Software Skills–What Do We Need to Know?


Teaching is often a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants undertaking. I don’t mean to suggest that teacher’s ad lib their way through the day in front of their students. That would be irresponsible. Teachers are researchers first and instructors second; it is our responsibility to investigate and understand the subject matter before presenting the information to the class. Way back when, in mid-career as an art teacher, I decided to pursue a Masters in Education in Curriculum and Instruction. As part of my required courses, I needed to take Visual Communication in the 21st Century. I stepped into a computer lab class, and the software we explored was the newly released presentation platform–Powerpoint! I was gobsmacked! I loved it! My first presentation was 35 slides long with transitions, music, and embedded video. I purchased a 1 GB portable zip drive to store and transport my presentation. Looking back on this experience, I find it hysterical. My district thought my new found skill set made me an IT guru of sorts. This is how I entered the burgeoning field of digital arts. I researched the dickens out of this field of knowledge.


My expertise grew because I opened myself to new information and taught myself how to use it. Eventually, this led me to teaching a yearbook class. Mind you, I didn’t consider myself a photographer, although I could compose a good photo. And I didn’t know much about DSLRs, but I could decipher a manual and help a student figure out the basics. I found what worked best for me and shared it with my students. More importantly, I leaned into their skills with their smartphones. Smartphones have amazing cameras and some pretty sharp editing features, too.

I researched intensely and thoroughly the purposes of a yearbook and what was needed to create a successful yearbook, including software skills

I share this with you because I found this fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants research mentality to be central to my experience as an art teacher. I taught a large range of subjects: metalsmithing to printmaking, pottery to carving stone, drawing to painting, casting to papier mache, product design to graphic design, AP Studio Art to Art Appreciation. You name it–I taught it. I was not a master at any of it. However, I became very skilled at teaching core concepts and providing the necessary framework for deeper studies. I applied what I knew about how to teach–core concepts and creating frameworks for more specific exploration–to the yearbook class. I researched intensely and thoroughly the purposes of a yearbook and what was needed to create a successful yearbook, including software skills.


While under my tenure, the yearbook was published by two different publishing houses. Yet, there were some basic software skills I found to be important for my yearbook staff regardless of the publishers’ software platforms.



Photo Formats–Digital Photo Formats are the image storage formats available. Raw, JPG, TIF, PNG and HEIC are the most common image formats. United Yearbook prefers PNG as it provides the best print quality. Image Size & Resolution refers to the actual size of the image. Print media (like a yearbook) requires all image resolutions at 300 dpi (dots of ink per inch) regardless of the size of image, whereas digital media (any screen) requires image resolutions at 72 ppi (pixels per inch on screen) for clearest views. Images for printing should be saved at a larger size as these can always be scaled down.


Photo Editing requires that you choose software that performs basic editing functions and is accessible to your students. As a reminder, there is a difference between Photojournalism and photographs treated with special effects. They are not the same! Editing photographs that capture the truth of a moment must be true to the entire scene: who was in the photograph, the lighting and color, and the location. Nothing should be changed. Whereas. photographs that have been edited with an artful intent to support a particular storyline as a dramatic illustration can receive a range of applications.


Some common editing actions:

  • Mode pertains to the type of color an image is, or to which it can be changed. Adobe offers a robust help service with explanations to assist the novice as well as the expert. Check this resource here.

  • Layers are often used in image editing to track and manage the changes made to the original file.

  • Auto Adjustments are automatic corrections to amplify or reduce Tone, Contrast & Color. Other adjustments, i.e. Vibrancy, Saturation, Levels & Curves are also usually available. Experimentation for special effects, such as the use of filters, can add dramatic or fun effects to ordinary photographs.

  • Cropping offers the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary elements from a photograph. It is a critical skill to examine a photograph and determine what is important and what is not important to keep in the photo. This topic can be addressed using multiple examples of uncropped and cropped photos, highlighting the changes, and the reasons for the choices to crop or not to crop. Transform changes the size of and rotates an image. Most important is to keep the scaled image in the right aspect ratio.


There are many reliable online photography sites which provide a wealth of information for novice, intermediate and professional photographers alike. Again, teachers are excellent researchers. Some of the sites I found helpful included REI COOP’s Expert Advice and the article Photo Composition: Seven Tips to Take Better Photos, Photography Life and this article What is Aspect Ratio and How to Use it in Photography, the MasterClass article, How to Edit Photos: Essential Photo Editing Techniques, and 42 West’s 5 Easy Photoshop Steps For Beginners. Quick and specific browser searches bring so much information in seconds.


Cutouts are dynamic ways to add interest to a layout design. When a Cutout is created, the subject of a photograph is isolated by any number of Select and Mask tools in photo editing software. Newer versions of Photoshop have a tool that offers a more efficient action than the previous lasso functions. I appreciate that each tool comes with built in tutorials with the ‘Learn more’ buttons. Again, as with most available Photo Editing software, use what’s most reasonably available and accessible to students. Here’s an example with the current version of Photoshop with the Object Selection Tool:

This design concept adds a robust emphasis for main features in a Page Spread.

Most yearbooks have several examples of Cut Outs throughout the book. This design concept adds a robust emphasis for main features in a Page Spread. For Adobe products, the Make It site offers a wide range of skills including how to do basic cut outs of an image. Click here to access the cut out tutorial.



Canva Pro and other template driven design software offer excellent ways into the cut out feature. Click here to access a Canva cut out tutorial.


Cutouts give vitality to page spreads and elevates the professional look of the layout design. It is an excellent way to spotlight groups, teams, couples or individuals. This skill is definitely one staffers can master.



Clipping Mask is a strong design strategy that can boost the number of student faces in a page spread. Essentially, a font with a robust or dense letter form is selected for this process. Pictures are added to the thicker letter form using a Clipping Mask. There are many tutorials online. PHLEARN, an online Photoshop, Lightroom & Photography website, shares a straightforward example in their Clipping Mask tutorial; click here to view. Photoshop Essentials is another informational website that does an excellent job providing step by step instructions for Clipping Masks. Click here for their tutorial. Again, used selectively throughout the yearbook, Clipping Mask letter forms offer one more avenue for gaining a stronger, more deliberately balanced representation of a school’s community.



Special Effects–there are many digital special effects that can be applied to photographs; any one of which could ignite powerful responses to the visual images. Some websites to aid in decision making regarding those effects include Digital Photography School and its 26 Unique Special Effects Photos to Spark Your Creativity, befunky’s Amazing Online Photo Effects, and PhotoshopRoadmap offers 27 Super Creative Photo Effects Tutorials for Photoshop. These are terrific ‘fun factors.’ I recommend that these be applied with discretion. Too much of a good thing is just that–too much.


My hope is that you find this information helpful. Sharing what we have learned makes the journey just a little bit brighter and lighter. United Yearbook Printing is ready and willing to provide the expertise to make your yearbook’s staff creative dreams a reality.


Contributor: Lucy McHugh comes to United Yearbook Printing from a 39-year career in public and private school education. She was a former visual art teacher and yearbook adviser. She received a Bachelors of Science in Art from Columbia College in Columbia, SC, a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Nebraska in 2000, and in 2014 earned a Certificate in Catholic School Leadership from Loyola Marymount University. Lucy enjoys her family, making art and gardening.


Editor: Donna Ladner obtained a B.A. in Education and a minor in English from California Baptist University, and a M.S. in ESL from USC, Los Angeles. After she married Daniel, their family moved to Indonesia with a non-profit organization and lived cross-culturally for 15 years before returning to the U.S in 2012. Donna has been working as an editor and proofreader for TSE Worldwide Press and its subsidiary, United Yearbook since 2015.

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