In After Effects you can stack multiple adjustments in one layer and create multiple layers to try out which variation works best for a particular scene. This is awesome for video editing, but it can also be useful when working with still footage in Photoshop.

Photoshop really welcomes you to learn by trial and error. If something goes wrong, use the History window to roll back and then try again. The History window works great, but sometimes you might want to try variations next to each other to see which one really looks the best.

How to Toggle Variations in Photoshop

Make the first variation as you would usually do and place all Adjustment Layers and other Layers in a group. Hide that group and repeat the procedure to create another variation. Then click the eyes to toggle between variations.

If you are looking for a quicker way to toggle the visibility of layers, bring up the Layer Comps Window (thanks Roberto).

This gives you a quick and easy way of trying out various non-destructive edits, just like a motion graphic artist would.


We should share our knowledge and learn from each other. Basic practices that work in one application might be useful in another application as well. I am not as much of a motion graphic artist as I am a skilled Photoshop user, yet I regularly watch tutorials on how to use After Effects and similar applications to get inspiration and to see how other artists work.

Do you learn from other applications as well?

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About the Author

Mickel is a web creative that is constantly looking for new challenges and ventures.

He is the founder of PixelTango, as well as a interactive web design agency. He also likes to DJ and produce music under the name Allic.

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