What Are Photoshop Layers And Why Are They So Important?

by Sep 6, 2019Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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What Are Photoshop Layers And Why Are They So Important?

Do you ever open Photoshop and feel overwhelmed by all the buttons, panels, and options? Even if you’re familiar with the program, some of the features can seem mysterious. In this article, we’ll look at one of the most basic concepts in Photoshop – layers. We’ll explain what they are, why they’re useful and how you can use them. So read on to learn everything you need to know about Photoshop layers!

Why Photoshop Layers Are Important

Layers are what makes the Photoshop software so versatile for constructing graphics or for editing photographs. It would be very difficult to achieve the same results without using layers and you could easily create problems for yourself by not using them.

Layers give you the ability to work on one element of an image without affecting the rest of the photo. They also make it easy to go back and make changes if you need to. In addition, layers allow you to experiment with different effects without permanently altering the original photo. Photoshop layers are an essential tool for anyone who wants to edit photography.

Avoid This Beginners Mistake in Photoshop

There are many ways to learn Photoshop, but most people start by opening an image and experimenting with adjustments. This can help you understand how each adjustment works and can give a sense of accomplishment when it does what you want. But basing your learning on trial-and error methods can lead you to develop bad habits.

A common problem is that many new users start with Photoshop where they find the “Adjustments” section in the Image menu.  Clicking this presents plenty of options for editing an image like changing the “Exposure” or “Saturation” or even converting an image to “Black & White”.

Editing the image directly in the Photoshop Image Menu

Unfortunately, when you approach editing an image like this it opens you up to all kinds of future problems.

Photoshop Destructive Editing

The above approach directly changes an image during editing, and we call it destructive editing. This is because your changes are embedded in the image itself, making the change permanent.

Imagine you are editing a photograph in Photoshop and add some text to the image as a title, but you add it directly to the image. Later you discover you made a spelling mistake in the text and need to change it. But because the text was added directly to the image and has changed the image pixels, it can’t be changed. It’s now part of the image. And because you have since closed the image file, saving it, you can’t use the Photoshop undo command. You may be able to repair the image using the Healing Brush Tool but it’s more likely you would need to start again.

A much better option is to use Photoshop Layers. By placing the text on a separate layer to the image two things happen:

  1. The text layer continues to be editable separately to the image. This means we can change the text, correct any mistakes, resize it, change the font, colour and much more.
  2. We can hide the text layer so that we only see the image.

This is an example of non-destructive editing and it’s the approach used by professional photo editors everywhere.

Types of Photoshop Layer

Layers in Photoshop can be divided into several types, each with their own unique purpose. For example, there is the Text layer which allows for storing and editing text data. There are also Adjustment Layers with various tools designed specifically to adjust images.

Even though Adjustment Layers are mentioned as an item, there are many different types of adjustment you can use. Common examples include Levels, Curves and Black and White. Although each has a different purpose and looks different, they are all examples of Adjustment Layers. This is how fundamental layers are to the operation of Photoshop.

Valuable Features of Photoshop Layers

Photoshop Layers provide additional photo editing features which is another reason they are so important. You can see three of these highlighted in the screenshot below of the Photoshop Layers window.

Valuable features of Photoshop Layers

Each Layer in a photo has an Opacity setting (1) associated with it. By default, the Opacity of the layer is set to 100% opacity. With an image layer, this hides the layers beneath it. For example, setting the opacity to 50% will allow some of the underlying image to show through, creating a more subtle effect. With an Adjustment Layer we can use the Opacity setting to control the strength of the adjustment.

The Blend Mode (2) is another useful feature of Layers in Photoshop and can be used to create different effects. Photoshop offers a large range of blend modes, each of which produces a unique result. For example, the “multiply” blend mode will darken the image, while the “screen” blend mode will lighten it.

Then there is the Layer Mask (3) which allows you to control which areas of the image a layer affects. This is useful for making selective edits, such as whitening teeth or enhancing or replacing a sky.

Photoshop’s layer features are incredibly versatile and can help you achieve professional-looking results.

Adding a New Layer in Photoshop

When editing your photos, you should work using Layers wherever possible for the reasons we’ve discussed. To apply a Curves adjustment to an image for example, you would add a new Curves Adjustment layer in the Photoshop Layers menu. There you will find the option for a “New Adjustment Layer” which lists the different Adjustment Layers you can use, including Curves.

Applying a new curves adjustment layer in photoshop

Another way to add the Curves Adjustment Layer is using the icons found at the bottom of the Photoshop Layers Window.

Photoshop Layers Windows

Many new Photoshop users close Photoshop windows or panels that they don’t use. The Layers Window is a common example of this because new users often don’t understand its importance. If you have closed your Layers Window or you can’t see it in your interface, you can check if it’s visible. You can do this in the Photoshop “Windows” menu where you find different photoshop windows listed. Any layer that has a tick mark to the left of its name in the list is visible. Clicking the entry in the list toggles the visibility off and on.

As mentioned above, you can add a new Curves Adjustment layer using the icons at the bottom of the Layers Window.

Icons of the Photoshop Layers Window

When you click icon 1 at the bottom of the Layers window, Photoshop displays a list of Adjustment Layers. These are the same Adjustment Layers that we saw in the Layer menu above. When you click on one of these layers it’s then added to the image and will appear in the Layers Window.

Another feature which we’ve already discussed is the Layer Mask. Some layers like the Curves Adjustment Layer come with an empty white layer mask already attached to them. But some types of layers like image layers don’t have a layer mask attached. If you would like to add a Layer Mask to a Layer that doesn’t already have one you can click the New Layer Mask icon (2) at the bottom of the Layers Window.

It’s also possible to add an empty layer to an image by clicking icon 3. You will then see the new empty Layer added to the image in the Layers Window. We can use empty layers to create image repairs to remove unwanted objects with tools like the Clone Stamp. By applying a repair to a new empty layer, we are making a non-destructive change to the image.

Saving Your Layers in Photoshop

The ability to return to and adjust your edits is just one powerful benefit when working with Photoshop layers. But to retain the layers between editing sessions, it’s important to save your photos correctly. This means saving them in a format that supports layers. Some popular image formats like JPEG don’t do this.

Probably the best format to use when saving your photos with layers is the Photoshop file format, also known as the PSD format.

When working with Layers in Photoshop, it’s not uncommon for file sizes to grow quickly. When this happens, your image may exceed the maximum size of the PSD image format. If you find yourself facing this problem when trying to save an image, switch to using the Photoshop Large Document format. This allows the saving of much larger files and fully supports Layers.

Learning More about Photoshop Layers

To help you learn more about editing with Photoshop Layers, I’ve produced the following video. The video also demonstrates how you can use some of the features we have discussed in this article.

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You can also watch this video on my YouTube channel. I publish a new video every week, often based on subscribers’ requests and feedback. Subscribe to my YouTube channel now and be sure not to miss future videos.


If you started this tutorial wondering what Photoshop layers are, you should now have a better understanding. Working with layers in Photoshop unlocks valuable and powerful features which can make your photo editing faster, and much easier. In fact, Layers are such a powerful editing tool that I’ve written an entire book on the subject.

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Use the power of Photoshop layers in your editing.

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Understanding how to use and edit photography using Photoshop Layers, also allows you to apply that knowledge to other photo editors. This is an essential skill to develop if you want to produce professional photography.

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You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Photoshop Tutorials page.

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