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Next Level Layers: Taking a Deep Dive into Photoshop’s Layers’ Capabilities

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You understand the basics of working with layers. You’ve combined a few photos into one document, perhaps added a type layer or two, and changed the blend mode; but now you’re ready for more. In this article we’ll introduce some of the lesser-known and more-advanced layer techniques that can help you take your use of layers to the next level. 

LAYER FILTERING 

Once you start to build up a document with multiple layers, it can be challenging to quickly and easily find the layer on which you want to work. One solution is to use the Layer Filtering options found at the top of the Layers panel, which will reduce the number of layers shown in the panel, but it doesn’t impact what you see in the image area of the document. 

The first level of filtering is by Kind, using the icons to the right of the Layer Filtering drop-down menu. You can click on one or more of the icons to view only the pixel layers, adjustment layers, type layers, shape layers, or smart objects. To get even more options for filtering, use the drop-down menu choices: 

  • Name: Search layers by name. 
  • Effect: Shows only layers that include effects such as Bevel & Emboss, Drop Shadow, etc. 
  • Mode: Shows layers with blend modes applied such as Multiply, Overlay, etc.
  • Attribute: Shows only layers that are Visible, Locked, Empty, and more, as well as the opposite, Not Visible, Not Locked, etc.
  • Color: Shows layers that you’ve color-coded. 
  • Smart Object: Reveals several icons for filtering by library-linked smart objects, locally linked smart objects, out-of-date linked smart objects, missing linked smart objects, or embedded smart objects. 
  • Selected: Shows only the currently active layers. 

As you might expect, if you choose a filtering option, you’ll only see the results of that filter until you change the filtering settings or turn them off (using the toggle switch at the far right of the filtering options). 

WORKING WITH LAYER GROUPS

Although this function is called a “group,” think of it as a folder containing multiple layers, and everything you do to the folder affects all the layers inside it. Once layers are in a group, you can hide all those layers by turning off the visibility Eye icon beside the group, move or transform all the layers at once by clicking on the group in the Layers panel before using Free Transform or the Move tool, and much more. Here’s some more details on working with groups. 

You can either create a new Group (Layer>New>Group) and then click-and-drag layers into that group, or you can select layers in the Layers panel and choose Layer>New>Group from Layers. You can also create nested groups within a group. Groups can be moved within the Layers panel just like individual layers, and you can collapse and expand the group at any time to see only the group icon or the thumbnails of all the layers in the group, respectively. 

Rather than applying the same layer style to multiple layers, it can be more efficient to put the layers into a group and then apply the layer style to that group. That way the layer style is automatically applied to every layer in the group (and any new layer that’s added into the group). It’s also much simpler to edit the layer style on a group and have it change on all the layers inside that group at the same time. 

GROUPS AND BLEND MODES 

Another interesting feature regarding groups is how (and where) you apply blend modes. If you have several layers in a group, and the elements on those layers overlap each other, you have a couple of options for applying blend modes. By default, the blend mode of a group is set to Pass Through, meaning that any blend modes on the individual layers will be visible (and the group has no impact). 

In this first example, all three leaf layers in the group are set to Multiply, so they multiply where they overlap, as well as against layers below the group. 

If you change the Group’s blend mode to Normal, the three layers will multiply in the overlapping areas, but not against the underlying layers. 

In this last example, the individual layers were set to Overlay and the group to Multiply, which means you’ll see the Overlay blend mode effect where the layers inside the group overlap, and the other areas will show the Multiply blend mode effect against the layers below the group. As you can imagine, the possibilities of changing both the layer and group blend modes can lead to all kinds of interesting results. 

KEYBOARD SHORTCUTS 

Photoshop comes with a ton of built-in shortcuts, both documented (found in Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts) and undocumented (not visible anywhere). Here are some of the most useful shortcuts when working with layers. 

  • Click the Eye (visibility) icon in the Layers panel to hide/show a layer. 
  • Option-click (PC: Alt-click) the Eye (visibility) icon to show only that layer. Option-click (PC: Alt-click) again to show all layers. 
  • Drag through the Eye (visibility) icons on the left side of the Layers panel to quickly hide/show multiple layers. 
  • With a non-painting tool active, type a single number to change the current layer’s Opacity (e.g., 1 for 10%, 2 for 20%, etc.). Tap 0 for 100% and 00 for 0%. 
  • To quickly hide a layer (without clicking on the Eye icon) type 00. To show it, type 0 (see above). 
  • To create a new group from selected layers in the Layers panel, press Command-G (PC: Ctrl-G). 
  • To create a new blank layer, press Shift-Command-N (PC: Shift-Ctrl-N). This will bring up the New Layer dialog where you can name the layer. 
  • To create a new blank layer with the default name and without opening the New Layer dialog, press Shift-Option-Command-N (PC: Shift-Alt-Ctrl-N). 
  • To create a new blank layer below the current layer, hold down Command (PC: Ctrl) and click the Create a New Layer icon (+) at the bottom of the Layers panel. 
  • To select the layer below the currently active layer, press Option (PC: Alt) and the Left Bracket ([) key. 
  • To select the layer above the currently active layer, press Option (PC: Alt) and the Right Bracket (]) key. 
  • To select the topmost layer, press Option (PC: Alt) and the Period (.) key. 
  • To select the bottommost layer, press Option (PC: Alt) and the Comma (,) key. 
  • To move the currently active layer down the stack, press Command (PC: Ctrl) and the Left Bracket ([) key. 
  • To move the currently active layer up the stack, press Command (PC: Ctrl) and the Right Bracket (]) key. 
  • To move the currently active layer to the top of the layer stack, press Shift-Command (PC: Shift-Ctrl) and the Right Bracket (]) key. 
  • To move the currently active layer to the bottom of the layer stack, press Shift-Command (PC: Shift-Ctrl) and the Left Bracket ([) key. If the Background layer is locked, it will move the layer to just above the Background layer. 

Note: The shortcuts for selecting and moving layers are particularly useful when recording an action so you can avoid recording the layer name in the action. 

Mask Shortcuts

  • To hide the effects of a layer mask, Shift-click on the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. You’ll see a big red X on the thumbnail. Shift-click again to “turn on” the mask. 
  • To view the mask in the main image area, hold down Option (PC: Alt) and click on the mask thumbnail. Option-click (PC: Alt-click) the layer mask thumbnail again to return to the regular image. 
  • To copy a mask from one layer to another, hold down Option (PC: Alt) and drag the mask (in the Layers panel) onto another layer. 
  • To activate the mask without clicking on its thumbnail, press Command-\ (Backslash) (PC: Ctrl-\). 
  • To activate the layer without clicking on its thumbnail, press Command-2 (PC: Ctrl-2). 

MAKE YOUR OWN SHORTCUTS 

Along with all the built-in shortcuts in Photoshop, it’s also possible to customize shortcuts by reallocating an existing shortcut to another function; for example, there’s no keyboard shortcut for adding a layer mask, but we can steal a shortcut from another function. 

In order to change the shortcut settings, go to Edit>Keyboard Shortcuts, and make sure the Shortcuts For drop-down menu is set to Application Menus. In the Application Menu Command section below, expand Layer to reveal all the options, and scroll down until you see Layer Mask. Click to the right of the menu command to which you’d like to “add” a shortcut (although we’re really reallocating an existing shortcut), and type the shortcut you’d like to use. 

Here I clicked beside Reveal Selection and pressed Shift-Command-M. The warning alerted me that this shortcut was already in use by Record Measurements, which, for me, wasn’t at all useful/important, so I happily accepted the change. Of course, you can use any shortcut you wish, but as you can see in my illustration, I ended up with what I think is a pretty good set of shortcuts that were all reallocated from what I’d consider less-useful functions. (If you ever forget the new layer shortcuts you’ve chosen, look under the Layer menu and you’ll see them.) 

LAYER COMPS 

One of the most powerful ways to experiment in Photoshop is to create multiple layers and then try various combinations: hiding, showing, and moving different layers around. You can make this process simple and efficient—and readily accessible—by using layer comps. 

The basic idea of a layer comp is to capture the current status of the Layers panel: what layers are visible, where they’re positioned, and what layer styles (if any) are applied. By creating a series of layer comps, you can quickly and easily switch between different layer combinations. Typically, you’d do this after you’ve created a series of layers, including different choices of sizes, adjustment layers, etc. To create a layer comp, go to the Layer Comps panel (Window>Layer Comps) and click the Create New Layer Comp icon (+) at the bottom of the panel. 

Layer comps “remember” the visibility, position, and appearance of the layers, but not the content. In other words, you can’t change the size of an object, the typeface of a type layer, or anything like that without it affecting all layer comps. If you want to have a large logo in one layer comp, and then a smaller version of that logo in another layer comp, you’d have to duplicate the layer, use Free Transform to make the second logo smaller, and then show or hide the appropriate version before saving the layer comp. 

By the same token, if you want the option to choose between white text and black text, you’ll have to make two versions of the type layer, one white and one black. 

Once you have a list of comps, you can easily browse through them by clicking on the arrows at the bottom left of the Layer Comps panel, or look at a specific comp by clicking to the left of the layer comp’s name that you wish to view. 

Layer comps are “stored” in a PSD file, adding very little to your file size, and are a great alternative to creating separate files. Plus, you can access (and change) the layer comps within a PSD file when that file is placed into InDesign and Illustrator. 

Note: Layer comps can include layer styles, which also means Opacity, Blend If sliders, etc. 

PLACING A SMART OBJECT THAT CONTAINS LAYER COMPS 

Although it seems to defy logic at first, there’s an advantage to placing a smart object containing layer comps (saved as a PSD) into a Photoshop document. When you do, you can access the layer comps in the Properties panel (Window>Properties), eliminating the need to jump to the original document to choose another layer comp. In this example, the original logo document contains several layer comps, each with a different version of the logo. After saving the logo file as a PSD file, and then placing that PSD file as a smart object into another image, you can go to the Properties panel to choose an alternate layer comp. 

ADVANCED BLENDING OPTIONS 

Found in the Blending Options of the Layer Style dialog, the Advanced Blending section provides some additional, and very interesting, ways for layers to interact with each other. For example, you can restrict blending effects to specific channels by unchecking the channels you wish to exclude. Tip: You can quickly access the Blending Options by double-clicking to the right of a layer’s name in the Layers panel. 

Use the Knockout option to have a layer “punch a hole” in the layer below. For example, to make a type layer make a hole on the layer below, change the Knockout setting from None to Shallow. In order to see the effect, you’ll have to either change the Fill Opacity to 0%, or choose a Blend Mode that makes the effect visible. 

In general, putting these layers into a group will make it easier to control this effect. In the example shown here, the two lines of text are knocking out the black bars below them. If these layers weren’t in a group, the lines of text would knock out to the transparency in the layers below them but, because they are in a group, it knocks out to the Background layer below the layer group. In comparison to using a layer mask, Knockout offers one distinct advantage: The type remains editable (as compared with a mask where the text is made up of pixels on the mask). 

THE BLEND IF SLIDERS 

The Blend If sliders at the bottom of the Blending Options in the Layer Style dialog provide a fast method of making areas of a layer transparent based on their brightness values. You can apply the settings to the current layer (This Layer) or the layer below your current layer (Underlying Layer). By default, the Blend If sliders work on all channels (when set to Gray), or you can choose individual channels. In this example we want to make all the white areas transparent. We could try changing the blend mode to Multiply, but that also changes the appearance of the colors. 

The slider called This Layer controls the opacity of the layer you’re on, so moving the white triangle to the left will make the white areas appear transparent. 

It’s important to note that technically the white areas are still there; they just appear transparent. You can see that in this example, as adding a Drop Shadow results in the shadow following the outline of the (“transparent”) white box. 

To make the white areas truly transparent, you can convert the layer to a smart object by Right-clicking on the layer in the Layers panel and choosing Convert to Smart Object. 

You can also get some interesting results using the Underlying Layer slider. Moving the triangles on that slider will make areas of the layer below “push through” the layer that you’re currently on. In this example the black triangle was moved to the right to make the darker areas of the bricks push though the text. In addition, I Option-clicked (PC: Alt-clicked) the triangle to split it; moving the two halves separately will create a softer transition between the transparent and opaque areas. 

It’s important to note that the Blend If sliders are still considered a layer style, as are Opacity and blend modes. This means that, in the Layers panel, you can Right-click a layer and use the Copy Layer Style and Paste Layer Style commands to copy-and-paste a look (layer styles, Opacity, blend modes, Blend If sliders) from one layer to another. 

ARTBOARDS 

With artboards you can incorporate multiple output sizes into one Photoshop document. A new artboard can be created by clicking and dragging with the Artboard tool (nested with the Move tool [V] in the Toolbar), or by using the flyout menu in the Layers panel and choosing New Artboard. Once an Artboard has been added, you can change its size in the Properties panel (Window>Properties). 

Artboards appear in the Layers panel, which means that you can edit them both on the canvas and through the Layers panel. 

Smart objects work particularly well with artboards because one of the advantages of smart objects is that if you make copies of a smart object and then edit one of the copies, all copies of that smart object will update. In this example, the logo was made into a smart object and then copied onto each Artboard (by holding down Option [PC: Alt], and dragging the logo layer into each Artboard in the Layers panel). 

After making a change to one of the logo smart objects and saving it, all the copies (on each Artboard) will update. 

The same theory applies to tasks such as adding a block of color: Make an initial color layer and convert it to a smart object. Copy that layer to each Artboard and now it will be simple to change the color block on all artboards. 

To export artboards as files you have a couple of options: 

  • To export all artboards, go to File>Export>Artboards to Files (or Artboards to PDF). Choose the File Type and other options and click Run. 
  • To export a single artboard (or some but not all artboards) highlight them in the Layers panel and then, from the Layers panel flyout menu, choose Export As. 

PRESERVE TRANSPARENCY 

It’s important to understand what it means to preserve the transparent pixels on a layer so you can decide when, and when not to use it. Said simply, the Preserve Transparency option means that whatever you do next will only affect the non-transparent pixels on a layer: the transparency is “locked.” For example, if you have a logo on a layer and want to fill that logo with a different color, you need to change only the color of the existing pixels, not the transparent areas. In the Fill command (Edit>Fill), checking the Preserve Transparency checkbox will result in the new color being added only to the existing pixels. 

To do this using the keyboard, add the Shift key to the shortcut for filling with the Foreground or Background color: 

  • Fill with Foreground Color: Option-Delete (PC: Alt-Backspace). 
  • Fill with Foreground Color with Preserve Transparency: Shift-Option-Delete (PC: Shift-Alt-Backspace).
  • Fill with Background Color: Command-Delete (PC: Ctrl-Backspace).
  • Fill with Background Color with Preserve Transparency: Shift-Command-Delete (PC: Shift-Ctrl-Backspace). 

What about using the Lock Transparent Pixels option in the Layers panel? At first glance, the result would be the same when filling a logo while locking the transparent areas but, once again, it’s important to understand how it works so you can decide when it’s best to use it. Yes, turning on this lock and then using the Fill command would have the same result as checking Preserve Transparency in the Fill dialog, but in this case, you’d have to remember to turn off the Lock Transparent Pixels option when you’re done, or else other operations might not work properly. 

Also, it’s not always a straightforward answer as to whether you should lock the transparent pixels. Let’s assume you were about to apply a Gaussian Blur to a logo on a layer. Should you turn on Lock Transparent Pixels? The answer is: it depends. If the logo has some texture that you want to blur and you want the edges of the logo to be sharp, then yes, lock the transparent areas before applying the blur. But if you want to soften the edges of the logo, then lock transparent pixels has to be off so the Gaussian Blur is able to use the transparent areas around the logo to create the blur. As you can see, to decide whether Lock Transparent Pixels should be on or off, you have to determine the result you want. 

The next time you’re creating a multi-layered masterpiece, I hope you’ll take advantage of some (or all) of these lesser–known, but very powerful layer functions.