A Beginners Introduction to Using Layers

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Using layers in your photo editing software is one of the most important things you can do to create great images. Layers are so powerful, even the most basic understanding of them can improve your photography tremendously. The good news is that using layers is extremely easy, and very quick. If you follow along with this tutorial and incorporate the techniques, you’ll see a huge difference in the quality of your images.

22 use gradient

While there are countless things you can do with layers, it’s convenient to group them into three main categories:

  1. Exposure blending
  2. Local adjustments to specific parts of an image
  3. Special techniques

We’ll go through all three categories in this tutorial. Please keep in mind this guide is meant to demonstrate the power of layers and why you want to use them. It’s not a software-specific guide and the exact mouse-clicks and menu items may vary slightly among the different photo editing packages available. That said, the use of layers is very similar in all software.

EXPOSURE BLENDING

Exposure blending is one of the best techniques you can use to improve your photos. It’s critical to understand and use this skill. It’s also super-easy!

First, let’s understand why you need to blend exposures. We know that a camera has limited “dynamic range”. That means the camera has a hard time capturing very bright parts of a scene and very dark parts in a single photo. As a photographer, you would generally choose to prioritize one over the other. This is a sacrifice photographers have been dealing with for decades.
Exposure blending solves this problem.

You simply take two or more photos of the scene at various exposures and blend the best parts of each exposure to produce a single image where all areas are exposed correctly. Wait you say, isn’t that HDR? In a way it sort of is. The difference between automated HDR software and this technique is that HDR software uses a computer algorithm to choose the areas of your photo to blend, while using layers gives you complete control over the final image. It can also be a much quicker process than using dedicated HDR software. Both processes can be considered “High Dynamic Range” photography, and both have their place.

So how do we do it? It’s very simple, you layer the photos with different exposures on top of each other and then manually blend them. Before we blend exposures, let’s take a quick look at how layers work.

Here we see two photos, one of the Brooklyn Bridge and one from Bora Bora.

1 Brooklyn and Bora Bora separate

To layer them, I’ll copy-and-paste one photo on top of the other in my editing software. (There are a variety of ways to layer photos depending on the software you use. I use copy-and-paste). After I paste the Brooklyn Bridge photo on top of the Bora Bora photo, you can now see on the right of the screen, where the red arrow points, that the photos are now layered in one document (see image below).

2 Brooklyn and Bora Bora layered

If I were to take an eraser brush and swipe it across the top layer, I will erase that top photo and “reveal” the photo below it. Here’s an example after I’ve taken a swipe with the eraser brush.

3 Brooklyn and Bora Bora erased

That’s all there is to understanding the very basics of how layers work. With just that little piece of knowledge, your photography can be completely transformed.

In the example above, I used the eraser brush to reveal the layer below. That’s one way of doing it, and I showed you that first because it’s an easy way to demonstrate layers. However, most people use what’s called a “layer mask” instead of the eraser brush. Don’t worry, it’s not complicated.

A layer mask is just another way of revealing the photo below. Instead of using the eraser brush to reveal the bottom photo, you create a middle layer between the two photos called a “mask layer” and you draw on it with a paintbrush – wherever you paint, the top photo is “erased” revealing the bottom photo.

To create a layer mask, just layer two photos on top of each other like I did above, then from the menu click “Create Layer Mask –> Reveal All”. Then you use the paintbrush on the mask to reveal the bottom photo. Painting with the color black reveals the layer below, and if you switch the color to white, it will “undo” wherever you’ve painted black so you can clean up any strokes you didn’t want to make (black reveals, white hides the layer below). Here is the same example below with a layer mask – you’ll see the effect is identical. Notice the new mask layer by the red arrow.

4 Brooklyn and Bora Bora mask layer

The great part about layer masks is that you can save the entire set of multiple exposures along with the masks in a single file, which you can edit later. The original exposures are left completely untouched. That’s the difference between using a mask and using the “eraser brush” directly on your photo. With a mask, you can always go back at any time and paint with the white paintbrush to undo anything you need to.

Now that you know how to use layers, exposure blending is very easy. Here’s a photo I took in Grand Teton National Park. Notice that the mountains and sky look properly exposed, but the foreground foliage is way too dark.

5 Tetons Mountains background

Without exposure blending, the photo above is the best I could do. However, while I was at the location, I also took another photo with the foreground exposed properly. Notice though how the sky is completely blown out and the mountains are overexposed now.

6 Tetons Foreground

With layers, I can easily blend these two images to create the perfect combination, and it only takes a few seconds. I just take the photo with the good exposure for the mountains and paste it on top of the photo with the good exposure for the foreground. With the properly exposed foreground on the bottom, I use the brush to reveal that bottom photo wherever the leaves are too dark. Here it is after one swipe with the brush. You’ll see the better exposure is revealed below.

7 Tetons brush swipe

That’s it. After some practice, you’ll be able to do this very quickly, with the final photo looking like this.

8 Tetons Blend

Of course there is one key thing to remember: You must take multiple exposures at varying brightnesses when you’re at the scene!

If you forget, you can sometimes fudge it and brighten dark areas in your editing software, but you can never darken the overly bright parts if you forget to take a photo with those areas properly exposed. Always make sure at least one photo has the bright areas exposed properly (nothing clipped or overexposed).

Here’s an additional example of exposure blending below. How many of us have taken this shot? Sure would be nice to see what’s outside that window.

9 Montana Interior

If you took another exposure with the outside properly exposed, it’s simply matter of layering the two photos on top of each other and revealing the bottom photo with the properly exposed window. Here’s the photo for just the outside.

10 Montana Exterior

…and the final blend looks like this.

11 Montana Blend

Let’s talk about the opacity and color you can use with the brush when painting on a mask layer. We know that a black paintbrush erases the top photo revealing the photo below, and that a white paintbrush is like an “undo” that puts the top photo back where needed. In addition to just the white and black paintbrush, you can also use any shade of grey. Using a grey paintbrush blends the two photos together, making the top photo slightly transparent so you see both the top and bottom photo at the same time. The darker the grey the more the top photo is erased. The lighter the grey, the more the top photo is visible. This allows for very subtle and realistic blending of the two photos. You may also see it as “opacity” in your software. When the brush opacity is 100%, the brush is at “full strength”. When you swipe the brush, it erases 100% of the top layer fully revealing the layer below. If you set it for 50%, a swipe of the brush works at half-strength.

Here’s an example of a swipe of the brush at 50% opacity or medium grey.

17 Brooklyn and Bora Bora opacity

Notice how you can see both the Brooklyn Bridge and Bora Bora at the same time. Adjusting the opacity or grey-level lets you apply the effects more subtly and with more control as needed. For example, with the Grand Teton photo in the earlier example, where the foreground leaves meet the background mountains, I might use the brush with 50% opacity so it’s a nice seamless blend, that’s unnoticeable. Another way to create a seamless blend is to use a brush with a low “hardness” — that is, the center of the brush is 100% opacity while the outer edges are less strong, creating a smooth effect.

LOCAL ADJUSTMENTS

After exposure blending, one of the most important techniques you can do with layers is to make local adjustments. That just means tweaking certain parts of the photo while leaving the rest of the photo as is.

Below is a great example of using layers for a quick local adjustment. Have you ever taken a photo where different parts of the photo have mixed lighting and different white balances? In the photo below, you can see that the camera’s flash has cast an unflattering blueish tint onto the people’s faces, contradicting the warm glow of the Eiffel Tower in the background.

12 Paris 1 White Flash

With layers, you can easily solve this problem. Here is the corrected photo.

13 Paris 2 blend

To do this requires just three quick steps:

  1. Create a copy of the original photo and set it aside
  2. Adjust the original photo paying attention only to the area that needs to be fixed (in this case adjust the White Balance of the image paying attention to the faces and ignoring everything else)
  3. Paste the untouched copy that you put aside on top of the adjusted photo, and “erase away” the top photo revealing the adjusted layer below, just where you want to see the adjustment.

In this example, you can see exactly where I “erased away” the bad white balance revealing the better white balance below.

14 Paris 3 layer removed

If you shoot in RAW format, you can create the two versions of the photo with the two appropriate white balances in your RAW converter. If you don’t shoot raw, just create a second copy of the original photo, change the color balance in your editing software, and layer as described above.

Using layers you can selectively apply saturation adjustments, brightness/contrast, sharpening, etc. This allows for an incredible amount of control over the final image. Just create a version of the photo with the adjustments, put it as the bottom layer, and reveal it with the brush just in the spots you choose.

For example, in this photo of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree in NYC, just the lights on the tree needed a levels and sharpness adjustment. You can see the difference that local adjustment makes to the entire photo in this before and after.

15 Rock Center 1a blurry

Before

16 Rock Center blend

After

SPECIAL TECHNIQUES

In addition to using layers for exposure blending and applying local adjustments, you can use layers for a wide variety of additional purposes. I’ve listed some really cool techniques below.

Blinking in group portraits: Have you ever taken a group shot and there’s always one person blinking or making an odd face? Next time, mount the camera on a tripod and use your camera’s continuous shooting (i.e. rapid-fire) mode to take a few photos in quick succession. If one person is blinking in the photo you like best, just put that photo as the top layer and put another photo without him blinking underneath, and “erase” the top photo with the blink to reveal the bottom photo below with his eyes open.

For cool sports effects, use a tripod and take rapid-fire photos of the action, layer the photos, and “erase” away the top photo to reveal the person moving in the subsequent shots.

18 soccer line

You can get really creative with this effect – here’s six of me playing a soccer game.

19 soccer team

For special “flying” effects, take two photos from a tripod, one with a person on a ladder, one with the just the background (ladder and person removed). Then layer the photos and “erase” the ladder.

20 soccer jump

Here’s what it looked like with one swipe of the brush “erasing” the ladder and revealing the background.

21 soccer ladder

Many people find that automated HDR software can produce unnatural effects. If you’ve used HDR software to create an HDR image that you like, but there are certain parts that appear unnatural (for example, the sky), blend a little bit of the original non-HDR photo using layers to make it more natural.

You already learned that painting with a black brush reveals the layer below. Wherever there is black, the top layer is “erased”. What if we didn’t use a brush at all, and instead used another way to paint black? This opens up a whole new set of possibilities. For example, this is a simple gradient, a pattern that goes from white to black gradually.

22 use gradient

If instead of using a black brush to reveal the bottom photo, we used this gradient, we get an instant Neutral Density filter! Apply this gradient using the Fill tool on the mask instead of painting with a brush, and where the black is, the bottom photo will be revealed. Put the black part of the gradient over the area of the photo where you want to adjust exposure and you’ll have a beautiful transition.

You can also use other tools to apply black to the mask. In the earlier example with the view outside the window, rather than painting with a brush, you could use the “draw rectangle” tool to place a black rectangle over the window, revealing the view outside.

Hopefully you’ve seen just how simple it is to use layers in your work, and how powerful they are. From blending multiple exposures, to adjusting your photos and using special techniques, layers take your images to a whole new level.

Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

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Paul Timpa is creator of the iOS/Android app Photography Trainer which teaches photography. He's also a professional travel photographer from Tampa Bay, FL.

  • Mauro J. Silva Junior

    Paul, great article.

    Is there a way to use these with Aperture ?

    Regards,

    Mauro

  • Paul Timpa

    Hi Mauro, thanks for the note. To my knowledge, Aperture does not support layers in a way that would allow the techniques in this particular tutorial. If you’re interested in trying techniques like this but aren’t interested in something as complex as full-blown Photoshop, both Corel PaintShop Pro (which I use) and Photoshop Elements support layers and layer masks as used in this tutorial. Thanks.

  • Michael Chapman

    Thanks so much for this article. I’m new to using layers and masks and this has helped explain them in an easy to understand way. Can’t wait to get practicing!

  • Paul Timpa

    Great! Thanks for the kind words Michael!

  • Dhruv

    Excellent tutorial! Just realizing the potential of layers thanks to this.

  • Paul Timpa

    Great, Dhruv! Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found the tutorial useful.

  • Epifania Lott

    I know nothing about photography but i do appreciate pictures like the one posted
    by Paul in this article, could i still have the possibility of learning more from your
    school?

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks for the note Epifania. Yes, even if you are new to photography or never even intend on becoming a photographer, there is always something interesting to learn or read about at Digital Photography School, even if it’s just for curiosity to say “Ah! That’s how they do that!” Thanks again.

  • Carlos Henrique Pereira

    Great article! I had no clue about how to use layers. Now I can start to play with it.

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks Carlos!!! I appreciate the comment!

  • Gordon

    Paul, I’ve followed videos of erasing backgrounds using PSPX5 plus stop the video and take notes of every step. Still, I cannot erase my backgrounds as shown in the Corel videos.
    Do you think you may ever have the time to make a vid showing all the things not covered here such as clicking on the various options at the top to enable this to work propertly? I would be more than willing to pay for such a vid.
    Thanks so much for this tut but there are things that are left out since this is not meant to be a comprehensive tutorial.

  • Paul Timpa

    Hi Gordon… I can look to make a video and post it on YouTube. What exactly are you trying to do? If you have a sample video that shows what you want to accomplish (but that doesn’t adequately show all the clicks), feel free to forward that video to me at photographytrainer@yahoo.com and I’ll take a look.

  • rohit

    very well written..thanks a lot for explaining it so simply that was like ghost to me earlier ..

  • Paul Timpa

    Great, thanks for the kind words Rohit.

  • chriSS

    Thank you Paul, very well explained, clear and simplified without being dumbed-down.
    I to look forward experimenting with layer masks after reading your article, I’d avoided layer masks for so long because it had been explained and complicated rather that explained and been enabling as you have. I encourage and admire the sharing of knowledge and information, no-one owns these. I freely share what I know too, so thanks again and for your generosity.

  • Paul Timpa

    Hi Chris — thanks so much for such a thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it. I agree totally — I’m all for the sharing of information as much as possible. Everyone has their own style, so the more talented photographers out there, the better. It’s just results in more beautiful art to enjoy. Thanks again.

  • adventurist

    This was a great article. I’ve experimented with layers a little bit, but never to brighten or darken parts of an image and I did not know how to use layer masks. I did not realize how easy it was! I will definitely be saving this article for future reading!

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks for the note and kind words! I’m glad you found the article useful!

  • sabav

    21 likes, seems you hit the nail on the head there Randy!
    ???? ??????????? ????????

  • @paultimpa:disqus Just Awesome Tutorial, it will change my photographs … Thanks a lot for sharing this

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks Amritendu. I really appreciate the note.

  • Before this Photoshop Layers was a mystery to me.. Thanks alot.. Much appreciated..

  • Just bought the application… Thanks for all the information in one single app..

  • Paul Timpa

    Thank you for the note, Shwetank. I’m so glad you found the tutorial helpful.

  • Paul Timpa

    Great, thanks very much Shwetank. I hope you enjoy it.

  • Ewink

    thanks Paul for this article

  • Paul Timpa

    You’re welcome, and thanks for the note. Appreciated.

  • Janet

    Thanks for a great easy explaination!

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks for the note Janet! Glad you liked the article!

  • Really cool article, I enjoyed the read! I use lightroom ALL the time because thats what I have at the moment. I am looking at the cs6 extended just for layers purposes on what I have in mind and this article is now bookmarked for that future when I get it. I like the simplicity everything in here was explained.

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks Patrick for the kind words. Really appreciated. CS6 is a great product of course, but just in case you weren’t already aware of the other options, there are other photo editing packages out there that do layers too. I personally use Corel PaintShop Pro, and the software is under a hundred bucks.

  • Paul Timpa

    …and I believe the later versions of Photoshop Elements also do layers. Thanks again.

  • Thank you for the response back! I have been checking out quite a few options as far as programs go. Thank you for the heads up on the Corel info too. I will definitely need software when I can make a trip back to original home (Clearwater native) and need the layers for the different LE sky and shorter water exposures for sure.

  • I just researched up on the Corel software and do believe I am going to try it out! It is more cost effective and does just what I am looking for. Thank you Paul for the information!

  • Paul Timpa

    You’re very welcome! I think you can get a free trial too, so you can see if you like it before having to even spend a dime. Good luck!

  • Hi Paul, I just wanted to give you a quick update and show a workflow I did using Corel. The program is awesome! I still have to learn the fine tuning of things with it but thats half the fun. This image here was with the eraser style. After rereading this tutorial this morning I am going to try the mask next for my work flow. This is compressed for online share but I love how simple the program really is and affordable for exactly what I have been wanting to achieve. 2 exposure, 1 for the foreground, the other for the sky.

  • Paul Timpa

    Wow! Patrick that is an *awesome* photo. I’m so glad to hear that you gave Corel a try, and you like it. I’ve been using it for many years and it does everything I need. Your blend looks fantastic. I can’t tell at all where one exposure meets the other. I’m sure the composite has way more detail in the top and bottom than you could have gotten in just one photo. Really great shot. Thanks so much for the update. Great to hear!!!

  • Eric

    Really cool info in here really helped me with my assignment for class thought the whole 6 of you playing soccer was pretty funny.

  • Paul Timpa

    Great! Thanks for the note Eric. Ha, yeah even I laughed when I finished that soccer photo. Thanks again.

  • Yogendra Sharma Photography

    One of the most useful and concise article I have read about layers.. Thanks a lot Paul.

  • Chris Bennett

    Saved as a bookmark , thank you for an easy to understand guide that even an old fogey like me can use

  • lien_jad

    thanks for helping understand more… hope can download it… just gonna bookmark this…

  • Excellent article! A lot of instructors make large presumptions abot the reader’s familiarity with the more basic PS functions. It’s refreshing to see how well you’ve accommodated a beginner’s need to learn something and their lack of familiarity with the programme’s interface. Thank you.

  • Paul Timpa

    Thank Deji. I’m glad you found the article useful. Everyone needs to start somewhere, so it makes me happy to hear that you enjoyed it. I like to write articles for “newer” photographers because I remember when I was first learning! Thanks again.

  • Paul Timpa

    You’re very welcome! Thanks for the note.

  • Paul Timpa

    Ha, thanks Chris. I’m glad you found it useful!

  • Paul Timpa

    Thanks Yogendra for the note and kind words. I’m glad you found the article useful. I appreciate the note!

  • Elise Nicholes

    Wow! I’m a new digital photographer. Just bought my first DSLR. Used to be a professional portrait photographer back in the old film days. You’ve inspired me to get started. Thanks

  • Paul Timpa

    Great! Thanks for the note Elise. I hope you find that you love digital photography as much as you did with film. Enjoy!

  • RM

    Is it possible to do this in Lightroom?

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