What Are Layers in Photoshop?
If you’re new to Photoshop, you may be asking what are these layers that you hear about. In fact, even relatively experience Photoshop users find Layers confusing and avoid using them. This is unfortunate as Layers are one of the most powerful editing tools in Photoshop. In this tutorial I’m going to explain what layers are and why it’s important to use them. I’ve also included a helpful video demonstrating some of the things you can do with layers in Photoshop and other photo editors.
How Not to Edit in Photoshop
Most people start to learn Photoshop by opening an image and then applying adjustments. Please don’t use this trial and error method approach. It only helps you pick up bad habits.
Many new users start using Photoshop with the “Image | Adjustments” menu. This is because it probably seems the most logical way to edit. As soon as you click this option you find all the powerful Photoshop adjustments available.
Unfortunately, each time you apply an adjustment in this way, you cause a small amount of damage to the image. Over time this can build up and cause the damage to become visible.
Editing in this was also “embeds” the changes you make into the image. If you later find you want to change an adjustment you made (as often happens) you will need to use the Photoshop history feature. You’re then forced to undo all the changes until you reach the one that you need to adjust. After that you need to reapply the changes you removed.
The situation becomes even worse once you save and close your image. After that, you can’t use the Photoshop history or undo features and you’re stuck with your changes. We call this approach to photo editing destructive editing. It means you’ve permanently changed the image and can’t return to the original.
Adding a Layer in Photoshop
When you edit your photos using Layers it helps you avoid applying destructive edits. Each change you apply becomes a new layer. For example, to apply a Curves adjustment to an image you would add a new Curves Adjustment layer in the Photoshop Layers menu. There you will find the option for a “New Adjustment Layer”, under which you find the Curves option.
Once you’ve applied the new Curves adjustment layer, you will see the Curves Dialog in the Photoshop Properties Window. You can then make your adjustment as you would if you had selected Curves from the “Image | Adjustments” menu.
Many new Photoshop users will close Photoshop windows they don’t use including Properties. The Properties window should display automatically when you add a Curves adjustment layer. If it doesn’t you can manually open it. You can do this in the Photoshop “Windows” menu where you find all the windows listed. Just select the Properties window from the list.
The other window you need to display when working with Layers is the Photoshop Layers window. This is very important because it shows the layer’s you’ve added to your image when editing. You can then select and apply further adjustments or refinements.
Here you can see the Photoshop Layers window with the image displayed as the bottom layer called “Background”. Above this is a new Curves layer called “Curves 1”. When you click on the Curves 1 layer, the Curves adjustment for that layer displays in the Properties window. You can then make changes to the Curve to refine the adjustment.
Each new layer you add to adjust the image then appears in the Layers Window. This allows you to select and adjust the layer independently. We call the list of layers in the Photoshop Layers Window the Layer Stack.
Saving Your Layers in Photoshop
The ability to return to and adjust your edits is just one powerful benefit when working with layers. But to retain the benefits between editing sessions, it’s important to save your photos correctly. This means saving them in a format that supports all the features of layers. The best way to achieve this is by saving them in the Photoshop file format, also known as the PSD format.
When you save your photos in the PSD format, you have the option to save the layers. Be sure you have the “Layers” option selected before saving the image. Next time you open the image you will find it’s preserved all the layers, allowing you to make further adjustments.
Other file formats like TIFF also support the saving of layers, but they may not preserve all the layer information. It’s therefore always best to select the default format used by your image editor.
Other Benefits of Layers
Whilst we’ve touched on a couple of benefits of using adjustment layers in Photoshop, there are others. For example, you can turn off layers to temporarily hide their effect without needing to delete the layer. It’s possible to reduce the Opacity of the layer to reduce the strength of its adjustment. You can also use a powerful feature called a Blending Mode. This modifies how a layer’s adjustment blends with the image.
If you want to know more about editing using Photoshop Layers, I’ve produced the following video to help. The video also demonstrates how you can use these features in other editing packages like Affinity Photo.
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If you started this tutorial wondering “what are layers in Photoshop”, you should now have a better understand. You should also understand some of the benefits to working with layers and be able to start using them if you don’t already. In fact, Layers are such a powerful editing tool that I wrote a Photoshop book about them “Photoshop Layers: Professional Strength Image Editing”.
When you understand how to use and edit photography using Layers in Photoshop, you can more easily apply that knowledge to other photo editors.