This introduction to Photoshop Layers for beginners will help you learn a great editing habit. So, what exactly is a Photoshop layer? Quite simply put, if you imagine a stack of transparent paper, each sheet is equivalent to a Photoshop layer. When you add/change/remove any of the layers, what you see at the top of the stack forms your entire image.
The first time you open Photoshop, by default, the layers panel is on the right side of your screen and your image opens as a layer named “Background”. Keep this in mind as you read on.
Why use Photoshop Layers?
Now that you have an idea of what a layer is, here is why you should use them:
1. It is a way to work non-destructively
Destructive editing occurs when you move and change the pixels directly in your original image. This happens if you edit your original image/background layer when working in Photoshop. While you can undo your changes, if you exceed the number of “undos” you can apply, those changes commit. Also, you may like some changes, but not others, and there is no way to go back to just that change without undoing other changes you have made too.
Alternatively, when you edit your image on separate layers, both the edited image and the original save (they are saved to a .psd file and this maintains all your layers). This allows you to go back to your original image at any time, simply by hiding layers, or deleting them entirely. This is a form of non-destructive editing.
One thing to remember, however, is that if you resize your entire document (via menu->image->image resize) at any point, that is a form of destructive editing, and you will lose image quality if you try to resize it back to the original size later.
As your editing style evolves, you will appreciate the option of going back to original images at a later date.
2. It allows organized and flexible editing
Photoshop is usually a great option when you want more control over your editing process. While you start off with a certain end result in mind, you may change your mind, during (or even at the completion of) your process. Surely there are better ways than undoing multiple changes or starting over from scratch right?
Layers allow you to work with your vision without affecting/destroying the original. Since you can work on each layer separately, you have major flexibility. With layers, you can also combine several images into one (composite), These include (but is not limited to), swapping out elements from your image, changing color, tones, and lighting, adding text and resizing, replacing or rotating an object independent of everything else in your image.
This non-destructive editing style allows you to undo a change at any point in time, and you have control over each individual layer. This means you can work with different objects and elements of your image without affecting anything else.
How to use Photoshop Layers
If you do not see the Layers Panel on the right-hand of your screen, you need to turn it on. To do so, go to Menu->Window->Layers.
As mentioned before, when you open an image in Photoshop, it opens as a background layer. You will notice that there is a small lock icon on the right side of the background layer. This lock is intended to prevent inadvertent changes.
The first step is usually to duplicate this layer. That way, the background layer remains untouched (original).
To start, duplicate your background layer:
- Open an image in Photoshop
- Right-click on the thumbnail image in your layers panel named “Background,” and choose the duplicate layer option
- Click OK. A new layer will appear above your original layer with the default name “Background Copy” – you can rename it to anything you want. I suggest renaming it to something that relates to the changes you are making. This makes it easier to find later if you have many layers.
As you become comfortable working with layers, you will find yourself making new layers for each change you want to make e.g. if you are retouching an image or replacing a sky. This comes with the knowledge that, later on, you can adjust the intensity of any of those changes independently.
Photoshop also has another layer type called Adjustment Layers. These layers are not a duplicate of other layers; instead, they adjust the information of the layer directly beneath it. Thus you can simply use an Adjustment Layer to effect change on the image without changing the original layer image. For example, you can increase/decrease the contrast or brightness of your layer.
Adjustment layers do not actually contain any pixels but instead are a series of instructions for Photoshop on what changes you ask it to make. You can access the Adjustments Layer menu at the bottom of the Layers panel or choose Windows and check the Adjustments option.
A Layer mask is another non-destructive editing technique in Photoshop, used to control the transparency of the layer you apply it to. An even simpler definition is that a layer mask can make a layer visible or invisible. This is done by painting either white (to make it visible) or black (to make it invisible).
At the upper left corner of the Layers panel is the blend modes drop-down menu. These “modes” are set to Normal by default and control how pixels on the different layers interact with each other. An easy way to understand what the different blending modes do is to duplicate your image (as described above) and cycle through them.
Important layering notes for beginners
When there are several layers, your changes only affect the layer that is active or selected. This is why it is a good practice to name your layer (Step 3 above) based on what you are using the layer for.
You can save the edits as a Photoshop (PSD) file, close it and open it at a later date to find all your layers (and changes) as you left it. Of note, saving it this way increases the size of your file. If you are finished with your edits and don’t need a large PSD file, you can merge all the layers (or flatten the file) and save it to a smaller, more compressed file type, such as a jpeg. Of course, in doing so, you will no longer have the ability to access those individual layers later.
Layers work in order. This means that the layer on top “covers” everything below it. You can, however, reorder your layers by moving them up or down by simply dragging them. Keep in mind that the layer on the top will be most visible.
The key thing to remember as a beginner is that Photoshop layers are a recommended non-destructive way to work. It is flexible, which allows you to organize your work, effect change in selected areas, and undo changes easily.
When you do not merge your layers, you can open your Photoshop file years later and make changes, all without affecting your original image.
I hope you can utilize these Photoshop Layers for Beginners tips, and if you have any tips on this topic, please share in the comments below.