Sometimes the greatest breakthroughs begin as mistakes. These hard-earned tips just might change the way you use After Effects forever.

After Effects is a rich, yet approachable, application, and it’s not uncommon for even veteran users to learn something new each time they fire up the software. Over the course of my career in After Effects, some of the best lessons I’ve learned were the result of screwing up, misunderstanding, and/or simply being a bit ignorant. It’s my sincere hope that you don’t make the same mistakes.

With that hope in mind, here are a few After Effects lessons I’ve learned the hard way.

1. The Graph Editor Isn’t Scary

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - Graph Editor in After Effects

If your motion graphics constantly look artificial or unnatural, you’re likely using the built-in keyframe interpolation features in After Effects. In practical words, your keyframes are probably either linear or bezier. When it comes to animation, professional designers use a tool known as a Graph Editor to make their movements more natural.

A Graph Editor is basically an algebra-like chart that shows your object’s movement over time. The smoother the animation curves, the more natural your animation will look. Unfortunately, many animators and aspiring motion designers get easily overwhelmed by the thought of having to work with graphs.

In reality, a Graph Editor is even easier to work with than plain keyframes. This fantastic tutorial from Skillshare shows us how to use Graph Editors in After Effects.

2. Keyboard Shortcuts Aren’t Just for Looking Cool

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - Keyboard Shortcuts in After Effects

Keyboard shortcuts aren’t just a way to impress your clients. By using keyboard shortcuts, you can literally save yourself hours on each project. Sure, you may only save a few seconds here or there — but those seconds add up. With enough practice, you should be able to perform most of your basic tasks in After Effects using just keyboard shortcuts. It’s not uncommon for me to figure out a new keyboard shortcut and realize I’ve wasted so much time in the past with the mouse when I could have just hit a few keys.

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - After Effects shortcuts
Download an awesome After Effects shortcut cheat sheet over on MakeAWebsiteHub.

One of my favorite ways to use keyboard shortcuts is to simply add a new shortcut to my workflow each time I sit down in After Effects. I find this a lot more effective than trying to learn them all at once. After Effects is also really good about showing a corresponding keyboard shortcut when you hover over a tool or drop-down selection. Each time you see a keyboard shortcut listed, take a few seconds learning what that shortcut is. If you’ve clicked a menu selection, there’s likely a faster way to navigate to that link using shortcuts.

3. After Effects Is Not Photoshop

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - After Effects is Not Photoshop

After Effects is a motion graphics and compositing software and Photoshop is a photo manipulation software — but there are plenty of people performing tasks in After Effects that should definitely be done in Photoshop.

When I first started using After Effects, I didn’t know anything about Photoshop. As a result, I would do tasks like photo editing, resizing, and even background removals in After Effects. This was, of course, a mistake.

Photoshop has many tools (like the magic wand) that make it a far superior program for photo-based projects. If you’ve never utilized Photoshop in your After Effects workflow, I just can’t recommend it enough. One of the best places to learn is Lynda.com. Here’s a quick tutorial from Lynda’s YouTube channel.

4. Collecting Files Is Perfect for Sharing Projects

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - Collect Files in After Effects

Chances are you probably use the File>Save feature every single time you work in After Effects — and rightfully so. The default save method is best for day-to-day workflows. However, one feature I’ve found to be ultra-useful in recent years is the Collect Files feature, which can be found by navigating to File>Dependancies>Collect Files.

This feature will create a new folder with all of the assets from your composition inside. You don’t have to worry about copying all of your assets over to a new folder when you want to share your project with others.

5. Inspired Playtime Breeds Originality

5 After Effects Lessons I Learned the Hard Way - After Effects Creativity

Messing around in After Effects makes you feel like a kid again. In a lot of ways, After Effects work doesn’t feel like work at all. Some of my greatest achievements were the result of just messing around with effects until something good happened.

One of the most helpful creative tips I’ve ever learned is to look for outside inspiration when working on video projects. While it can be easy to simply open up After Effects and get to work, it’s better to look for creative inspiration and combine ideas that you like to create something new. There’s over a hundred years of motion graphic work to build off of, so there’s no need to feel like you have to start from square one. Combine you most-liked ideas and truly amazing things happen.

Have YOU learned any After Effects lessons the hard way? Share them in the comments below!