If you're just getting started with Photoshop for design or photography work, at some point you're going to need layers. Layers are the foundation of Photoshop and provide the full range of features in the app, allowing you to create files, designs or images and easily update or modify them.
The following basic attributes will help you progress from beginner to advanced. There are many more complex functions of layers, but understanding these main elements first will help you to edit images later easier.
Show layers view
With the image open in Photoshop, go to Window > Layers to open the Layers window. This will display the layers of the image, along with the various tools needed to edit them.
The background layer is the basemap for the new image. The default for this layer is locked, which means that it cannot be modified, moved, or changed relative to other layers unless it is unlocked. If you choose to unlock it, it becomes a standard layer and enables all of the following editing features.
Background layers are automatically locked. The lock must be unlocked to make adjustments.
To turn the "Background" layer into a normal layer, click the layer's lock icon in the Layers window. Or double-click the layer to call up more options. This brings up the same dialog as creating a new layer, allowing you to preset the opacity and specify the blending mode .
Double-clicking on the background layer opens the same dialog as creating a new layer.
Lock and unlock layers
A very important function of layers is to lock and unlock layers. This will give you more control and help you avoid accidentally touching or modifying it. As with the Background layer, unlocking a layer is as simple as clicking the lock icon in the Layers window.
Click the lock icon on a layer to quickly unlock it.
Circled in red above is a simple "lock/unlock" toggle. When you want to lock multiple layers, hold down the Option key and click each layer, or hold down the Shift key and click the layers in order.
Then, click the Lock All icon in the Lock: section of the Layers window . Each layer will now display a "lock" icon, which can be unlocked with a single click. You can unlock multiple layers collectively by selecting them and pressing the Lock All icon in the Lock: section.
Name the layer
Naming layers can help you and others understand what's in a given archive. Even if you're working alone (which won't always be the case), start getting into the habit of naming your layers. To name a layer, double-click the name in the Layers window and enter a name.
To add a blank layer, click the new layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, or click Layer > New > Layer , then click OK . Regardless of the method used, the new layer will appear above the currently selected layer in the Layers panel.
There are several reasons why you might want to copy layers. To make the layer more contrasting or more saturated, make a copy and stack it on top of the layer itself, then use the Color Value blending mode. If you want to try the effect before applying it formally, you can make a copy and try different things. If you are not satisfied with the result, just delete the copy.
How to make a copy of a layer:
- Drag and drop the layer onto the new layer icon below the Layers panel
- Right-click on the layer, select Duplicate Layer , and then click OK .
- Hold down the Option key , then drag the layers to the desired stacking order in the Layers window.
To delete a layer, use one of the following methods:
- Drag and drop the layer onto the trash can icon at the bottom of the viewport.
- Right-click on the layer and select Delete Layer .
- Select the layer and press the Delete key on your keyboard .
Reminder: Deletion is permanent unless there is a way to restore it, but this can be problematic in complex processes with many steps. Only delete when you are very sure.
Being able to move layers around is one of the reasons we used layers in the first place, changing the order to put objects at different depths in visual space, or using transparency to arrange layer order to create depth. You can drag layers in the Layers window to move them to another position in the sequence. Keep in mind that layer contents below full-screen layers will not be displayed.
How to group layers
Grouping layers puts them in the same folder, allowing you to manage them as a group. You can move it in the layer order and apply a mask to the entire group. This feature can be helpful when dealing with many elements that you want to put together.
Grouping layers can make them easier to use in complex projects.
To group 2 or more layers, select them in the Layers window and press Command + G on your keyboard , or click the hamburger menu in the Layers window and choose From "Group Layers" option. You can use this method to create a new group from scratch and then add layers later. Groups are named in the same way as layers, by double-clicking the name in the Layers window.
Naming groups keeps them organized.
How to Merge Layers
Merging or combining layers is a useful feature when you want to permanently combine two or more layers. When merging layers, any individual layer masks or properties become permanent. If you want to preserve individual properties of a single layer, you will need to use the group function instead.
There are several ways to combine layers. To merge a single layer into another layer, select it, then click the layer in the main menu and find the option for "Merge", or click the hamburger menu in the "Layer" window. Merge Down merges the selected layer with the layer in the next order.
To merge multiple layers, select them by holding down the Option key and clicking on the desired layers in the Layers window. The "Merge Down" option in the menu changes to "Merge Layers" . Checking this option will merge the selected layers and place them at the position of the topmost selected layer in the overall sort. So if you want to combine any previous layer that was in between these two layers, you can put it above or below the new layer, but not between them.
Merging layers will group their individual properties into a single layer.
Merge visible layers (enable visibility when merging layers) and image flattening (merge all layers and remove layers with visibility turned off), both of which are options for "nuclear level". You should only use these options when you are sure that it is okay to lose all individual layers.
Layer visibility and order
Photoshop gives us two ways to change the visibility of layers: modifying opacity and fill, and turning visibility on/off.
The opacity control sets how much a layer appears on top of layers below it. If there are no layers below that layer, it will change the transparency. You can directly click on the word Opacity , then drag the cursor left or right to view the effect on the image, or select a percentage in the field next to it. (To learn more about the difference between opacity and fill, see this article .)
To toggle the overall visibility of a layer, regardless of the opacity setting, click the eyeball icon to the left of the layer name. Turn on eyeball = layer is visible and vice versa.
Layer stacking order
The order of layers in the Layers panel affects what you see in the image. In the Layers panel, the content of any upper layer is displayed on top of the content of any lower layer.
To place the flowers in the foreground in the image below, we place them on a layer above the background or on a base layer.
Any layer placed on top of another layer will determine what the original layer displays.
Filling layers with color can be handy when working with objects with some transparency or when you just need a flat background. To fill the layer, select an empty layer or create a new layer.
When selecting a color, click the color swatch at the bottom of the tool window to open the color selection tool. To choose black or white, press the D key on the keyboard . This will make black the foreground and white the background.
Hold down the Option key and press the Delete key to fill the layer with the foreground color. Hold down the Command key , then press the Delete key to fill the layer with the background color.
save layer file
While the images we're designing may be for the web or in print, it's best to keep the layers editable. First save the flat image in a format that can be used in other environments, such as JPG or PNG to preserve transparency, then save the layer file as a Photoshop or .PSD file.
This preserves all the properties of the individual layers: effects, transparency, blending modes, visibility, etc. Photoshop archives are the best format for continuous editing or modification of layers.
Before finalizing the image, be sure to save the layers and properties as a .psd file.