What are adjustment layers in Photoshop? A cheat sheet to the options available

What are adjustment layers in Photoshop? A cheat sheet to the options available

What are adjustment layers in Photoshop? You’ve probably heard the term countless times, but remain unsure what they do. In this quick tutorial we’ll explain how Photoshop’s adjustment layers can provide a flexible, non-destructive way of editing photos.

What are adjustment layers in Photoshop? A cheat sheet to the options available

Click on the cheat sheet to see the larger version – or drag and drop it to your desktop to download.

Have you ever redecorated a room, brought all the furniture back in and hung up all the pictures only to realise that the new colour just doesn’t work?

If so, you’ve probably wished that there was an easy way of seeing how the room would look with the walls a variety of different shades before you start slapping the paint on.

And maybe there could be a simpler way of making changes once you’ve got everything back in the room so you can assess the final effect straight away?

Well, we can’t help you with the decorating, but we can help you avoid having similar problems when adjusting images.

If you use Photoshop’s standard method to adjust the contrast and colour balance of an image, you can’t go back and undo the work easily at a later date.

However, if you use an Adjustment Layer that holds all the information about the edit, you can make changes whenever you like provided that you save the file in a format such as Photoshop PSD or a TIFF, formats that support layers.

Another great thing about using Adjustment Layers is that the Levels and Curves controls are just the same as they are normally, but if you prefer you can apply masks to target where the edits are applied.

In fact, you can use all the usual layer controls, making Adjustment Layers an extremely powerful and flexible way of editing an image. Once you grasp the concept, you’ll see how useful they are.

Use a mask to apply an adjustment layer exactly where it’s needed

As with other layers, you can apply a mask to an Adjustment Layer to screen it from certain parts of an image so that it only changes specific parts of the scene.

With a landscape image, for example, you may want to treat the land and the sky separately, perhaps brightening the land while keeping the sky as it is.

All you need to do to create a mask is to double-click the rectangle next to the layer thumbnail in the Layers Panel. Then use a black brush to paint on the mask. With this approach you paint in where you don’t want to apply the adjustment.

However, if you hit Ctrl/Cmd+I to invert the mask, you can use a white brush to paint in where you want the adjustment applied – which feels a little more intuitive.

If you make a mistake, simply switch to the opposite colour to paint it out. You can also adjust the Opacity of the brush to reduce the impact of the adjustment in some areas.

Clipped edits

The edits made with an Adjustment Layer are normally applied to all the layers beneath it in the Layers Panel. However, if it’s clipped, the adjustment is only applied to the layer immediately beneath the Adjustment Layer, which is very useful with composite images.

To clip an Adjustment Layer to the layer below, just select it in the Layers Panel and then click the Clip icon at the bottom of the layer’s Properties Panel.

PAGE 1: What are the options for adjustment layers?
PAGE 2: Taking control of your adjustment layers
PAGE 3: Adjustment layers in Photoshop Elements


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