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:
- Adjustment Layers for non-destructive editing
- Layer Masks
- 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.
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.
#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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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!
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.
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.
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.
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.