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Portrait of a Photoshop Artist: Scott Kelby

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Best-selling Photoshop author Scott Kelby stops writing (for, like, a minute) and starts talking about Elements 3, the Photoshop tools he couldn’t live without, and the music lesson that changed his life.
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Best-selling Photoshop author Scott Kelby stops writing (for, like, a minute) and starts talking about Elements 3, the Photoshop tools he couldn't live without, and the music lesson that changed his life

Scott Kelby is a busy man. As president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals (NAPP), editor-in-chief of Photoshop User and Mac Design magazines, training director for the Adobe Photoshop Seminar Tour, and technical chair of the PhotoshopWorld conferences, one wonders how this one-man publishing machine finds the time to also write books. And not just any books—internationally best-selling books.

The creator of the Down and Dirty Tricks and Killer Tips series, Scott is also the author of Photoshop CS for Digital Photographers, Photoshop Classic Effects, The iTunes for Windows Book, and many, many more. Peachpit was lucky enough to steal some of Scott's time to discuss his work, his passions, and his newest book, The Photoshop Elements 3 Book for Digital Photographers.

You've got a reputation as a slight overachiever, which wasn't at all obvious with the near simultaneous launch of your Elements User Web site (, new Elements book, and the announcement of a print newsletter devoted to Elements. What's so great about this version of Photoshop Elements that you need to cover it from all fronts?

I think version 3, with all its new power and features, will be the "breakout" version of Elements that takes it to a whole new level within the image editing community. It's no longer a "stripped down" version of Adobe Photoshop—it has its own interface, its own tools, and its own way of doing things that will turn a lot of heads in this industry.

Is there anything about the software that you don't like?

Personally, I don't like that the Organizer and Editor are two separate applications. Even though the interaction between the two is very tight, I'd still like to see it fully integrated in the same way the File Browser is integrated. Other than that little nit-picking, Elements 3 rocks!

How does Photoshop Elements compare with the full version of Photoshop? How should a person decide which one to buy?

Surprisingly, Elements 3 has much of the power of the full version of Photoshop at just a fraction of the price. In fact, each new upgrade of Elements grabs more Photoshop features, but it's still missing some of Photoshop's high-powered "guns" and that's what separates it from Elements.

Who should buy which? If you're making your living in photography, there's no question—get the full version. It still does many things Elements will probably never be able to do. Also, if you're a very serious amateur, the full version is for you (and many high-end amateurs and high-end hobbyists do use the full version). But for everybody else, Elements 3 will probably cover most of your needs and leave you some head room to grow as your skills grow.

What's the latest and greatest project you've completed with Photoshop Elements 3?

Right now I'm working on my first special effects book for photographers using Elements. It's called Photoshop Elements 3 Down & Dirty Tricks. I've already finished updating The Photoshop Elements 3 book for Digital Photographers and I believe it's already available, even though Elements 3 just shipped. I had a lot of fun with that book, because Elements 3 was designed for digital photographers so there was a lot I could add and update.

You work on a number of different books and series. Is there one in particular that you enjoy writing the most?

My favorite books are my Down & Dirty books because I love doing special effects. They're really a "how did they do that?" type of book, and I love seeing a cool effect (on TV, in Hollywood, in a magazine, etc.) and then figuring out how it was done. Then, I get an even bigger kick out of showing other people (my readers) how it was done. To me, that's a blast, so I enjoy writing those books the most.

If you could use only one technique out of your image-editing bag of tricks for the rest of your life, what would it be?

Color correction. If you can't correct the color, all is lost, and all your images will be lifeless and bland. However, if you're talking about special effects, then it would definitely be the drop shadow. So often we need to add shadows and without doing so, our images (especially collages) would have no depth, so I'm particularly fond of shadows. But again, if I had to choose one, it would be Curves for color correction. But can I please have the Unsharp Mask filter too? (I know—just pick one).

In your experience as a Photoshop power user, what image editing application has Adobe yet to invent? Or is Photoshop the end-all, be-all of image-editing applications?

I think the reason Photoshop has become THE image-editing application is because it has so much depth. You never "hit the wall" or think "I can't do that, because it's impossible in Photoshop." That's its strength, and it would be hard for another program to come along and have that same depth. However, are there things I'd like to see added to make Photoshop even better, and make it the be-all, end-all application? Absolutely! In particular, I want to be able to work on low resolution versions of images (so I can work at maximum speed), and then apply all my edits to the huge high-resolution image later, like while I'm sleeping). So, in short, as Photoshop evolves it gets better and better in each version, and Adobe is brilliant at adding new features without making it feel clunky and "Microsoft Office-like." As long as they continue to do that, I think it will be the be-all, end-all, for quite a while.

As a respected trainer and author, would you say you have a basic philosophy when it comes to helping people with new technologies and techniques?

My teaching philosophy is based on something that happened to me years ago. I used to play keyboards in a rock band (don't tell anybody) but I started my professional career as a drummer. After a few years playing clubs, I taught myself keyboards and fell in love with it. When I first started playing keyboards at gigs, my improvisation was pretty weak (in short, my solos stunk), so I went and took lessons from a really hot jazz pianist that I used to play drums behind in night clubs.

In our first lesson, he started improvising to a blues song in the key of G. Now, I knew that there are six notes in the G blues scale, but he was playing about every note on the keyboard, so I stopped him and asked, "What are you doing. Right there—how are you hitting every key, and how are you getting away with it? What's the trick?" Well, he told me, "Scott, I'm doing all kinds of stuff—different scales, different modes, etc." So I pressed him for more details and the more I pressed, the less he would tell me. Right then I realized he simply wasn't going to reveal his secrets of improvising. He had learned them "the hard way—the right way" and he wasn't just going to reveal them to a new student. I would have to pay my dues. Needless to say, after a few lessons plodding around, not learning the secrets I went there to learn, I quit.

This wasn't the first time I ran into this. In fact, most pros I went to for help wouldn't share a single real secret. They'd say stuff like "use your ear" or "let the music take you where it will" and a bunch of vague garbage like that. So I did things the hard way and little by little I got better.

A few years down the road, I was getting pretty decent, but there was still so much I didn't know. Then one day we hired a guitar player who had been trained at one, if not the most, prestigious music school in the country. He was amazing and I was particularly impressed in that every time he started into a solo, he always seemed to start on the perfect note. It always seemed so right, so on the money, and so professional. So after he was in the band a while, I commented on how impressed I was with his solos and in particular, his uncanny ability to always play the coolest opening note. He smiled and said "It's easy. I always just play the 9th of which ever key we're in, and finding the 9th is simple—it's always one step above the key you're playing in. So if you're playing in C, you start your solo with a D note. If you're playing in F you just move up one note to G." My jaw dropped. After all these years, after lessons, after searching in books, after researching and sweating, this guy just tells me the secret.

Well that night we went to the gig and when it came time for my improvised keyboard solo, I used the trick. I started on the 9th (I still remember—it was in the key of A and I played a B). It was perfect. It was "the note!" I got the biggest smile on my face and I looked over at the guitar player and he gave me a big thumbs-up and his smile was as big as mine. This trick opened a whole world of learning for me and reignited my passion for learning how to improvise.

But that night, and his trick had a bigger effect on me. I said to myself, "If I ever get the chance to be a teacher, I want to do exactly what he did for me. I want to be the guy who shares the secrets; who really shows how it's done, and doesn't hold anything back. The guy who explains it all in plain English, and shares everything he knows, even if it took years for me to learn." That's been my philosophy from the beginning and I still embrace it today in everything I do, and you see that in every book I write, every article, every live session, every DVD.

When I write my books, I try to tell my readers how to do things in the same way I would if they were sitting next to me. I write just like I talk (which explains why my grammar is so bad), and I use the same casual style in my writing that I do in my every day work. I'm a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy and I think that comes through in my writing. This stuff is fun, it's amazing, and it's a blast, so let's have some fun with it. I try to make it as easy as possible so everybody can get the same results the pros do.

As one of the world's leading Photoshop instructors and the author of some of the best-selling books on the subject, how do you continue to come up with new tips and techniques? And who or what inspires you?

The great thing about Photoshop is, inspiration is everywhere, because just about every photo, at some point, runs through Photoshop. You find inspiration everywhere, from billboards to magazines, the Web to TV, in the newspaper and in flyers, from CD-ROMs to DVD interfaces. They're all done in Photoshop and everybody uses Photoshop in a different way, so if you keep your eyes open, almost every day you'll see something really cool or unique and ask yourself, "How'd they do that?" That's where I come in—figuring out how they did that and how then to show other people.

The other thing that inspires me is photography. I've been a shooter for years, but digital has really re-lit my fire and I'm shooting more now than I have in years (you can see my photography portfolio at I also spend a lot of time looking at what other photographers are doing with Photoshop and that's very inspiring indeed.

Your last Photoshop World Conference in Orlando drew record-breaking crowds in spite of a looming hurricane. What is it about the conference that draws such die-hard fans?

I think there are two main reasons: (1) it's a real community event where people from all over the world get together to share a passion for digital imaging. It really is a Photoshop Love-fest and there's a buzz, a vibe in the air you can feel when you're there. There's so much happening and we've built this amazing climate for sharing ideas and techniques, and when all that comes together, I think the attendees know they're a part of something special. This brings back people year after year.

And (2) it's the instructors. I hand-pick the instructors and I only pick people who have my same "share all your secrets" philosophy. We don't hire instructors that think that they're better than the attendees. We don't hire arrogant experts that talk down to the crowd. We're all in this together and if they have that gift for teaching, for sharing, and they give it their all and don't hold anything back, we bring those instructors to PhotoshopWorld. That's why we have not only the most famous instructors, but we also have the absolute, hands-down greatest team of teachers ever assembled. They are people who love teaching. It's in their blood. It's part of their DNA and it's a very important part of what makes the event special.

Fellow authors and readers alike have to admit that you're a prolific guy—books, DVDs, magazines, conferences...what drives you to get it all done and still have a passion for your work?

Simply put—I love this stuff. I absolutely love my job. I love writing; I love the conferences; I love sharing this stuff; I love meeting the people who read my books or who have joined our association (the National Association of Photoshop Professionals). I love planning the conferences; I love teaching; I love it all. To me, I have the ultimate job because it doesn't feel like a job. I love going in to the office. I can't wait to get there. I love the people I work with and I love being a part of this community. It's a total love thing.

With all that you do, it would seem like your life is all work and no play. How and when do you relax?

Since my work feels like all play, you can imagine what my time off is like. What I love to do most is travel with my family. I have an incredible little 7-year-old boy, and the most amazing wife on the planet, and we love to vacation, especially on the spur of the moment. As long as I'm with them, I'm relaxing and having fun.

I also love NFL football (my team is the Tampa Bay Bucs), and I love going to games or having the gang over for an away game party. I'm a martial artist (I'm a black belt in Taekwondo and I'm currently training in Karate) and I love it because when I'm training, it takes my mind off everything else. I also love golf, especially when I get to play on vacation at beautiful courses and I love spending time with friends on the course, at dinner, or even on business trips.

Anybody that knows me will tell you, "I'm one happy puppy." I love my family, my job, and my life, and I feel it's an absolute honor and a privilege to get to do what I do for a living.

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