Fundamentals of Working with Layers

by | 5 years ago

Without question, working with layers is one of the most important things to master in Photoshop. Layers provide the greatest level of control and flexibility, or said another way, if you’re not using layers you’re working too hard! There are entire books and lengthy online courses just focused on layers, so we won’t be able to cover everything in this article; but we’ll get you started with the key things you need to know to be successful using layers.

understanding how layers work

Perhaps the simplest way to understand how layers work is to compare using layers to working with a printed photo. If you take a permanent marker and write something directly on your print, that writing is, well, permanent. That means if you make a mistake or want to change your mind, you’re out of luck.

To give yourself more flexibility you could place a sheet of clear acetate on top of your photo and use the marker to write on the plastic. That way, the original photo is “protected” because the writing is separated from the photo.

Plus you can also reposition the plastic sheet to have the writing appear in a different position.

The same theory applies to other techniques, such as adding another photo—by putting a small photo on another sheet of acetate, you can control its position on the underlying print…

…and determine the order in which multiple plastic sheets are placed on top of each other.

working with layers in photoshop

In Photoshop, the concept is very similar (but, of course, we have even more options than using a marker on a photo print). When you open a photo in Photoshop, you could think of it as a printed photo—if you write directly on it, that’s a permanent change.

Take a look at the Layers panel in Photoshop (if you don’t see it, go to the Window menu and select Layers), and you’ll see something called “Background.” You’ll also notice a padlock symbol to the right of the layer name, but that’s a little misleading since the only thing that’s locked on the Background layer is the option to move it.

If you were to take the Brush tool and “write” on the Background layer, you’d see in the Layers panel that the writing appears directly on the Background layer. And, if you were to save and close your document, you’d have made a permanent change to it.

Instead, you can add the equivalent of the sheet of plastic by adding a blank layer. You can do this in several ways: by clicking on the Create a New Layer icon at bottom of the Layers panel (circled); by going to the Layer menu and choosing New>Layer; or by using the Layers panel flyout menu and choosing New Layer. In Photoshop, transparency is indicated by a gray-and-white checkerboard. Then use the Brush tool and paint on that layer, to keep the two elements separate.

As we’ll see later, you can choose to hide the layer, make the writing more see-through, or change the position of the writing.

You can also add additional elements, such as photos on separate layers. Think of a series of layers as a stack of plastic sheets, and that the order in which they appear determines how each element displays. Here, for example, the layer with the small photo is on the very top and, because there’s some overlay, it partially covers the text layer.

Luckily, it’s very simple to adjust the stacking order of the layers simply by repositioning them in the Layers panel. Just click on the name of the layer you want to move and drag it up or down in the stack of layers.

exploring the layers panel

Now that we’ve looked at the basic principle of working with layers, let’s explore the place where you’ll spend lots of time: the Layers panel. Here’s an overview of the key options in the Layers panel. We won’t be able to cover every aspect of the panel in this article, but we’ll cover some of the most important concepts, including opacity, blend modes, layer masks, and layer styles.

The Layers panel controls everything including visibility, layer stacking order, opacity, layer styles, and much more, so needless to say, it’s incredibly important to the process of working with layers! It’s the first place you should look as you start to work with layers, to make sure the correct layers are visible, in the correct order, etc.

adding layers

The first questions that come up with layer neophytes are, “When do I have to add a layer?” And then, “When are layers automatically added?” The answers are pretty straightforward in that there are a number of tools and functions that will result in a layer automatically being created; the rest of the time, you’d have to add a blank layer first.

The tools that automatically create a new layer are the Type tools (Horizontal Type and Vertical Type tools) and the Shape tools (Rectangle, Rounded Rectangle, Ellipse, Polygon, Line, and Custom Shape tools).

Note: The Shape tools will only create a new layer if you’ve chosen Shape from the Tool mode pop-up menu, in the Options Bar, before you start using the tool. This will result in a Shape layer (a much more editable shape than the other options). As with all tools, the setting for the Shape tools in the Options Bar will stick with the option you chose until you change it, so once you’ve chosen Shape, you won’t have to do that again.

The functions that will automatically result in a new layer are as follows:

  • Copy-and-paste: Copy-and-paste within the same document or from one document to another and a new layer will be created when you paste.
  • Drag-and-drop: Use the Move tool (V) to drag pixels from one document to another and a new layer will be created.
  • Place: Use File>Place and the file that you choose will be placed on a new layer.
  • Duplicate Layer: There are several methods to duplicating a layer and each one results in a new layer.
  • New Layer Via Copy: Similar to Duplicate Layer, this command will duplicate either selected pixels or the entire layer.
  • New Layer Via Cut: With an active selection, this command will cut the pixels off the layer and create a new layer containing those pixels.
  • Adjustment layers: More on this later, but when you add any adjustment layer, it is a separate layer.

So when should you add a blank layer? Basically, anytime you want to add pixels to a document and keep them separate (and not on the Background layer). For example, if you decide to add a white rectangle to a photo, you’d add a new layer, make a selection, and then fill it with white. Here’s how:

Step One: At the bottom on the Layers panel, click on the Create a New Layer icon to add a new blank layer.

Step Two: Choose the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) from the Toolbox and draw a selection in the size you want.

Step Three: Select Edit>Fill and, in the Fill dialog, choose White for the Contents and 100% for Opacity. Press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to Deselect.

Step Four: Near the top of the Layers panel, lower the Opacity to 60% by hovering your cursor over the word Opacity and clicking-and-dragging to the left.

Note: It’s usually better to fill at 100% in the Fill dialog, and then lower the Opacity in the Layers panel. Otherwise, if you were to fill using a lower opacity, you’d set that as your maximum percentage; in other words, you wouldn’t be able to change your mind later and change to a higher opacity percentage. By filling at 100% and using the Layer setting, you always have the option to increase or decrease the layer Opacity setting later.

Step Five: To add a Type layer, click on the Horizontal Type tool (T) in the Toolbox, enter your text, and press the commit icon (the checkmark in the right side of the Options Bar) to finalize the type. Then use the Move tool to position the text where you want it.


That last example introduces an important feature of working with layers and reinforces why a layer-based workflow is important. In that exercise, the layer Opacity was lowered to 60% but that isn’t a permanent change. As long as the document is saved in the correct way (see below), you can always change your mind and change the opacity. That’s a fundamental principle of working with layers: the ability to create a document that’s completely editable at any time.

layer visibility

One example of experimentation is to temporarily hide layers rather than deleting them, and it’s very easy to do. You’ll see an eyeball icon to the left of a number of elements in the Layers panel, which means you can choose to turn off (and back on again) the visibility of that element: layers, smart filters, and groups. Simply click on the eye icon to hide that element, and click again to show it.

saving layers

Before we go any further on our discussion of layers, we need to talk about how to continue to take advantage of layers by how we save the document. To keep the layers for future editing, be sure to save your document in either PSD (Photoshop format) or TIF format. Both of these formats will preserve your layers, but I generally recommend using PSD, for a couple of reasons: First, the PSD format preserves all layer-based functions that you add to a document—from layer styles to blend modes to layer comps, and more. Second, from a file-naming/management point of view, I believe that it’s easier to keep track of layered files when the filename is “filename.psd,” since a document called “filename.tif” might include layers, but it might not.

When you need to create a second version of your document in a format such as JPEG, use the File>Save As command to choose that format. This way, you’ll end up with two copies: the layered version (some might call it the master version) that you can continue to edit and a flattened version in a different format.

layer masks

In my opinion, two “bad” words when it comes to working with layers are erase and delete. If you delete or erase pixels from a layer, they are gone, unless you Undo right away. A layer mask, however, gives you the opportunity to hide pixels instead of deleting them and because the pixels are hidden, they can always be shown again, if needed.

A typical use for a layer mask is when you’re combining photos and want to blend them together. First, the images must be combined, and we can do this using a command called drag-and-drop. With two documents open, use the Move tool (V) to click-and-hold on the first photo and drag it into the second document.

Add a mask to the top layer by clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon (circle in a square) at the bottom of the Layers panel or select Layer>Layer Mask. The mask thumbnail appears beside the layer, initially filled with white.

When the mask is white, all the pixels on the layer are visible. In order to hide portions of the layer, you need to add black paint to the mask. You can do this either by painting with the Brush tool (B), or by making a selection and filling it with black. In this example, I used a soft-edged brush to paint a soft-edged mask.

The advantage to this method is that we can continue to edit it. Here, for example, after moving and transforming the layer, I painted with white in the “missing” areas to show the pixels that were previously hidden and painted with black to hide more areas.

To remind themselves of how layer masks work, many people like to say “black conceals, white reveals.” Personally, I don’t worry about the rhyming part and just think “black hides, white shows.” And, any shade of gray between black and white can be considered as “kinda,” as in kinda hidden, kinda visible.

Along with adding a mask and then painting on it, you can also create a mask by making a selection and then adding a mask. That way, the selected area is filled with white and everything else is filled with black, and you can just paint to adjust the edges of the mask.

adjustment layers

Whenever you decide to apply an adjustment in Photoshop, you can do so using either the Image>Adjustments menu or the Adjustments panel (which creates adjustment layers). Adjustment layers offer a higher level of editability and flexibility because you can continue to edit the settings. To add an adjustment layer, you can either click on the Create New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel or use the Adjustments panel (Window>Adjustments). Make the adjustment in the Properties panel and all of the layers below the adjustment layer will be affected.

There are two other advantages of using adjustment layers: they automatically come with a layer mask, so you can selectively hide areas of the adjustment by painting on the mask; and they can easily be applied to other photos by dragging-and-dropping them.

blend modes

When you have multiple layers, you can change the way that the layers interact with each other by changing the blending mode. Normal is the default blend mode, meaning that the top layer covers up the layer below it; it doesn’t interact with it in any way (unless you were to lower its Opacity). By changing the blend mode (using the pop-up menu near the top of the Layers panel), the layers will be blended using some means of comparison. For example, if you had a black-and-white logo and changed the blend mode of that layer to Multiply, the white pixels would “disappear” because the logo layer is “multiplied” onto the layer below, causing only the darkest pixels to show.

If you really want to know the mathematics behind each blend mode, there are plenty of sources to find out that information. For most of us, it’s enough to know that many interesting possibilities are available by experimenting with blend modes, again knowing that we’re not committed, and can change our minds.TIPS FOR SUCCESS WITH LAYERS

Here are four tips to be successful using layers:

  1. Name your layers. Although it’s not absolutely necessary, if you get in the habit of naming your layers (rather than leaving them as Layer 1, Layer 2, etc.), everything seems easier when you edit a document. To rename a layer, double-click on the name, and type the new name.
  2. Always start by looking at the Layers panel. Before working with layers, you need to make sure you’ve chosen the correct layer—click on the name of the layer you want to work with; don’t click on the image window, and assume you’ll select the correct layer.
  3. The Move tool is the main layers tool. Use the Move tool to select and move layers.
  4. Avoid the Flatten command. Flattening a document will combine all the layers into one, removing the ability to edit the layers. If you need to create a version of your document that’s flattened, use the Save As command (see Saving Layers).

smart filters

Traditional filters are applied in a way that permanently alters the pixels, while smart filters can be edited through the Layers panel. It’s simple to create a smart filter: you just have to turn the layer(s) into a smart object. You can either choose Filter>Convert for Smart Filters or Right-click on the layer and choose Convert to Smart Object.

Apply one or more filters, and they appear in the Layers panel and can easily be edited, changed, or removed completely.

You can:

  • Double-click on a smart filter to edit its settings.
  • Hide the effects of the filter by clicking off the eye icon.
  • Drag-and-drop to change the order of multiple filters.
  • Double-click on the Blending Options icon (to the right of a smart filter) to change the blend mode and opacity of the filter.
  • Delete a filter by Right-clicking on it and choosing Delete Smart Filter.
  • Paint on the smart filter’s mask to hide the effects of the filter in specific areas.

As long as you save the file as a PSD, you’ll always be able to see and edit the settings for the smart filter(s) in the document.

Even in an article of this length, we only scratched the surface of working with layers. But as you can see, there are some incredible possibilities when you start to take advantage of everything that layers are capable of. And, one of the best things about working with layers is that they’re built for experimenting, so feel free to try different combinations of opacity, blend modes, smart filters, adjustment layers, and more. As long as you save the document with all the layer information intact, you have tons of latitude for experimentation.