The Joys of Layering

When I first began using Photoshop, layers confused me horribly. But after some time of reading tutorials, magazines, and picking the brains of every Photoshop-savvy person I came across, layers became my big Photoshop love.

I now use them for every tiny change I make to my images. With big edits, or high-resolution photos, this can mean my PSD (Photoshop format) files take up a lot of hard drive space, but it’s so very worth it.

Why Layer?

♦ Flexibility. This is the reason, above all other reasons, to use layers. You can use Layer Masks to apply an effect to any area of the photo you like, or more to one area than to another. You can lower the opacity of a layer to soften its effect on the layers below it. And of course you can take one image and combine it with another, as well as countless other possibilities.

♦ Gobackability. What do you mean that’s not a word? Sure it is. It means you always have the ability to go back to a previous version of your image, even right back to the start if it all goes calamitously wrong (it does happen), or if you have a new idea for how you want your image to look.

You can undo changes at any point later on if you’ve decided that’s not what you want for your image, or you can improve the changes made on an Adjustments Layer at some point long after you finished editing it the first time.

Photoshop has a History Brush tool, and I know people who swear by it, but I’ve never been a fan. I prefer to simply have my changes preserved in layers to go back to at any time.

“How did I do that again?” This is a big one for me. I edit photos quite quickly, usually without knowing beforehand what I intend to do with an image. Sometimes even just a few weeks later I don’t remember exactly how I created a certain effect (usually one that’s the result of about 20 layers of tiny changes).

If you save your PSDs it means that you can open the file a week, a month, a year later, and see exactly how you made it look like it does. This is great for fine-tuning a technique that you’re testing, or one you’ve stumbled across accidentally as you worked.

♦ Progress check. There are literally limitless things to learn about Photoshop. Sometimes it can get overwhelming and I feel like I’ll never learn it all. Then I realise that while, yes, I’ll never know everything there is to know about Photoshop; there’s a difference between knowing everything and knowing plenty.

To remind myself how far I’ve come, I like to go through my old PSDs. By looking at the layers I can see how I did things when I first started, and then see how my techniques have changed with each piece of newly acquired knowledge. My first PSDs, the ones I was so proud of at the time (and still am!), look so primitive by comparison, and even edits from only a year or two ago show how much my skills have improved. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love being able to track your progress this way.

Layers and the Layers Palette

So that’s the why of layers – now for the what and the how.

Layers are basically a stack of images and adjustments, some transparent and some opaque. With Layer Masks you can also have layers that are only partially visible, or that only affect one section of your image.

Stack of Photoshop Layers graphic

Okay, an example of how this looks in real life. Here’s an image that I’ve worked on in Photoshop:

soft water - image that goes with layer palette example

(Photo taken at 1/8, f/22, ISO 100)

And here’s the Layers Palette that belongs to this image:

Photoshop Layers Palette example

Example of Layers Palette

The Layers Palette is a side view of your stack of layers; the final image that you see in Photoshop is this stack viewed from the top, like a pile of paper and tracing paper. I’ll go into more detail on using layers soon, but for now lets look at how to create them.

Creating Layers

An Image Layer is a layer that holds pixels, for instance, your photo will be in an Image Layer. These are the basis of any Photoshop file, as no amount of Adjustment Layers can make any difference without an Image Layer for them to adjust.

For a completely fresh new Image Layer, click the New Layer button at the base of the Layers Palette. A new layer will appear in the palette above the layer you had selected.

If you want a layer with an image, or part of an image in it, you can make a selection by using one of the Marquee tools, the Lasso tool, the Magic Wand tool, or any other means of selection. Copy this selection by selecting Edit ==> Copy from the toolbar, or press Ctrl-C/Cmd-C, then Paste the selection by selecting Edit ==> Paste from the toolbar, or press Ctrl-V/Cmd-V. This will automatically create a new Image Layer containing your selection.

An Adjustment Layer holds no pixels of its own, but affects the way the Image Layer is displayed. If you’ve followed through any of my tutorials then you’ll have already used Adjustment Layers for either Levels or Curves.

To create an Adjustment Layer, just click on the Adjustment Layer button at the base of the Layers Palette and select the layer you want from the pop-up menu.

Photoshop Adjustment Layer menuIf you’re using Photoshop CS3 or earlier, a dialogue panel will open. You enter your adjustments here, then you select OK. In CS4, the adjustments dialogue panel is above the Layers Palette, and all the changes you make are effective immediately.

You can also copy any layer instantly by pressing Ctrl-J/Cmd-J, or by dragging the layer from its place on the Layers Palette and onto the New Layer button at the bottom. Just be careful not to miss and drop it on the Delete Layer button to the right by mistake.

Don’t worry if this any of this is confusing at this point. Play with it a little and it’ll soon become second nature to you.

Next time we’ll add Layer Masks to the mix.

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