Photoshop Techniques - Layers

When it comes to image making, edits should be totally non-destructive and easy to change. What I mean by non-destructive is that edits should not alter the original image except when completed and the final image is ready to be saved as a separate file. The best way to perform non-destructive edits is by using layers in Photoshop. Layers make edits non-destructive and make non-destructive edits easy. This is the reason why layers are essential for best practices and should be the first thing mastered in Photoshop. Here’s why I rely on layers completely:

  • I often make several edits to an image (i.e., dodging, burning, color balance, vibrance, etc.)
  • I often change my mind about edits and adjust them many times
  • I sometimes hide a specific edit and keep the others intact so that I can easily compare the edited and unedited version
  • I sometimes scrap some or all my edits and start over!

Before telling you about layers, let’s set up an alternative scenario. Let’s say you have an image with a blue sky. You wish to make two edits, brighten the blue sky and saturate the blue sky. After opening your image file in Photoshop, go to the Image tab at the top and open the adjustments menu.

From the menu, choose ‘brightness/contrast’. When you click on it, the adjustment sliders window opens. From there, you apply brightness as well as contrast by adjusting the slider tools. Once you are happy with the edits, click ‘OK’. Done.

Next, go back to the adjustments menu and choose ‘hue/saturation’. When you click on it, the adjustment sliders window opens. From there, you apply saturation to the blue color by sliding the tool to the right. Once you are happy with your saturation, click ‘OK’. Done.

Let’s say you look at your edited image and wished you hadn’t brightened the blue sky so much. You have two choices; delete the brightness edit and start over with it or add another brightness adjustment to reduce the brightness to its original look. To delete the adjustment, go to the edit tab at the top and undo the previous edits; however, that requires deletion of the hue/saturation edit because it was performed after the brightness/contrast edit.

Instead of undoing the two previous edits, the brightness/contrast adjustment can be deleted without deleting the hue/saturation adjustment. Go to the Window tab at the top and check ‘History’ to see the history palette.

From the History palette, you can choose brightness/contrast adjustment to delete it.

That doesn’t seem too horrible, does it? So, what is the problem with this approach? For one, you can’t open the ‘brightness/contrast’ window a second time to see or change your edits. More importantly, those edits were performed on the original image. If you keep the edits and save the file, you no longer have the original image, only the edited one (unless you saved a duplicate prior to making the edits). You are unable to make changes to your edits. This is not acceptable, at least to someone like me who changes her mind a lot!

To process an image successfully, edits should be non-destructive and changeable; in other words, you should be able to add, remove, alter the look, hide or duplicate any edit made and none of the edits should affect the original image. And you should be able to do that to any single edit without affecting the other edits. How can you go about doing this? You guessed it – layers.

How do layers work? Think of them as sheets of transparent paper. Remember the old overhead projectors that used a flat panel with a transparent sheet to write on? You write on one and then place another on top of it and write on that one to display both at the same time. That’s how Photoshop layers work. When the original image file is brought into Photoshop it automatically becomes a layer, called ‘background’. Think of it as the base upon which the image is built with edits performed on layers.

When you add a layer, it lays on top of the background layer and each additional layer is stacked on top of the previous one. Each layer serves a specific editing purpose. Edits you make will apply to a layer and not the original background layer, but you will be able to see the edits as you apply them. And when you make edits in one layer and then add another layer on top of it, the previous edits are in view as you perform more edits with the new layer.

The easiest way to learn how to use layers is to begin with adjustment layers. Bring an image file into Photoshop. Note the layers palette located at the bottom right corner. It is here where the background layer automatically appears after an image file is brought into Photoshop.

Now you are ready to add adjustment layers to the image (background layer). This is very important to understand - adjustment layers are not the same as adjustments made to the original image, like with the blue sky example. Instead, adjustment layers are created so that adjustments are applied to the layer and NOT to the original image. The adjustment layers menu can be accessed from three places, one of which is the layers tab located at the top. In the layers menu, highlight ‘new adjustment layer’ to access the adjustment layers menu. You can create a layer from any one of these choices. Focus on the list starting with brightness/contrast and ending with color balance. These are the adjustments you will likely use the most.

Let’s go back to our blue sky image. Click on ‘brightness/contrast’ in the adjustment layers menu and a window appears. There is no need to change anything in that window, so click on ‘OK’. Notice that a new layer appears above the background layer. That’s the brightness/contrast adjustment layer. Also notice above the layers palette is a ‘Properties’ palette where the brightness and contrast adjustment sliders appear. It is here where you make brightness/contrast adjustments.

Now add a hue/saturation adjustment layer. Also note the adjustment sliders that appear in Properties.

You can go back to the ‘brightness/contrast’ layer by clicking on the layer icon (do not click on the white rectangle). Now the ‘brightness/contrast’ sliders appear in Properties where you can make changes.

You can continue editing the image by adding more adjustment layers, changing edits in any of the adjustment layers or deleting any or all layers.

Let’s say you want to compare your edited image to the original image. Click on the little eye icon located on the left side of the layer icon to hide that layer. Click on it again to bring it back. Now you can make a quick comparison!

If you click on the first adjustment layer and hold and drag the mouse up over the other layer eye icons, all the eye icons will disappear so that you can hide all the adjustment layers to see the unedited original. Click and drag down to bring the eyes back.

When you are finished, you can save the file with all the layers intact. I like to rename it and save it as a TIF. And by the way, you still have the original RAW file which remains intact. Once you are ready to show your image on Instagram or Facebook, open your file with the layers and go to the layers tab. Click on ‘Flatten image’ found at the bottom of the menu screen. All the layers will disappear and what is left is a single background layer with all the edits applied. Voila! You can now resize and save the file as a jpeg or save it in any file format or size you want. For one image I keep several files; the original RAW file, the TIF with layers, a high resolution TIF without layers (flattened image) and a jpeg formatted for the web (flattened image).

There is much more to layers than adjustments. But adjustment layers are the best way to begin and to fully appreciate the non-destructive qualities of layers. As you become comfortable with adjustment layers, you will learn more about layers and begin to realize the amazing powers that come with them. More importantly, you will see improvements in your images!

Thanks for looking on and if you want to learn more about Photoshop layers and masks in Photoshop, need help with your editing workflow or simply want to get started in Photoshop, I offer one-on-one tutorials at $75/hour. Please check out my website and feel free to contact me at