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The Ultimate Photoshop Layer Guide

June 6, 2016

The #1 mistake people are making, when working with Photoshop is, not using layers.

Even if you only use Photoshop for your hobby or are using it now and then to create something for your blog or business, layers are a must. Most people argument with either it’s too confusing or it takes too much time. This post will hopefully settle your confusion and to tell you one thing upfront: In the end, using layers will save you time and redundant work!


What are Photoshop layers?


Looking at your layout in Photoshop, the whole thing might seem to you like one image and maybe it is if you put everything on your background layer. But that’s not the way how Photoshop was meant to work. Your layout, depending on how extensive it is, consists of a couple or many elements e.g. text, images, and other design elements. Every element should be one layer. The more elements, the more layers you have. Probably the reason why people say it’s confusing. But it doesn’t have to be. We will soon come back to this point.

The big advantage of creating layers for every part of your design is, you can change and rearrange every element by itself without affecting others. So layers are a form of organizing your layout and giving every item a special purpose and place.

Related Post: How to resize images in Photoshop

If you want to become a Photoshop pro there’s one basic feature you need to know. Using layers will make you more efficient. Learn how to use layers in Photoshop with this ultimate guide | thatistheday.com #howtophotoshop #photoshoptutorials #designtips #photoshop

5 kinds of  Photoshop layers for different purposes


Background: The background layer is the default layer in Photoshop. When you open an image for the first time, it will always consist just of this layer which is locked, so adjustments you will make won’t affect it. To unlock this layer, in order to make changes, you have to double-click the name and a window opens where you enter a new name and select a mode if you want.


Text: A new text layer is automatically created when you use the type tool. Its purpose needs no explaining I guess.


Image: The image layer contains all your image information. If you create a new layer in Photoshop, the default setting will automatically open an image layer.


Fill: The fill layer is for solid colors or patterns. When you create a fill layer you can decide between solid color, gradient or pattern.


Adjustment: By far the most important layer. If you want to make adjustments to one of your image layers, this layer will contain your changes e.g. contrast or color regulations. If you want your changes undone, just remove the layer and your back to your original image.

How to work with Photoshop layers

Creating a layer


Go to your menu and under window select: layers. This window should always stay open in order to have easy access. So before you start to do anything, the first step is always, to create a new layer. For this, you can use the drop-down menu in your layer window and select a new layer, or you can just click one of the different layers at the bottom of your window.

Every layer you create should be named. Once you have a dozen, it will be easier to find the right one if you choose a name describing what it contains. Once you have over a dozen layers, it will be handy to create layer groups to organize them more efficiently. You can create a group by clicking the folder button. Filing the layers into the according group works by drag and drop. Pick out names for the groups as well.


When you’re working on a layer, make sure you selected the right one. You can select a layer just by clicking on it. If you are not sure, use the visibility selection. That’s the little eye you see on the left of every layer. Unselect it and the layer will disappear from your layout. You can also use this if you are trying an effect. Click the visibility on and off to see with and without effect.

How to work with Photoshop layers

Working with layers


Now, we are coming to the interesting and probably the most frightening part. But once you see all the advantages of using layers, I am sure you will decide to kick fear and overwhelm to the curb.


Rule #1: Create a layer for every single item! It might seem ridiculous and unnecessary work, but it can save your ass.


I will give you an example to point out why it is important. A mistake I made myself, thinking I can just skip this layer thing and create something really quick.


Let’s just say, you created an image for a blog post or flyer. One week later, or let it be two months, you realize, you can use the exact same image for another project, you would only have to change the color. Like, change the beige background into a yellow one because it is a project for spring and you need bright colors. Easy task, right? But how do you change the color of one element without affecting the others? There are, of course, ways to do this but easy, is not the right word for it. You know, that’s exactly the moment, when the Photoshop doctor will say to the nurse: “Hand me the scissors! We need to make a cut.” The outcome, as you can imagine, is a big mess.


Having your layers in place, changes like this, are a two-minute thing. You don’t have to create every layout from scratch. You can just make templates instead. A huge time saver! To understand better, what is possible using layers, I will explain the main functions of your layer panel.

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Lock: Like the background layer, you can lock every other layer by clicking the tiny lock on the right side of your layer. This makes sure no changes can be made on the selected layer. Using the lock makes sure your layer stays untouched even if you accidentally work on the wrong one. To specify your lock, you can decide between different kinds which will determine the change that can or can’t be made.


Link: Linking layers is like making a group. If you have two objects belonging together and you want to make sure all changes directly affect both layers, you can link them. Now, if you move one, the other will always stay at its side. Another way would be to create a group and file the layers into that group. With this, they are still flexible when you move them around. But if you select the whole group and use an adjustment, it will affect all layers in this group.


Layer order: Inside your panel you can move layers with drag and drop. The first layer in your panel lies on top of everything else. If you want to put this layer into the background just move it to the bottom in the panel. If you want it to be behind a certain element, move it under the layer of this element.


Merge: You are once and for all done with the work on certain layers, e.g. text and logo you combine to a watermark? Will these elements forever stay like that? Merge them together and you have one layer less. Select the layers you want to merge, right-click one of them and pick merge selected layers.


Opacity and Fill: You can use these functions to change the transparency on a selected layer, e.g. in order to make the subjacent layer shine through.


Blending modes: By default, this is in “normal” mode but in the drop-down menu, you have lots of choices. The best way to find out what works is by trying it. The change you make will affect the selected layer.


Delete: At the bottom of the panel you see the little basket where you can delete what doesn’t work.


New Layer: The thing I use most is the create a new layer button. You can also drag an existing layer onto it, which will create a copy of your layer. I do this a lot when I am unsure about an element or the adjustments I made to it. I make a copy, try something different and then check visibility on and off to see what works better.


New Adjustment layer: Select a layer and click ‘new adjustment layer’. This will open a layer to make adjustments like color correction, balance, or contrast just for this one layer. It can easily be removed if something goes wrong.


Wow! I hope you stuck to the end. I know at first this looks very complex but after trying it out yourself, I am sure you will adapt quickly. Just remember the most important: Before every move, you make in Photoshop, hit the new layer button!


If this post was helpful, I would appreciate if you share it with your friends. Interested in learning more about Photoshop? Read my post about resizing images for print and web.




Leave a Reply

5 responses to “The Ultimate Photoshop Layer Guide

  1. I need to learn more details about layers, please. Also about chanels and masks. Where can I find out more and well explained like your post? Maybe you have a new post about it?

    • Sandra

      Hi Silvia, glad you found this post helpful. Right now, I don’t have any other posts on layers and masks. I am planning to add more Photoshop tutorials though. I recommend you look for Terry White on Youtube. He has some good and easy to understand tutorials.

  2. I have been a photographer for many years. I use Photoshop to make edits and do a good job, but am only now starting to realize the importance of using layers as I never really did before…at least to my knowing.

    I’m only now starting to learn how to edit with layers and am excited of the possibilities. This post was helpful, thanks!

    Costas Gioldasis
    Gioldasis Photography

    • Sandra

      I am so glad this post helped you. It took me a long time before I started using layers in Photoshop myself. But I realized it makes editing so much easier. Even if it seems like a lot of work in the beginning, stick with it. It will save you stress and time in the end.