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A Complete Guide To Layers In Photoshop [Tutorial]

Layers is one of the core part for Photoshop users. No matter you’re drawing lines, or constructing something as big as a poster. It is always recommended to keep even a single dot created with a brush pan on a separate layer. Some might ask why?  Well its quite simple. Later on, if you want to make changes to your clipboard, you can simply move that dot (layer), put different blending options on it, hide it or even delete it without losing the rest of your work. No one wants to spend another couple of hours reconstructing the whole design just because they didn’t want that simple dot, which is now embedded in the whole clipboard. Today we will discuss layers in details.


Layers in Photoshop are like sheets of fabric. Transparent areas can be seen through the layers to the layers below it. You can move a layer, just like sliding a sheet from one to another. Opacity and fill can be changed to make content partially transparent as well. For instance, if you simply import a new layer from the web, it has one layer. Number of additional layers, its effects and sets are limited only to your computer’s memory.

layerspanel You work with layers in the Layers Panel. Creating layer groups help you organize and manage layer for the ease of usage and saves time when moving layers, visibility, and blending options. These created groups can be nested within other groups and so on. These same groups can be used to apply different attributes and masks to multiple layers simultaneously. Sometimes layers don’t contain any content. An adjustment layer holds only color or tonal adjustments that affect the layers below it. Rather than editing the image directly, you can simply edit the adjustment layer to get the necessary effect.

Smart Objects, basically contain one or more layers of the content. Transformation can be done in terms of scale, skew, and reshape without directly editing image pixels. Smart Objects can be edited as a separate image even after placing it in Photoshop clipboard. Just like layers smart objects can also contain smart filter effects, which simply allow you to apply filters to images so that you can later tweak filter effects.

Video layers can be added to add video to an image. After importing, video layer can be masked, transformed, with options to layer effects, painting individual frame and convert it to a standard layer. Timeline panel can be used to play the video within an image or accessing individual frames.

Selecting & Grouping Layers

Layers can be selected in terms of layers panel, document window, or/and in a group. You can select one or more layers to work on them. For activities like painting, making color, and tonal adjustments, you can work only on one layer at a time. A single selected layer is called active layer. The name appears in the title bar of the document window. For other activities such as moving, aligning, transforming, or applying styles, you can select multiple layers at a time. It can be done using the move tool. Or simply select layers by holding the Shift or Ctrl key.

Click a layer to select a layer in the layers panel. To select multiple desired layers, click the first layer and then shift-click the other layers to be selected. To select a number of layers, use  Ctrl + Click in the layers panel. To select all layers, choose Select > All Layers. To deselect a layer Ctrl + click. And to have no layer selected, click in the layers panel below the background layer or simply choose Select > Deselect Layers.

Stacking & Locking Layers

To change the stack order of layers and group, simply drag the layer or group up or down in the layers panel. Release the mouse button when the highlighted line appears where you want to place the layer or group. You can place layers within groups, or groups within groups. To move a layer to a group, simply drag the layer and place it inside the group. To reverse the order of selected layers, choose Layer > Arrange, and choose a command from the sub menu. To enable these options you must have to select at least two layers.

edges&transform Showing the edges of the layer can help you move and align content as required. Transform handles can be displayed for selected layer, layers, and groups with Ctrl + T to resize, move or rotate them.To display the edges of content in selected layer, choose View > Show > Layer Edges.

To display transform handles in a selected layer, select the Move tool or from the options bar, select Show Transform Controls or simply press Ctrl + T after selecting the layer.

To Align objects on different layers use the Move tool. Layers can be aligned in terms of single layer, multiple layers, and groups. Choose Layer > Align or Layer > Align Layers to Selection and choose a command from the sub-menu. Same commands are available as Alignment buttons in the Move tool options bar including, Top Edges, Vertical Centers, Bottom Edges, Left Edges, Horizontal Centers and Right Edges. Distribution of layers and groups evenly can be done using the same commands.

The Auto-Align Layers command can automatically align layers based on similar content in different layers, such as corners and edges. Using the Auto-Align command, you can combine images by replacing or deleting parts of images and sticking images together. After doing Auto-Align you can use Edit > Free Transform or Ctrl + T to fine tune the final alignment. Use Auto-Blend layers to stitch or combine images with decent and smooth transitions in the final image. It applies layer masks as needed to each layer to mask out over or underexposed areas of image.

Auto Blend is only available for RGB and Grayscale images. It would not work with smart objects, video layers, 3D layers or background layers. To do so, copy or place the images you want to combine in the same document. Each image will come in as a separate layer. Select the layers you want to blend. With the layers selected choose Edit > Auto Blend layers. Panorama and Stack images are the objectives processed in Auto Blend mode. Panorama blends overlapping layers into a panorama image and Stack Images blends the best available details in each corresponding area.

Layers can be locked fully or partially to protect the content. To lock, select a layer or group and click the Lock All option in the layers panel. Partially lock can be done in terms of transparent pixels, image, pixels and image position, from the same layers panel.

Masking Layers

layermask Masking comes in as a great tool in Photoshop for layers. You can add a mask to a layer and use them to hide certain portions of the layer. It helps to reveal the layers below. Masking layers is a valuable compositing technique for combining multiple photos into a single image or for making color and tonal adjustments to the layer. When adding a layer mask, you have the option to hide or show all of the layers, or simply base it on transparency.

Later, you can paint on the mask to hide portions of the layers, revealing the layers below it. To add a mask, click Add Layer Mask in the layers panel or choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal all. To add a layer mask that hides part of a layer Alt + Click the add layer mask button.

To create a mask from layer transparency, choose Layer > Layer Mask > From Transparency. Photoshop automatically converts transparency into an opaque color, hidden by the newly created mask. The color depends upon the filters and processing applied previously on the layer. Lastly, to apply a layer mask to another layer, simply move the mask to another layer by dragging it. To disable or enable a created mask, click the Disable/Enable Mask button in the Masks panel or select the layer and choose Layer > Layer Mask > Disable or layer > Layer Mask > Enable. A red ‘X’ will appear on the mask once its disabled.

masks Vector masks can be created using the pen or shape tool. To create a vector mask that reveals the entire layer, click Vector Mask button in the Masks panel, or simply choose Layer > Vector Mask > Reveal All. To add a vector mask that shows the contents of a shape, select the layer and a path or use one of the shape or pen tools to draw a path and click the vector mask button in the Masks panel. To edit the created vector mask, select the mask you want to edit and you shape or pen tool to make changes to the created paths.

To load a layer mask’s boundaries as a selection, select all non transparent areas on a layer. It becomes useful when you want to select text or image content that is contained by transparent areas. Ctrl + Click the layer thumbnail in the layers panel. If a selection already exists and you want to add pixels to it, press Ctrl + Shift and click the layer thumbnail in the layers panel. To subtract a selection, press Alt + Shift, and to load the intersection of the pixels and existing selection, press Ctrl + Alt + Shift and click the layer thumbnail from the layers panel.

Managing Layers

delete Layers management can be done in terms of renaming a layer or group, assign a specific color, rasterizing layers, delete a layer or group, export layers, track file size and merge and stamp layers. To rename a layer or group, double click the layer or group name and enter a new name or press Alt and double click the layer or group name. To assign a separate color other than default, choose Layer Properties or press Alt and double click. Layers can be rasterized into a flat or raster image by selected the layers you want to rasterize and choose Layer > Rasterize and select options from the sub-menu like type, shape, fill content, vector mask, smart object, video, 3D, layer and all layers or Ctrl + E after selecting the layers.To delete a layer or a group, select and press the trash bin or choose Layers > Delete > Layer or Delete layer or hit Delete from keyboard. To delete hidden layers, choose Layers > Delete > Hidden Layers.

Opacity & Blending Options

Opacity and Blending options lets you specifiy overall and fill opacity for selected layers, blending mode for a layer or a group of layers, filling new layers with a neutral color, creating a knockout, excluding channels from blending mode, group blend effects and specify a tonal range for blending range.

opacity&filA layer’s overall opacity determines to what degree it obscures or reveals the layers below it. A layer with 1% opacity will be almost transparent, whereas layer with 100% opacity will appear completely opaque.  Changing opacity and fill values can be done from the layers panel. You must select a certain layer or group to make changes.

blending-modeA layers blending mode determines the way its pixels will blend with underlying pixels of different layers in the overall image. A number of special effects can be created using the blending modes. By default the blending mode of layers is set as Pass Through, which means that the group has zero blending properties of its own.

You can effectively change the order in which the images (layers) are put together by using different blending modes. When you apply a certain blending mode to a group, it effectively changes the order in which the image layers are put together. The composite group is treated as a single image and is blended with the rest of the image using the selected blended mode.

To add a blending option, select a layer or group from the layers panel, choose a blending mode which can be normal, dissolve, darken, multiply, color burn, linear burn, darker color, lighten, screen, color dodge, linear dodge, lighter color, overlay, soft light, hard light, vivid light, linear light, pin light, hard mix, difference, exclusion, subtract, divide, hue, saturation, color and luminosity. Or choose Layer > Layer Style > Blending Options and then choose an option from the Blend Mode menu. The easiest and quickest way is to select a layer and choose the blending option from the layers panel.

You can fill new layers with neutral colors. Certainly, you cannot apply filters to layers with no pixels or data in them. Selecting Fill with neutral color in a newly created layer resolves the problem. The new neutral color is assigned according to the layer’s specified blending mode. The fill with neutral color option is not available for layers that use normal, dissolve, hard light, hue, saturation, color or luminosity blending modes.

Layer Effects & Styles

layerstylesPhotoshop provides a number of effects that change the appearance of a layer’s contents. Layer effects are always linked to the layer contents. When you edit the layer content, same effects are applied to the modified version. For instance, if you add a drop shadow to a text layer, and add a new text, the shadow is automatically added to the new text as well. You can apply preset styles provided in Photoshop or create custom styles using the Layer Style box. The layer effects icon appears to the right of the layer’s name in the Layers panel. You can expand the style in the layers panel to view or edit the styles.  You can open the Blending options to customize the layer style by double click on the layer or right-click and select Blending Options.

Layer Style dialog box displays all available effect options which can be completely customized. You can create custom styles using drop shadow, inner shadow, outer glow and inner glow, bevel and emboss, satin, color, gradient and pattern overlay and stroke. When modifying layer effects, you can use contours to control the shape of applied effects over a given range. You can select, reset, delete or change the preview of contours in the contour pop-up panel and present manager.


Preset styles can be applied from the Styles Panel. (Window > Styles). The preset styles are grouped into libraries. Click a preset style and apply it to selected layer by dragging it to the document window. To apply a created style to another layer, Alt + Drag the style from layers effect list to copy it to another layer. You can change how the preset styles are displayed by clicking the triangle in the Styles panel.

All created and applied layer styles can be displayed or hidden by clicking the eye next to the effects. You can select a single effect or simply enable / disable all the effects applied to a certain layer. To delete a layer effect, simply drag it to the Delete icon in the layers panel. Lastly, you can convert created layer style to image layers. You can enhance the result by applying filters. But you can no longer edit the layer style on the original layer and the layer style. Choose Layer > Layer Style > Create Layers. Modification can be done to the newly created layers in the same way as regular layers.

Adjustment & Fill Layers

adjustmentfilllayerAdjustment Layers in Photoshop applies color and tonal adjustments to your images / layers without changing pixel values. Rather than making a level, color, or curves adjustment directly to your image, you can create a adjustment layers from the layers panel. Once created with customized settings, it is applied to all layers beneath it. The benefit is that you can correct multiple layers by making a single adjustment rather than adjusting each layer separately.  Using adjustment layers provides users nondestructive edits to their images with selective editing and ability to apply adjustments to multiple images. On the other hand Fill layers, let you fill a layer with a solid color, a gradient or a pattern. Fill layers do not affect the layers beneath them. Adjustment layers contain adjustment data rather than pixels, they increase the file size far less than standard pixel layers. If you are working with large sized files, you can reduce file size by merging adjustment layers into pixel layers.

filllayersAdjustment and fill layers have the same opacity and blending modes like regular image layers. You can always rearrange, delete, hide and duplicate them. To create an adjustment layer, click the adjustment icon from the layers panel or choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer and choose an option. Fill layer can be created the same way by choosing a fill layer type (solid color, gradient and pattern). Adjustments can be modified at any time by double clicking on the adjustment layer icon.

As soon as you create an adjustment or fill layer, they automatically act as layer masks, indicated by the mask icon. You can create and adjustment or fill layer by using a selection, path or a color range.

On the end note, Layers in Photoshop plays a big role, no matter if you’re a beginner or a pro user. The ability to use layers properly can give you outstanding results in your projects by saving you time and securing your work.

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