Understanding Layers

Get help understanding layers in this free Photoshop layers tutorial lesson.

Introduction

Video: Understanding Layers

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Have you ever wondered how people achieve such great results with Photoshop? While there are many different image editing techniques, there's one tool Photoshop professionals use with almost every project: layers. Learning how to use layers is probably the most important thing you can do to become better at Photoshop. In this lesson, we'll talk about how layers work, the different types of layers, and the basics of creating and using layers.

If you'd like to follow along with the lesson, you can download our example file. We're planning to send this file as an email attachment and post it on the Web.

What are layers?

You can think of layers as transparent panes of glass stacked on top of one another, which allow different parts of each layer to show through. There are many types of layers you'll use in Photoshop, and they fall into two main categories:

When using layers, it may be helpful to turn individual layers on and off to see how they affect the image. You can do this by clicking the eye icon next to each layer name.

Click the eye icons in the interactive below to practice turning different layers on and off. Notice how hiding content layers like the Background layer has a more noticeable effect than hiding adjustment layers like the Adjust Levels layer.

Why use layers?

At this point, you may be wondering why you even need to use layers. Wouldn't it just be easier to work with everything in your image at once? The truth is, layers give you an amazing amount of flexibility and control because you can edit each layer independently from the rest of the image. Once you become comfortable with layers, you'll use them all the time.

Layer basics

Now you're ready to start working with layers in Photoshop. You can view, create, and edit layers with the Layers panel. This will usually be found in the lower-right corner of the screen, although you can always go to Windowright-arrowLayers to make sure it's turned on.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

To create an adjustment layer:

If you've never used layers before, we recommend trying adjustment layers first. Remember, an adjustment layer does not contain content—it simply allows you to apply adjustments to the layers below it.

  1. In the Layers panel, select the layer below where you want the adjustment layer to appear. In our example, we'll select the Cake layer.
    Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC
  2. Click the Adjustment button adjustment button at the bottom of the Layers panel, then choose the desired adjustment.


    Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC
  3. The adjustment layer will appear, and you can then customize the adjustment in the Properties panel. Any changes you make will affect every layer below the adjustment layer. We'll talk more about using the Properties panel for different adjustments throughout this tutorial.
    Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

Alternatively, you can use the buttons in the Adjustments panel to create an adjustment layer.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

In the example file, select the Cake layer, then create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Try using the sliders in the Properties pane to see the effect.

To create a blank layer:

There may be times when you'll want to create a new blank layer. For example, if you want to draw on an image with the Brush tool, you could create a new layer and then draw on that layer.

To create a new layer, click the New Layer button new layer button near the lower-right corner of the Layers panel. The new layer will appear in the Layers panel.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

To duplicate a layer:

There will also be times when you'll want to duplicate an existing layer. This is an easy way to try out different edits without altering the original layer.

  1. Right-click the layer, then select Duplicate Layer.
    Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC
  2. A dialog box will appear. Click OK. The duplicate layer will appear.
    Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

To delete a layer:

If you find that you no longer need a layer, you can delete it. To do this, simply select the layer and then press the Delete key on your keyboard. Alternatively, you can click and drag the layer to the Trash Can delete layer button in the lower-right corner of the Layers panel.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

Working with layers

There are many different ways to work with the layers in your document. For example, you can show and hide different layers, change the stacking order, and more.

Showing and hiding layers

To hide a layer, simply click the eye icon eye icon next to the desired layer. Click it again to show the layer. In the image below, you can see that we've turned off the Text layer, so the text is no longer visible in the document window:

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

Reordering layers

The order in which layers are stacked will determine how the document looks. There may be times when you need to change the stacking order. To reorder a layer, simply click and drag the layer to the desired position in the Layers panel. In the image below, you can see that we've moved the Cake layer to the very top, which completely covers up the layers below it:

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

If you want to reorder the Background layer of the image, you will need to right-click it and then select Layer from Background. This will convert the background to a regular layer, which can be reordered.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

Try reordering the layers to see the effect. Notice how moving the Cake layer to the very top will completely cover up the other layers, but moving the Text or Rings layer to the top does not.

Letting layers show through

In the example above, moving the Cake layer to the top completely covers up the layers below it. By contrast, moving the Text or Rings layer to the top would still allow parts of the layers below to show through. This is because these layers contain transparent areas, whereas the Cake layer does not.

What if we wanted the layers below the Cake layer to show through? There are many ways to do this, such as changing the opacity of the layer or adding a layer mask. We'll talk more about these options in our lesson on Doing More with Layers.

Editing layers

The true advantage of layers is that you can edit or adjust each layer individually without affecting the rest of the document. As we mentioned earlier, there are several types of layers you can use, along with many editing tools. However, before you get started, note that not all editing tools will work with all types of layers. This will become easier to understand as you gain more experience with Photoshop.

Using editing tools

You can use tools from the Tools panel and the Filter menu to edit layers. For example, you could use the Move tool to move different layers around in your document. In the image below, we're using it to move the Rings layer toward the bottom of the image:

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC

Selecting layers before editing

For many types of edits, the desired layer must be selected before editing; otherwise, you may edit the wrong layer by mistake. For example, if you use the Eraser tool, it will only affect the layer you have selected. You should get into the habit of checking the Layers panel frequently to make sure you have the correct layer selected.

Editing text layers

If you want to edit a text layer, you'll need to double-click the layer icon in the Layers panel. You can then change the text, choose a different font, or modify the text size and color.

Screenshot of Adobe Photoshop CC
  • In the example file, select the Rings layer, then use the Move tool to move the layer around the document.
  • Double-click the layer icon for the Text layer, then try editing the text. For example, you could change the date from June 21 to June 15.

While we've covered some fundamental information about layers, it's important to realize that there are many different ways to use layers in Photoshop. We'll talk much more about using layers throughout this tutorial, so you'll be able to build on the skills you've learned in this lesson.

Challenge!

If you'd like to follow along, you can download our example file.

  1. Open the example file in Photoshop.
  2. Try turning different layers off and on to see the effect.
  3. Add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer. Then use the sliders in the Properties panel to adjust the brightness and contrast.
  4. Try re-ordering layers to see the effect.
  5. Save the image as a PSD file to save your changes. This will preserve all of the layers so you can edit them again later, if desired.
  6. Use the Save for Web feature to export the image as a JPEG. Make sure to adjust the quality to find a good balance between file size and image quality.