Photoshop Selections 101: What they are and how to use them

The walls in my house are a subtle shade of green. “Hampshire Gray,” I think it’s called. Whatever it is, it’s starting to feel a little dark and dated. When we have it redone, our painters will have to protect the windows with removable blue tape before they start painting. They’re professionals, but they still need this tape to avoid accidentally painting on the glass. I suppose they could do it without the tape, but it’d probably take several extra weeks and they’d probably still make a few mistakes. So no matter how good of an artist you are, it is important to have tools to work more precisely and more quickly.

In Photoshop, the equivalent of using blue masking tape is “selections”. These act like a “stencil” to control what you can affect with the various tools in Photoshop. When you have an active selection, you can only use Photoshop’s tools (such as the paint brush) inside that selection. This can help you change a red car to green, without changing the color of the bumper. Or whiten someone’s teeth, without affecting their lips.

Of course, there are always many ways to do things in Photoshop and you can use layers and masks instead of selections to make those same changes. In fact, masks are often the best way to make those changes because you can typically revise or undo adjustments made with layers and masks. But it isn’t an either/or situation,  both selections and masks are critical to producing great images with Photoshop and it is important to understand each of their roles.

Masks control which pixels you can see, while selections control which pixels you can change. Masks conceal or reveal various parts of your layers. Selections affect which pixels you can affect with a tool, warp, or filter. And because masks are just grayscale images, you can also use selections to help create or refine your masks. So even if you use adjustment layers instead of brushes or other tools, it’s important to be skilled with selections.

In the following video, you’ll see these concepts in action as you get a brief overview of every selection tool available in Photoshop.

 

Photoshop offers many tools for making selections. They can be a little difficult to discover, as they aren’t all in one place. They are located in the tool bar, various menus, in the layers and channels panels, and available via shortcut keys. To help you find them, I’ve listed where to find each next to its description.

Photoshop offers the following basic tools for creating selections, including:

  • Marquee selections (Found in the toolbar; shortcut: <M> or <shift><M>).  This allows you to create selections which are rectangular and circular in shape. That may sound simple, but can be quite useful for creating vignettes, general selections, or revising selections by using the add/subtract/intersect commands mentioned below. This is a “dumb” tool which completely ignores the content of your image.
  • Lasso selections (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <L> or <shift><L>). The general idea is that you draw a freehand selection. The polygonal version allows you to draw with a series of connected lines, and the magnetic version tries to help snap the selection to edges. The use of this tool is often similar to the marquee selections, but with much more control over the shape of the selection. This is a “dumb” tool which also ignores the content of your image.
  • Magic wand (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool allows you to select pixels which are similar to whatever you click on. This is very useful to quickly select things like a blue sky. However, this tool creates all or nothing selections, which means that the transitions are very harsh.
  • Quick Select (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool is somewhat similar to the Magic Wand, but you click and drag to help define the selection. The Magic Wand is great for subjects which may be broken up (such as a blue sky obscured by tree leaves), whereas the Quick Select is often simpler for targeting continuous subjects (such as a continuous sky).

 

Taking things a step further, selections aren’t quite as simple as blue masking tape. The selection tools mentioned above either create selections which are 0% or 100% for a given pixel. But the more advanced options below can be partially selected from 1-99% as well. These allow for much more natural selections and higher quality work.

Photoshop’s more advanced selection tools include:

  • Refine Edge (Found under the Select menu as “Select and Mask,” or as “Refine Edge” in older versions of Photoshop). This tool helps to soften the improve the edges of your selection by analyzing the image content and is a great way to address edge issues with the Magic Wand and Quick Select tools.
  • Color Range (Found under Selection/Color Range). This tool helps target pixels of similar tone or color. But unlike the Magic Wand or Quick Select tools, it is able to create partial selections. This allows for more natural selections and higher quality work.
  • From Channels/Masks (available in the channels panel under Window/Channels: look for the “load channel as selection” icon at the bottom of the panel or <ctrl/cmd>-click on any thumbnail in the channels panel. Or you may <ctrl/cmd>-click on any layer mask in the layers panel). This creates “luminosity selections”, or selections based on the brightness of the image.  This is an advanced technique, which I cover in great detail on my luminosity masking page, newsletter tutorials, and in my exposure blending course.
  • From Transparency (available by <ctrl/cmd>-clicking on any image thumbnail in the layers panel). If you have a normal layer which covers the entire image, this is the same as selecting everything. But if the layer has some transparency, can be used to target just the pixels in the layer. This is most useful when targeting areas dodged and burned on a transparent layer. For the most part, it is just important to be aware of this because if you -click on the image thumbnail, you will probably see a selection around the image when you meant to load the layer mask or channel as a luminosity selection instead. In other words, you’ll probably run into this by accident at some point if you’re using luminosity selections. Loading from transparency only considers the transparency of the pixels, not their luminosity.

 

Photoshop includes various other tools to work with selections, which are often used to combine simple selections into more complex and useful ones.

Other helpful tools for working with selections:

  • Deselect (shortcut: <cmd>-D). This discards your selection, so that you can once again change any pixel.
  • Select All (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-A). This is commonly used to select the entire image so that you can copy and paste it.
  • Expand/Contract/Feather (Found under Select/Modify). Feathering is an especially useful option to help transition more smoothly from areas which are selected to those which are not. Expanding and contracting can be helpful to refine a Quick Select at the edges.
  • Add (shortcut: <shift>). Combining selections allows for more complex selections. Adding via marquee or lasso is a great way to fill in any holes in the middle of your selection.
  • Subtract (shortcut: <alt/option>). Subtracting via marquee or lasso is a great way to remove parts of your selection you don’t want.
  • Intersect (shortcut: <shift><alt/option>). Intersecting keeps areas which are common to two selections. Intersecting with a lasso is a great way to keep just a portion of an existing selection.
  • Hide Marching Ants or “Extras” (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-H). This allows you to hide the “marching ants” that are meant to show a selection, as the ants can be very distracting.

 

This is just an overview of the tools that ship with Photoshop. There are many 3rd party options to help create and use selections, such as my luminosity masking panel Lumenzia.

 

Luminosity masking is easier than ever with Lumenzia v7

Version 7 of the Lumenzia luminosity masking panel for Photoshop is now available as a free upgrade for all customers. This is the the most ambition update since v1, with over 160 new features, updates, and bug fixes in total. The major themes in v7 are speed and interactivity. It’s never been easier to create the perfect luminosity mask or selection to make beautiful photos. And the updates have been designed to avoid changing any existing workflows, so you can jump right in.

Lumenzia is also featured extensively in my Exposure Blending Master Course (and Lumenzia v7 can be purchased for 50% off when bundled with the course). None of the techniques taught in the course with v6 change now, but I am updating the course to highlight a few ways you might take advantage of new v7 capabilities.

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

New features in Lumenzia v7 include:

  • Dynamic previews  immediately update the preview as you click “Not” or any of the color swatches at the top of the panel.**
  • The new Precision and Value Sliders to interactively adjust mask strength to be more specific or general. This seemingly simple controls allows you to customize masks extensively in a visual and intuitive manner. You can even adjust mask feathering without opening the Properties panel in Photoshop. **
  • The precision slider also allows you to create intermediate masks (such as L1.5) and more specific masks (such as D7). **
  • Fast previews. This dramatically speeds up the creation of the temporary orange and red layers under many common conditions (up to 4-8X faster on typical files, or up to 20X on extremely large files).
  • The active luminosity selection lights up green so you can easily remember if you are working with L2 vs L3 or something else. **
  • The non-destructive sponge has been completely resigned for speed, simplicity, and better results. It’s the easiest way to enhance or subdue color in your image. (As before, click “Dodge” to access the Sponge tool.) **
  • Highlight blown or nearly blown highlights and shadows by <alt/option>-clicking “Map”.
  • Load any gray or transparent dodge/burn layer as a selection, so that you can further refine your results (such as by applying a contrast curve to only the areas which were dodged and burned).
  • And so much more (>160 enhancements total). See the release notes for a full list of all changes.

** Note for CS6 users: While v7 includes >100 enhancements for CS6, you will see that several new interface items which require CC (such as the sliders). This are unfortunately due to limitations of the nearly 7-year old CS6 platform. Differences are primarily in appearance or workflow. Functional capabilities generally remain nearly the same (the new color model is only available for CC however).

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

3 Great Ways to Enhance Your Photos with “Replace Color”

Photoshop and Lightroom have an endless choice of tools for enhancing color in your photos. In the past, I’ve written tutorials on how to use Selective Color, Camera Calibration, HSL, and BlendIf. In this tutorial, I want to cover and old and often overlooked tool in Photoshop, Replace Color.

 

There are at least three scenarios where Replace Color can make a big impact on your image:

  • Enhancing de saturated colors: Selective Color and HSL are great tools to enhancing color, but they can’t target colors which are too de-saturated. Replace Color can much more easily target the key areas to add saturation.
  • Increase saturation of bright colors: When the brightness (lightness) of a pixel is too high, increasing saturation may not increase perceived color at all. This is often an issue with bright colorful skies. The way to increase color is to reduce lightness, rather than increase saturation. Selective Color tends not to work in this situation, and HSL can be difficult to target precisely in this situation. So Replace Color becomes a great option.
  • Dodging and burning: It can be difficult to independently control changes in color and tone when using traditional dodge and burn techniques. The beauty of Replace Color is that it gives you independent control over hue, saturation, and lightness while targeting highlights or shadows in your image.

Of course, you can also use it for its intended purpose, to replace one color with another in your image. However, I prefer changing colors in LAB.When you make such a dramatic change in hue on a detailed object (vs a sky), there are some little things that may go wrong and be hard to notice initially when using Replace Color.

There are also some good reasons why Replace Color is not widely used. It does not support a non-destructive workflow, because it cannot be used as an adjustment layer nor on a Smart Object. So Replace Color should typically be used either very early or very late in your workflow. And if another tool can get the job done just as well and work non-destructively, that’s usually the best choice. But when you run into one of the scenarios above, it’s a great option to consider.

Workflow to use Replace Color:

  1. Replace Color works on a single layer, so create a flattened copy of your image. You can do this by clicking <ctrl/cmd><alt/option><shift>-E to create a “Stamp Visible” layer.
  2. Go to Image / Adjustments / Replace Color
  3. Increase the saturation slider significantly to the right (or make some other dramatic change in Hue, Saturation, and Lightness). The result will look overdone, but you’ll be able to clearly see where in the image you are making changes.
  4. Make sure “localized color clusters” is checked. Most of the time, this is the best option. This keeps your adjustments more isolated to the areas you click, which is generally what you need when using this tool. You can always toggle it off and on to compare later.
  5. Now use the picker tool to click on your main target.
  6. Adjust the fuzziness to select more or less of the colors similar to what you initially clicked on.
  7. You can hold <shift> or use the picker with the + sign to manually add to the selection with additional clicks. [The subtract (-) option does not work as you would expect and I recommend not using it at this time].
  8. Now that you have dialed in the targeted, adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness to get the desired effect.
  9. Continue to iterate your targeting and HSL values as needed.

 

What is Deconvolution Sharpening and How to Use It

As photographers, we tend to be obsessed with pixels and detail. If that’s you, you’re going to love “deconvolution” sharpening. It is one of the easiest ways to get more detail from your images.

 

The Big Picture: What is “deconvolution” sharpening?

Few topics cause more confusion and debate than sharpening. We could easily end up in a spiral of meaningless debate over terms – so for the sake of this article,  when I refer to sharpness I mean the viewer’s ability to clearly differentiate small details (at a given resolution). That might mean that a sign on a building is easier to read, that you can better see the texture in a rocky landscape, or that you can see individual needle on a pine tree.

There are three essential types of sharpening in photography, including:

  • Capture sharpening, which is done to offset a lack of sharpness in the RAW image caused by technical limitations of our cameras. This might be caused by various factors such imperfections in lenses or an anti-alias filter on the sensor.
  • Output sharpening, which is done to offset a lack of sharpness in the final image caused by the technical limitations of resizing or printing. When we resize an image for the web, the reduction in resolution can create a loss of sharpness, as fewer pixels are available to convey the details of the scene. When we print, the tiny ink dots used spread on the paper, causing a loss of sharpness. “Web” and “Print” sharpening are designed to offset these technical problems.
  • Creative sharpening, which is an artistic process that is left to the style and imagination of the photographer to enhance the image. It has nothing to do with the limits of our equipment. This is similar to the way we apply color grading (an artistic process for emotional impact) to an image after white balancing it (a technical process designed for accuracy).

An image may use any mix of these types of sharpening, but they should be applied in a particular order. Capture sharpening should always be done first, followed by creative sharpening, and then output sharpening last after any resizing of the finished image.

Which brings us to “deconvolution” sharpening. This is a form of capture sharpening designed to offset the softness created by our cameras and lenses. Through some very complicated math and some assumptions about the ways our cameras subtly blur our RAW files, deconvolution sharpening can help restore much of that lost detail. (If you really want to nerd out, search the internet for “point spread function” and deconvolution to learn more – but you really don’t need to understand the details to use this awesome technique).

By using deconvolution sharpening, we are increasing the apparent detail in an image. Just this technique alone can probably help you enlarge a print another 10-20%. On a Nikon D850, increasing linear resolution by 10% would bring us from 46 megapixels to about 56 megapixels (multiply by 1.1 twice because the linear dimensions are applied twice to get the pixel count) without using deconvolution. That’s a huge gain that you can use to get better prints from old files, make massive prints from your current camera, or keep detail when you need to crop your image significantly.

 

How do we use deconvolution sharpening?

There are some software packages out there that promote their use of deconvolution sharpening, but some do not. Lightroom and ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) support it, but you wouldn’t know it because it isn’t labeled or even mentioned. Thankfully, it’s very easy to use if you just know where to look.

If you use my Lumenzia luminosity masking panel, just click “Sharp” and choose the deconvolution method. Everything is done for you. Otherwise, read on for instructions on how to do it with your version of Lightroom or Photoshop.

The “details” slider in Lightroom is really a choice between two sharpening algorithms. Slide it one way for deconvolution sharpening, the other for unsharp mask, or somewhere in the middle for a blend. The trick to working with deconvolution is to set the detail slider accordingly, and then set the radius slider to the minimimum, as we are working to extract small details.

So open up Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW (Filter / Camera RAW Filter if the image is already open in Photoshop CC). Then go to the detail tab and move the radius slider all the way to the left (to 0.5) and the detail slider all the way to the right (to 100). That’s all you need to do to enable deconvolution sharpening. Once you’ve done that, just move the amount slider up or down until you get the amount of deconvolution sharpening you want.  I generally use somewhere between 30 and 55 for the amount, but sometimes as little as 20 or as much as 80. 50 is a very good place to start. It is generally best to evaluate the image at 100% when setting the amount. Finally, leave masking disabled (set to 0).

If you use Photoshop CS6 and do not have access Lightroom, you should use the following alternative approach for deconvolution sharpening. Go to Filter / Smart Sharpen, set the remove dropdown to Gaussian Blur, and the radius to 0.5px. The adjust the amount as needed. Higher amounts may be needed with this approach, so try 50-100. If you have access to Adobe Camera RAW, use the first method above. But if not, this is a great alternative that also produces great results.

There are of course other programs out there that offer deconvolution sharpening, and I’m not claiming that you might not get a little bit more out of another approach. However, I believe the Adobe deconvolution tools are ideal. They are very fast and easy to use. Most importantly, you can apply them on a Smart Object for maximum flexibility in your workflow.

 

Free deconvolution sharpening actions:

To make things simpler if you don’t have Lumenzia, I’ve created a set of free deconvolution sharpening actions for Photoshop. Just open them with Photoshop (you should be able to double-click them, or just go to Window/Actions in Photoshop, then click the top-right menu in Actions and choose “Load Actions”). Once you have the actions in Photoshop, you’ll see options for low, medium and high sharpening – as well as a second set marked for CS6 users. Just click on the one you want to use and then click the play triangle at the bottom of the Actions panel. These actions can be used with both normal layers and Smart Objects. And you can always choose to click the open option to the left of an action to toggle on the dialogs if you wish to be prompted to choose the specific amount of sharpening you wish to use (be sure to click over to the details tab if you are using the CC actions, as the Camera RAW Filter does not show that screen when first opened).

 

When should we use deconvolution sharpening?

I use it on nearly every portfolio image that I think I might print some day. It’s used to increase detail, so this isn’t a process you need to think about if you’re only going to shrink the image for the web.

When in doubt, just use it. It is quick and easy. More importantly, deconvolution sharpening should be done early in your workflow. It does not need to be the first thing you do to your image, but it should definitely be done before creative/output sharpening or resizing your image. The assumptions that make deconvolution sharpening work fall about once you start making other such pixel adjustments to your image. and the results can look pretty poor if you use it too late in your workflow. You can apply deconvolution to a TIF without issue (within the workflow limitations just mentioned), it does not need to be done on the RAW file.

Never apply deconvolution sharpening after any other type of sharpening. Lightroom applies some sharpening by default, so make sure you are zeroing that out if you are applying deconvolution sharpening in Photoshop.

 

What about noise and halos?

When I’ve told some photographers about this approach, they’ve made comments about seeing noise. And they are right. This approach will turn exaggerate noise in smooth areas of the image, such as calm lakes and blue skies. That’s no problem, we can easily fix that by blending the image to use deconvolution for increase detail in parts of the image where it works, and avoid deconvolution in areas where it causes issues.

Because of this, I recommend always applying deconvolution in Photoshop. Lightroom and ACR will not let you apply deconvolution locally. Yes, there are “sharpness” and “noise” sliders for the local brush, but it is not the same.

There are two basic workflows to apply deconvolution sharpening locally in Photoshop. The first method is to create two layers in Photoshop for the same image. The bottom layer should be unsharpened (amount = 0) and the top layer should have deconvolution sharpening. Add a black mask on the top (sharpened) layer and paint with white to reveal areas of detail where you want to see the sharpening.

The second method is to use a Smart Object, which I greatly prefer for its flexibility. To do this, first select your image layer(s), right-click, and convert to a Smart Object. Then go to Filter / Camera RAW Filter, switch the detail tab (the one with triangles), slide radius to the left, detail to the right, and select the amount of sharpening you wish to use and click OK. This will sharpen the whole image, but you can now use the Smart Filter Mask to apply the effect just to the areas that need it. You can paint black on the mask to remove sharpening over smooth areas, or invert it to black and then use white to paint in the areas of detail.

 

What about other forms of sharpening?

There are literally books written on each of these topics, so I can’t possibly cover all of sharpening in this post. But I want to leave you with a sense of the big picture.

You can use creative sharpening and output sharpening with deconvolution, just be sure to do the deconvolution first. My general workflow is to apply deconvolution then creative sharpening to my master files. My creative sharpening includes various use of High Pass, Smart Sharpen or Nik – and there are many other great tools out there. The goal at this stage is to get an optimal look for the full resolution file.

When I’m ready to output a file for print or the web, I create a flattened copy of the file, resize it, and then apply output sharpening to the file last. I use various Photoshop sharpening tools or Nik for output sharpening. The goal at this stage is to either get an image that looks optimal a monitor for web use, or something which is a bit “crunchy” (oversharpened) when preparing for print.

 

My Macbook Pro and Time Machine just crashed – Now what?!

I just lost everything on my new Macbook Pro. Something went bad on the motherboard, and when that happens on the new Macs with the “T2” chip, you lose everything on your hard drive. As if that weren’t bad enough, my Time Machine backup failed too. Thankfully, I had backup clones and was able to get everything back. But it wasn’t easy, so I decided to write a bit of a survival guide in case you ever have your Apple computer crash. And if you don’t have a robust backup strategy, pause here and read my previous article on how to create a “bulletproof” backup strategy. I’ve recently updated it and it is a critical guide for making sure you don’t lose important data…

It’s not an accident that I was ready. I’ve been scarred over the years. I can remember losing at least 5 complete hard drive failures. There was the time I sabotaged myself by putting a home-built computer into an enclosed desk drawer. It got too hot and literally cooked the hard drive until it failed. There was the time the File Allocation Table on my drive was corrupted. That’s the treasure map computers use to find all your data on a computer, so if the FAT goes, you’re pretty much done (Disk Warrior helped me save some of that data). I lost 2 or 3 hard drives to a bad enclosure in one of my RAID drives before I figured out the enclosure was faulty and frying the drives. And this past month, my new 2018 Macbook Pro died.

It all started to innocently. I was working on an important print job for a client. I had to reboot at one point because I hadn’t done so in a week. Seemed like no big deal. But then the screen stayed black, forever. The computer never booted up. After an hour trying to troubleshoot it by myself and with Apple Support on the phone, I took it to the Apple Store where one of the Geniuses basically confirmed my fear – the motherboard or video card had failed. Never mind that this meant I had just lost all my data on the hard drive (because I already knew that if the new T2 chip fails, you lose everything).

My more immediate concern was that I had to finish that print job. The gremlins in your computer love to wait until the worst possible time before taking down your computer. Mine went down right just hours before my family was arriving for the Thanksgiving weekend.  If all I had was a Time Machine backup, there is no way I would have finished that print job on time.

 

Using a bootable clone to keep working

I didn’t have time to fix my computer, but I was able to get a brand new one running with all my applications and files in 15 minutes using a bootable “clone”. I would have been up and running in 60 seconds, but I needed to update firmware settings and apply an OSX update to allow it to boot from the clone first (the latter isn’t something you’d normally need to do).

A clone is an exact copy of your hard drive and is a much more reliable backup than Time Machine (which is still a great system, but you should not rely on it as your only backup – its complete failure on me being a great example). I make clones an incredible software tool called “Carbon Copy Cloner” (CCC). If you don’t have it, I strongly recommend it. It’s the only piece of software that I think 100% of Mac users should own. It has a very clean interface, makes it simple to create bootable clones, can be scheduled to automatically update your clone backups, and the support is second to none. The company founder (Mike Bombich) often replies to support emails within an hour. And the quality of support is impeccable. He’s dug me out of problems that senior engineers at Apple struggled with.

I have several drives I use for cloning. That lets me save backups offsite where they are safe from fire or theft, as well as different points in time. They are all valuable to me, but one is especially important to me. My primary clone drive is a Sandisk Extreme Pro 2TB SSD, which is lightning fast for both backing up, tiny for travel, and the prices have recently become very attractive. Highly recommended. More importantly, it is lightning fast to work from. So booting from that SSD had me up and running in minutes.

Steps to boot from your clone:

  1. If you have a new (2018+) Macbook, make sure your computer is configured to allow you to boot from an external drive. On newer laptops where this is an option, booting from an external drive is disabled by default for security reasons. Hold <option>-R while booting the computer to get into recovery mode, then click Utilities / Startup Security Utility. See Apple’s support page for more details on recovery mode.
  2. Hold down <option> while booting your Mac to choose which drive should be used to boot the computer (you can let go once you see the progress bar). In the rare case that your external drive uses an “option ROM”, you may need to press Option-Shift-Command-Period when the Startup Manager window appears.
  3. If you have a WiFi available, you may want to connect to it when you see the list of drives. Newer Apple laptops now connect to the internet to verify the operating system is valid when installing (though you can disable/change this in the Start Security Utility mentioned in the first step).
  4. Click on the external drive and it should boot normally. Make sure your connection to the external boot drive is secure, because if it accidentally disconnects, your computer may become unstable and reboot.

A few troubleshooting tips:

  • If you have set a firmware password and have a problematic installation of OSX, you may get an error when you try to change the external boot settings. If you run into this, format the drive clean, install OSX, and then you can use the option to enable external booting. I’m not really sure while Apple ties the firmware password to the OS installation, but my assumption is that they want to make sure that whomever is setting the firmware password is authorized to use the machine (I’m sure some college kids would think it was a great prank to “brick” their buddy’s machine if they had it for a minute or two).
  • The first time you boot from an external drive (at least on newer Macs), expect to be prompted to apply a software update to boot from the drive. If you do not connect to WiFi, you may get a cryptic error that says “An error occurred installing the update“, so be sure to check WiFi (you may be able to work around this by changing the security settings in the same area you allow external booting in step #1 above).

 

When working from your clone, you may want to:

  • Open Time Machine and disable auto backups (to avoid updating your Time Machine with a clone which may be older than your latest Time Machine backup).
  • Update Photoshop’s preferences to use your internal drive as your  scratch disk for faster performance.

Of course, booting from a clone isn’t a good long-term option. Once you’ve gotten through any critical work, you’ll need to repair or rebuild your main drive.

 

Repairing and Troubleshooting

If you’re just having problems with a few files (such as corrupt or missing data), it is best to simply copy it back from Time Machine or your clone (just navigate to the same folder on both your main drive and clone, and then copy from the clone to your main drive).

 

If it’s a more serious issue where you can’t boot your computer, that does not necessarily mean you’ve lost your data. So before you start using Time Machine or other backups, you should definitely see if there is some other issue you can resolve. I can’t possibly cover all the ways you can try to fix a Mac, but here are some very useful troubleshooting steps to consider:

  • Reset the SMC (System Management Controller): This is generally a safe thing to do and a good troubleshooting step if the machine won’t boot. The way to do it varies by computer, so see Apple’s instructions for resetting the SMC.
  • Reset PRAM / NVRAM: Like resetting the SMC, generally a good idea when having trouble booting. Hold <cmd><option><P><R> for 20 seconds while booting. See Apple’s instructions for more details.
  • Re-install OSX. Hold <cmd><R> while booting to get into recovery mode. You’ll need to be in an area where you can connect to WiFi. See Apple’s reinstall support page for more options and details.
  • Contact Apple or some other expert. Obvious enough, but it’s best to get an expert opinion before you assume you need to wipe your drive and start clean. I have 3 years of support through Apple Care and have found the phone support to be great. They call you, typically within about 2 minutes – so don’t bother with written support.
Other troubleshooting options that may be helpful to know:
  • Hold <T> while booting for “target disk mode“. This lets you make your laptop act like an external hard drive and access it from another computer (via Thunderbolt or USB). This is a great way to get access to recent files you may not have on your backup drives.
  • Hold <shift> while booting for “safe” mode. This may bypass some problems during normal boot.
  • <cmd>-V while booting for “verbose” mode. This shows details of boot activities and may help find the step where OSX is getting stuck during bootup. See Apple’s verbose article for more details.
  • Hold <D> while booting to launch diagnostics. I’ve never run into a situation where the computer was broken, but not so much that this utility would work – but it’s good to know it is an option to help look for hardware failures. See Apple’s diagnostics article for more details.
  • If your drive still physically functional but unusable due to corruption of the File Allocation Table, take a look at Disk Warrior to help reconstruct lost data.

But if the data has been truly lost, you’ll ultimately need to restore your system.

Restoring from Time Machine (full system restore)

If you need to restore everything, Time Machine is probably the first option to try because it is probably more current than your most recent clone (though if you clone nightly like I do, it may not be the same). To do a full restore from Time Machine:

  • Boot your computer into Recovery Mode by holding <cmd>-R while booting.
  • Choose “Restore from Time Machine Backup”. See Apple’s instructions for full restoration from Time Machine for screenshots and more details.

If it works, great, your done. If you’re unlucky like me, you might see an error that says “An error occurred while restoring from the backup. Restart your computer, and then try again.” This happened to me twice, right around 25% completion. Since restoring 2TB from Time Machine on a spinning drive takes about 24 hours, I lost 2 days waiting for this process. It’s not fun. Time Machine is supposed to check itself occasionally for errors before you need it, but failures like this can occur. My guess is that a single file was corrupted in the middle and Time Machine isn’t robust enough to keep working when it hits a problem like that. If you want to verify your Time Machine before your computer fails, hold down <option> and click the Time Machine icon to see a special “Verify Backups” option.

Even if the automated restoration fails, you can probably pull a lot of data from the various dated folders on your Time Machine, so be sure to keep the data until you’re back up and running. However, if it fails, you should probably move on to restoring from a clone backup.

 

 

Restoring from a CCC clone (restoring everything via CCC)

To restore your entire hard drive from a clone, follow these steps.

  • Boot from your clone drive (hold <option> while booting and choose the drive). You’ll need to be running from it to use CCC.
  • Re-format your internal drive via Disk Utility. Do not try to clone over a clean installation of OSX. I did this and it caused permissions issues that prevented use of File Vault, Safe Mode, or the ability to change the system’s firmware password. ***
  • Run CCC and create a new clone job to clone from the external clone disk back to the newly formatted internal drive. See CCC’s instructions for restoring your drive.

If you see the folder with a question mark logo when you reboot after restoring your computer , this may simply mean that your computer does not know which drive to boot (even though the internal drive may be perfectly setup). To address temporarily designate the internal drive to get going, hold the <option> key during boot and then select your internal drive. To permanently address it once booted, go to System Preferences / Startup Disk and set your preference there.

*** Be sure to run Disk Utility when booted from the clone drive. If you are unsure which drive was used for boot, go to the Apple menu at top left, choose “About this Mac”, and look for the name shown for “Startup Disk”. If you format your drive by booting from the recovery partition, you are likely only going to have to reinstall OSX via internet recovery (a long and sometimes painful process) before you are able to proceed. The problem appears to be that booting from an external drive is not allowed by default in the firmware. If there is no valid OSX on the internal drive, you cannot change the firmware. When you hold <option> at boot to try and boot from an external drive, you can see and select the drive, but it will fail after a while and just move to trying internet recovery. It’s very confusing because OSX refuses to boot a valid and bootable clone, but will not give you any error message or useful feedback to help you understand the issue.

 

 

 

Restoring from a CCC clone (simple option via OSX Migration Assistant)

Alternatively, if you have a clean installation of OSX on your main drive (as I did after Apple fixed it), you can simply copy your data from your CCC clone to your main drive. Normally, I wouldn’t do this, but I had already installed a fresh copy of OSX after my earlier restoration attempts failed, so I ultimately went this route to save a little time. This is also a good option to consider if you’re restoring your backup to a computer with a hard drive that isn’t large enough to hold your data, which may be the case if you are trying to restore to a temporary loaner computer.

To restore just your data from a clone:

  • Boot from your main drive normally
  • Launch the Migration Assistant (found under Applications/Utilities, or hit <cmd><space> to search for it).
  • Follow Apple’s instructions to complete. Just point to either the Time Machine or your CCC clone as the source, either is fine.
  • Note that you should carefully consider which data to import. You can’t go back and simply add data later (you have to remove your user account and start over if you want to use different options).

One advantage of this approach is that it allows you to bring in your old data and setup to a clean installation of OSX, which may help address some issues and let’s you slim things down if you don’t need to bring over all users or all their data.

However, if you’ve been saving files in non-standard locations outside your user folder, I’m not sure what the limits of Migration Assistant are. Using CCC will restore everything from the clone.

 

Other steps to complete the restoration

Copying your data isn’t the whole story. Software which is authenticated or specific to your old hardware will need an update. For example, you can expect to do the following (as applicable):

  • Log into iCloud
  • Setup TouchID
  • Tell Time Machine to inherit your old Time Machine history
  • Redo monitor calibration
  • Re-pair any BlueTooth devices (headphones, mouse, etc)
  • Inherit your old Backblaze backup (uninstall and reinstall Backblaze before trying to inherit or it will fail).
  • Log into the Adobe Creative Cloud for Photoshop / Lightroom CC
  • Go to Photoshop Preferences / Scratch Disks and make sure the new internal drive is checked (otherwise you may see slower Photoshop performance).
  • Activate Microsoft Office (you may wish to log out of your old copy first, as MS limits the number of activations over time)
  • Activate other software (many programs may be fine, but some will require you to authenticate again).

Because many of these activities require some time and online access, it is a good idea to quickly open any critical software you use to test things before you run into a situation where you need the software and don’t have the time or internet access for setup.

 

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