3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop

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If you shoot RAW, in general, you will be editing those files in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), Lightroom or some other RAW editor. This may be all the post editing that you require. However, if you are like me, I finish my editing in Photoshop. Why? Because I use layers and they play an essential part of my workflow.

Layers are definitely where the real magic in Photoshop happens. They were introduced way back in version 3.0. I am a long-time user of Photoshop, so using layers in my workflow is second nature.

How do layers work?

In Photoshop, there are many types of layers. You can add text to your image using a Type Layer. You can duplicate any type of layer. By using a Layer Style, you can add a drop shadow or other effects to your photo. For example, you may want to color correct a portrait image by using a Curves Adjustment Layer.

In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of how layers work and go on to explain why I use the following go-to in my workflow:

  1. Adjustment Layers for non-destructive editing
  2. Layer Masks
  3. Smart Objects

The Layers Panel

Let’s go over to the Layers Panel and I’ll walk you through how layers work. Here is an example of a simple vector image of a mountain range with a sunset. There are six layers stacked on top of one another, that make up the final image. By clicking on the eye icon, you can turn the visibility of each layer off and on.

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop

Different layer types in Photoshop

6 layers stacked on top of each other to form a picture in Photoshop gif

Six layers stacked on top of each other to form a picture in Photoshop

However, in Photoshop, you can do a lot more with layers. You can delete a layer by clicking on it and dragging it to the little trash can at the bottom of the panel. You can also duplicate a layer by dragging it down to the icon beside the trash can, which creates a copy of that layer. A layer can be moved by clicking on it and dragging it up or down the stack. You can reduce the opacity of a layer, thereby allowing some or all of the image layer underneath to show through, depending on how much you reduce the opacity.

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop

Duplicate and delete layers in the Layers Panel using the tools circled in red.

#1 – Adjustment Layers

Without a doubt, when Adjustment Layers were introduced into Photoshop 4.0 it meant that users could unleash the magic of Photoshop by editing non-destructively. Prior to this, you had to duplicate the image first to preserve the original, as edits were permanently made to the layer. Adjustment Laters are key in any photographer’s workflow.

As a precautionary note, Adjustments under Image in the Options Bar is not the same as creating an Adjustment Layer via Layer>New Adjustment Layer. The former will apply edits directly to the layer that you are working on, where as an Adjustment Layer adds a layer above the working one. These edits can be redone or discarded without altering the pixels of your original image.

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop

Applying edits through Image>Adjustments will affect the image permanently.

Working non destructively by adding a New Adjustment Layer via the Layer tab in the Options Bar

Working non-destructively by adding a New Adjustment Layer via the Layer tab in the Options Bar.

Adjustments Panel

As with the Layers Panel, the Adjustment Layers has its very own panel too. The icons represent the 16 different layer adjustments available in Photoshop. Some are used more than others. Adjustment layers apply the correction to all the layers below them, without affecting any of the layers above.

Adjustment Layers has it's own panel with 16 icons representing the different Adjustment Layers

Adjustment Layers has its own panel with 16 icons representing the different options.

Once I do my initial edits in ACR, I’ll finish off my post-processing in Photoshop using Adjustment layers. I like to use Levels, Curves and Selective Color & LUTs to add the necessary contrast and color corrections. As each Adjustment Layer is used and stacked on top of each other, it is essential to reduce the opacity of each layer.

How Adjustments Layers can add colour correction and bring out the details in the image in an non destructive way

How Adjustments Layers can add color correction and bring out the details in the image in a non-destructive way

Different Adjustment Layers such as Levels Adjustment Layer, Curves Adjustment Layer and Selective Color were used on this image.

Different Adjustment Layers such as Levels, Curves and Selective Color were used on this image.

What about areas of your image that don’t require the same amount of editing as other parts?

#2 – Layer Masks

When adding an Adjustment Layer in Photoshop, it applies the adjustment to the whole image. But, sometimes you need to make adjustments to only one area or separate parts of an image. This is where Layer Masks come in handy. When you add a new Adjustment Layer, it automatically adds a white Layer Mask (white reveals and black conceals).

For example, in the image of the waterfall, it was necessary for me to mask the water with each adjustment layer, otherwise, the highlights would have been blown out.

The water in the image on the left had no masks applied when global edits were applied using Adjustment Layers. Masks were used on the image on the left to preserve the highlights of the water.

The water in the image on the left has not had masks applied when global edits were added using Adjustment Layers. Masks were used on the water in the image on the right to preserve the highlights.

In the following image of this landscape in the Dublin mountains, the day was quite overcast. I wasn’t happy with the sky, so I decided to try a different one. By using the Layer masks, I was able to mask out the original sky. I used the Pen Tool for this but you can use the Brush or the Quick Selection Tool and then fill the area with black.

Layer mask applied to hide the original sky and reveal the new sky in the layer beneath.

Layer mask applied to hide the original sky and reveal the new sky from the layer beneath.

The new sky image underneath was put under this layer so that it showed through the mask, similar to a cut-out. I then added more Adjustment Layers to color correct the image so that the new sky looked seamless.

An animated gif to demonstrate the Adjustment Layers to color correct the image and by adding a layer mask to reveal a different sky to the original overcast one.

#3 – Smart Objects

Adobe really defines Smart Objects in a neat nutshell. Smart Objects preserve an image’s source content with all its original characteristics, enabling you to perform nondestructive editing to the layer.

So for photographers, this is fantastic news. Now, when you apply edits to a layer that is a Smart Object, you can transform, scale, rotate, warp, apply filters or layer masks. The quality of the image will not be degraded even though it is a raster image!

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop

An image layer converted to a Smart Object

So how do you convert an image to a Smart Object? It is simple, right click on the layer and select Convert to a Smart Object. You will see a small icon on the thumbnail image that tells you that the layer is now a Smart Object.

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop - smart object

Right click on the layer to reveal a drop-down menu and select Convert to a Smart Object.

If you edit your images in Camera Raw, you can then export the image into Photoshop as a Smart Object. Hold the Shift key and the Open Image button turns to Open Object. This means that at a later date, you can return to Camera Raw to re-edit by double clicking on the layer thumbnail.

How to set in Camera Raw the default setting for images to be exported to Photoshop as Smart Objects

How to set the default in Camera Raw for images to be exported to Photoshop as Smart Objects.

Alternatively, when you have the Camera Raw dialog box open, at the bottom there is what looks like a link on a website. This link actually takes you to the Camera Raw Workflow Options. You can check the box Open in Photoshop as Smart Objects to set that as the default in ACR.

3 Good Reasons to Use Layers in Photoshop - ACR

Click the check box in the Camera Raw Workflow Options dialog box to ensure images are exported out as Smart Objects.

Conclusion

Layers can play an important role in your post-production.

  • You can separate parts of the image and edit them without affecting other parts of the image.
  • Converting your image layers to a Smart Object allows you to move the new image around, edit it, and resize it without affecting the resolution of the original image.
  • You can add multiple layers on top of each other and put them into groups.
  • You can apply filters and effects to layers independently, e.g. drop-shadow, color adjustments, etc.
  • Blend Mode options can change the appearance of each layer
  • You can reduce the opacity on a layer. This is particularly useful when using Layer Adjustments to fine-tune the edit to create a subtle effect.

The main take away from using Layers in Photoshop is that the whole process is working non-destructively.

Now it’s your turn, do you use layers in your post-production process? What are your favorite techniques for using layers? Please share your comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Sarah Hipwell is an independent professional photographer based in Dublin. She specialises in high-quality corporate, stock and portraiture photography. Her background is in Design. She received her BA in Hons Design from the University of Ulster, Belfast. She has many years commercial design experience working as a designer and as a trainer for large multimedia companies. See more of her work at SarahHipwell.com or at 500px.

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