Photoshop Layers De-mystified: a beginner’s guide to smarter photo editing

Photoshop Layers Explained: a beginner's guide to post-processing the smart way

Yesterday we took a look at how Photoshop’s Blend Modes work and the 10 best blends for photographers. Today we want to go even further back to basics with photo editing and look at the types of Photoshop layers and how to use them to get the effect you want.

Photoshop Layers Explained: a beginner's guide to post-processing the smart way

It’s a given that layers are key to successful image editing in Photoshop but, for novices, layer lore can still seem like a black art. In this post we’re going to demonstrate how user-friendly and essential Photoshop layers are to you.

In a nutshell, layers enable you to work on one part of an image without affecting others. You can change the opacity of layers, so they’re opaque or barely visible. You can move layers, mask and subtly blend them.

You need to think of your Photoshop layers as sheets of acetate stacked on your background image. A layer can be filled with image pixels, or just have a small area of an image with other areas transparent.

You can also blend layers and hide parts via Layer Masks. On the third page of this post you’ll see a deconstruction of our featured image image, and how we used layers to achieve the result.

SEE MORE: Photoshop Effects: how to mimic studio lighting for stylish portraits

The Photoshop Layers Palette

Photoshop Layers PaletteHere’s the Layers palette in all its glory, showing the layers in our main image. The currently active layer is shown by the blue highlight.

Each layer has its own visibility eye by the side of it, which can be used to either hide or show the layer in the image.

From the top of the palette, you can choose the Blending Mode for the active layer and control the layer’s Opacity.

The Trash Can at the bottom is used to delete the active layer, and the Add New Layer icon sits to its left.

The bisected circle icon enables you to add new Adjustment Layers, and the small rectangle with the white circle is clicked to add a Layer Mask.

Notice that the Palette displays both image layers and Layer Masks with thumbnails, which show their contents.

The Layers palette is a vital tool for organising, creating and managing layers.

100 free Photoshop textures to download now
101 Photoshop tips you have to know

Photoshop’s Layers in effect

Photoshop Layers Explained: a beginner's guide to post-processing the smart way

01 Background layer
This is the original image as it was opened in Photoshop. This layer has had no alterations made to it at this point. As the Background layer, it’s used both for a base and a source for any subsequent Duplicate layers.

02 Background Copy 85% Opacity
A Background Copy layer, in Multiply Blending Mode to darken the lighter areas in the image. A Layer Mask partially hides the effect of the layer in selected places.

03 Soft Light 65% Opacity
Another Background Copy layer, this time set to Soft Light Blending Mode, adds some much-needed contrast to the image, darkening shadows and lightening highlights.

04 Colour Blending Mode 100%
A slightly desaturated Background Copy layer is added and set to Colour mode. The lower area has been masked out in this layer so that it just cools down the sky a little.

05 Overlay 80% Opacity
A layer filled with 50% grey is set to Overlay mode. In Overlay mode, grey is neutral. We painted on this layer with black to darken some areas, and with white to lighten others.

06 Adjustment Layer
A Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer is used to slightly desaturate the entire image overall. Adjustment Layers can always be re-edited simply by double-clicking on them in the Layers palette.

07 Soft Light 45%
This layer, set to Soft Light Blending Mode, has a simple black to transparent gradient added to it to darken the sky and make it look more overcast. Because of the gradient, the effect is strongest and most bold at the top of the image.

SEE MORE: 8 alternative ways to convert to black and white in Photoshop

The only 3 tips you need to know out Layers

1. It might seem really obvious, but to work on a layer you need to target it first in the Layers palette. A layer is active when it’s shown as highlighted in the palette.

2. Remember, layers can either be visible or hidden! You can temporarily hide a layer by clicking its visibility eye in the palette. You can’t work on a layer if its visibility eye isn’t showing, but activating it to work on is as simple as clicking again on the visibility eye.

3. The ‘stacking order’ of layers can be changed. You can move a layer to any position within the palette by dragging and dropping it between layers. Those that are higher up have priority over those that are positioned further down the palette.


6 photo editing steps every photographer must know
20 tips for faster photo editing
50 free Photoshop actions for portrait photographers
49 awesome photography tips and time savers

  • Wade Nelson

    Sorry, but I’ve been using computers and cameras for 30 years and this article doesn’t cut it.