Understanding Layers in Photoshop

Understanding Layers in Photoshop

This post on Understanding Layers in Photoshop has been submitted by Jodi Friedman of MCP Actions. MCP Actions offers customized one on one photoshop training, photoshop actions, and photo editing for photographers. To see more Photoshop tips and tutorials visit her blog at http://www.mcpactions.com/blog.

One of the most important keys to learning and mastering photoshop is using layers.

Why work on layers at all?

  • They do not destroy your original photo.
  • You are working on top of or on copies of that photo.
  • You will have more control.
  • You can use blending modes to change the way layers interact.
  • You can change the opacity of any effects.
  • You will have or can add layer masks so that you can work selectively on your photo with any adjustments you make.

There are a number of types of layers that I will discuss today.

New Layer:

(SHIFT, CTRL or CMD, and “N”) or under LAYER – NEW LAYER: This will create a blank transparent layer. This is useful when you want to add or change something on a photo and pixels are not needed. For example, adding a border. If you make a new blank layer, and then add a border by doing SELECT – ALL. Then EDIT – STROKE. You can turn the layer on or off by toggling the eye ball, add a layer style such as a bevel or emboss, or change the opacity by working on this type of layer.


Adjustment Layer:

Using the black and white circle in the layers palette or going under LAYER – NEW ADJUSTMENT LAYER – and then whichever adjustment you want: This will create a transparent layer where you can make direct changes to your photograph without effecting your original in any way. This is how I edit every photo. Any levels, curves, hue/saturation layer, channel mixer layer, etc that I do, I use an adjustment layer. Why? The way adjustment layers work is you make the changes on a transparent layer. They change the appearance of pixels underneath without actually touching or destroying anything. So they are NON-DESTRUCTIVE. Another BIG reason to use adjustment layers is that you can go back and edit these layers even after you are onto new layers, by double clicking the adjustment layer icon of any layer. You can stack these layers and they accumulate. They do not cover each other up. They work together. And most importantly, they have layer masks. Layer masks allow you to selectively effect a photo. Here are three links to tutorials on layer masking: layer masking tutorial 1, layer mask tutorial 2, layer mask quick tip.



Text Layer:

Press letter “T” on your keyboard or the “T” symbol in the tool bar to bring up the text tool. When you do this, it automatically puts your text on a new text layer. You can adjust the font, color, size, and shape of the text. This works similarly to an adjustment layer in that you can go back and edit it even after doing other layers, as long as you do not flatten.


Duplicate Layer:

(CTRL or CMD and “J”) or under LAYER – DUPLICATE LAYER: This will create a duplicate copy of whatever layer you are on. If you are on an adjustment layer, it will copy that layer and double the effect. If you are on the “Background” layer, it will copy that layer. Think of duplicate layers like a photocopy. These can be useful in certain situations. When you duplicate a pixel layer (such as the background), remember than it will cover up anything under it, unless certain blending modes are used. As a result, I use these sparingly. Duplicate layers are most useful when I run a defog (which clarifies the photo), for sharpening, for working on skin such as wrinkles or acne, or when using the clone tool. Many of these adjustments (but not all) can be done on a New Layer versus Duplicate. If they can be done on a New Layer, that is preferable. For a tool like the patch tool, you will need the pixels there and will need a Duplicate Layer.


This concludes my “Understanding Layers” tutorial. I hope you learned a lot and that you start working more on layers and less on your original when editing in Photoshop.

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Some Older Comments

  • Kevin McMullin December 5, 2012 04:09 am

    sorry i didnt read that i was to focus on the creepy guy in the ad...kevin

  • Hans October 3, 2011 05:24 am

    Well put Well said. I do like the

    way you have presented this specific problem. Thanks.

  • Richard Lynch June 7, 2011 11:56 am


    If you are doing minor adjustments and not retaining image changes, then I guess it may not matter. I would have to see what you do, but I still would assume making adjustments in layers would be faster and more accurate than just using selection (which can lead to rather raw results)... unless the adjustments you make are rather rudimentary.

    On the other hand, I am not sure why you would need to own Photoshop if that is the case. Elements would probably be more than you need, and some other programs might provide an even better value if you are not taking advantage of the opportunities and strengths of the program for editing.

    If you make a $600+ investment in Photoshop, I would assume you are serious about image editing. If not, I wouldn't make the investment, and you can find a less expensive package to satisfy your needs. Anyone who invests in Photoshop because they need it should be using layers to get the most out of the product, their investment, and their images. If not you bought a Ferrari to back it down the driveway.

    Richard Lynch

  • Randy H. June 7, 2011 09:14 am

    Thanks for response Richard but I still do not get it. I typically edit a pic and print it and I am done with it. It is just for me and an album. So if that is my process I do not see why layers is better for me. I have no intent of reprinting the pic so layers would be more time consuming. I do get that if I was reprinting then there is a benefit to layers. Can you tell me the benefit understanding my process? That is what I am trying to get.

  • Richard Lynch June 5, 2011 04:26 am

    As many seem to suggest here, layers are integral to working successfully in Photoshop. That is, if you are serious about your images, want to make optimal changes, and intend to store more than one version of an image, layers are what you need. They also help with defining your editing process, keeping to a non-destructive workflow, and helping you build a technique and plan for image editing.

    Someone suggested that you can apply changes directly...and sure, you can. However, what if you change your mind? What if your client wants something else? What if you want to try it again from the beginning because you learned a technique that might change the outcome?

    I ALWAYS work in layers -- every image. And I've been doing it that way to my advantage since layers first appeared in Photoshop 3 -- long before the CS3 version.

    Learning layers is a bit of a process and can take some time, but it will extend your control over results and processes... The one feature I use with EVERY image.

    Richard Lynch

  • Joel May 27, 2011 06:33 am

    I really need to learn Photoshop cause I have been using picasa before and yet I need to be challenged and start working with PS. Is there any simple way I can get to learn how to use.
    Any suggestions are welcomed.

  • Randy H. November 29, 2009 08:11 am

    I always make a copy of my image and just work directly on the copy. I never understood the use of layers because it is more time consuming working on layers than just applying each effect to the image directly. What am I missing??? Is there another benefit to layers that I am not getting? Thanks.

  • Steve November 27, 2009 07:04 am

    To Jock,
    You can't save a jpeg with layers in Photoshop. You will have to save it in PSD format if you want to retain the layers.

  • jayantilal November 14, 2009 02:01 am

    i was trying to learn the layers but could follow its behaviers- after going through your lessons- i am shure i will be able to use them----thanks http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2440/4100079313_924e1fda3f.jpg

  • terrence August 8, 2009 11:24 am

    Can the layers of a photo be emailed with the photo to someone so that they can also add to those layers and email it back to me, when I tried to email such a photo all my friend got was a flat psd photo and no layers?? thank you terrence

  • jock June 23, 2009 12:18 am

    how do i import a jpeg and have seperate elements such as text/headings designated into layers...?

  • Bill Calvert January 29, 2009 02:55 am

    Never mind. I was using the tryout version of elements at the time and now that I have the regular version my photos do seperate from the program. Sorry for the stupid question.

  • Bill Calvert January 27, 2009 06:34 am

    Please help me. Once I have used layers to change a photo, I can't seem to use it as a photo seperate from the ps elements program. If I look for it in my pictures file on my pc, it shows up as an elements icon and when I open it , the whole elements program opens up first. I can't email it or anything. I tried merging it and flatenning it and it still isn't seperate from the program. Can these photos only be printed or is there a way to seperate them from the program? Thank you in advance.

  • 30yrs later January 16, 2009 02:36 pm

    I echo Robert Prosser's question and eagerly await the answer!

  • ROBERT PROSSER January 13, 2009 04:51 pm


  • esha damathia in jammu December 20, 2008 02:45 am

    photoshop is well known and the mostly used image editing software in the world.

    1.layers pallete
    2.back ground layer
    3.adding layer
    4.viewing/hiding layers
    5.removing layers
    6.reordering layers
    7.renaming layers
    8.setting layers
    9.applying readymade styles
    10.layer effects & style

  • amir October 18, 2008 01:36 am

    i first know how to use computer's graphic tool, is the microsoft paint, i bet 99% of us are in the same experience as i do. what i'm disappointed is, none of the presenter use the method of comparison between the one we regularly use and the one that is so very new to some of us, hence the Paint and Photoshop. so please make things easier. the best method of presentation is to compare, not just telling something new phrases or term until the consumer get confused.

  • yvette May 24, 2008 12:55 am

    this is unrelated to the photoshop layers lesson (which was great!). sometimes my flash just lights up for no reason that i can understand. this happens when i have not discharged the flash - the flash will simply light up for a few seconds and then the light will go off. i suspect it is b/c i am too close to the subject and the flash is trying to "tell" me this. can anyone speak to this issue. i find it embarrassing when it happens b/c i don't understand the cause. if i move away from the subject a bit and try again, it's usually fine but, i'd like to understand my flash better and nothing in the manual addresses this behavior. thank you.

  • Gregge Brown May 23, 2008 10:26 pm

    Got another photoshop question for anyone that can answer. Can you get rid of cellulite, bulges, stretch marks, etc? I am having real trouble with this program. Someone please help!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Chris Bergman May 23, 2008 10:18 pm

    Great intro to Photoshop for beginners.

    I didn't learn about layer masks until I was well into learning photoshop, it's great that you're bringing it up right out of the gate.


  • Gregge Brown May 23, 2008 10:05 pm

    Photoshop and me are like water and oil. I have had the worst time trying to figure out photoshop. I tried to use the healing brush on a subjects legs trying to smooth them out but couldn't. I'm so frustrated with this program. God bless those that can use it.

  • Janna May 23, 2008 11:09 am

    Thank you so much for "simply" explaining layers. So many of us get confused as to why.....so may layers. It is so very important to do. Well written!

  • Dave Richards` May 23, 2008 10:51 am

    I concur in all the complements you received. Thank you.

    I have one suggestion, however. Whenever you use the word "effect" change it to "affect." Effect is RARELY used and NEVER is a substitute for affect, because effect means achieve, cause or produce. Thus you would say, "...so in this case we would be able to have the curves adjustment AFFECT part of the photo...

    I'm sure you did not mean to say, "...have the curves adjustment achieve part of the photo."

  • Lin Pearson May 23, 2008 09:52 am

    I have tried for hours to put a border on aphoto. If only I had read the tute earlier! I'd have found how to have a border layer and create an unfilled stroke.
    Thanks for the clarity and for the pictures. An oldie like me needs all the help I can get if I'm to understand and follow instructions.

  • Alexey May 22, 2008 02:34 pm

    Understanding Layers in Photoshop, could it have been said more precise? I guess anyone who've read this post would do much better in his ever increasing adobe photoshop skills. I know lots of people complain of difficulties they encounter while learning layers, but I think they're taught in a bad way.

  • Fatih May 21, 2008 09:49 am

    I echo the sentiments of many of the previous commenters... understanding layers is an important skill in utilizing Photoshop and changed the way I work with photos. Thanks to Jodi for outlining this useful technique!

  • Dave S May 21, 2008 08:35 am

    Wow! A concise & useful explanation. I've used layers but didn't clearly understand the distinction between the different types. This sharpened my understanding.

  • Hafizd May 21, 2008 05:01 am

    i used to edit pictures by using picasa. it's a perfect software but adobe photoshope can do better.actually, i totally agree with you regarding the case of ruining the pic during editing session. whenever using picasa, it will create new folder every time i save the pic and for me it is look messy.i prefer adobe photoshope coz i can utilize 100% of my skill to edit the pictures.=]

  • Nikki May 21, 2008 01:44 am

    I do of a LOT of photo editing and graphics creation for a couple of cafepress.com websites I have as well as for annual dog calendars I publish. Layers are your best friend! Admittedly, for most work I use PaintShop Pro instead of Photoshop as I sort of grew up with it and it's more intuitive, hence easier to learn how to use without formal training. I have an older Photoshop version (CS) and was happy to see that many of the actions available on the MCP Actions site are compatible. I downloaded all the freebie actions available there yesterday and today I have vowed to learn to use them, along with masking. So much power in Photoshop that I've been missing out on!!! Who knew?

  • cappy1927 May 21, 2008 12:36 am

    Would like to see a tutorial on layers and all aspects of Coral Paintshop Photo X2. Possible? THANKS!

  • Cathy H May 20, 2008 11:56 pm

    I don't use layers or Photoshop. I use Picasa. The original is always in my computer. It just seems faster. I have watched other use it and it seems to take a lot of time. I hope I am not ruining my pictures, but they seem ok. I take hundreds of pictures, I would be editing all the time. I would rather be out taking pictures. Am I crazy for not using this? I have it on my computer, but I am not that good at it. When I found Picasa, it just seemed to be the way to go for me. I am open to any suggestions. Thanks.

  • PRH May 20, 2008 05:29 pm

    Thanks Jodi for a very clear introduction to layers.

    Once you get the hang of layers they become an indispensable tool. I don't use them on every image since many images just need minor tweeking. I use layers when there is a particular effect I want to achieve...eg when high dynamic range is an issue or if I want to blur the background around a subject. The best thing is the more you know the more you realize you've only scratched the surface.

  • Brian May 20, 2008 12:27 pm

    Love the post, I couldn't imagine editing photos without layers. Theres just so much you can do, basically the fact how one can edit a photo without being destructive.

  • Jozef Nagy May 20, 2008 03:30 am

    This is more important than many people realize. It can be hard to wrap your head around the concept if you've never used Layers. But once you do, your skill level is on a whole other plane.

  • Fredrik Steffen May 20, 2008 01:37 am

    Good post. Many people don't know a lot about layer masks, and in my opinion, it's one of the most powerful tools in PS.

  • slycat_blaze May 20, 2008 01:18 am

    Layers are my best friend in photoshop. I dunno why though, but I have never taught myself how to 'mask'. LOL

  • Photochick (Amanda) May 20, 2008 12:56 am

    Great tutorial! Thanks for the info :o)

    I LOVE layers - it's so wonderful that you can have unique adjustments on each different layer, and can keep any or all of them. After I'm done with bigger image adjustments, I'll Merge the layers down and correct the minor imperfections with the band aid and/or cloning tools.

    This post gave me even more ideas of what all I can do with layers - thanks again for the tutorial!