Whenever we talk about post-processing our photos in Photoshop (or any similar kind of software), we inevitably introduce the concept of layers. If it weren’t for layers, Photoshop wouldn’t be nearly as popular as it is, and photographers would have a much more difficult time making changes after a picture has been taken. They are the most important thing to understand when it comes to working with Photoshop. So, what is a layer?
In many ways, it is exactly what you would expect it to be. It’s this thing that sits on top of your photo and modifies it in some way or another. You can add a new layer to any photo just by going to the layers menu and clicking “add new layer.” It might be different in other programs, but the concept is the same.
Layers can do all sorts of things. You can use them to place text on top of your photo, put photos together for an action sequence, adjust colors and sharpness, or frame your subject. Graphic designers are always using multiple layers to create the rich and complex graphics you see on websites and in advertising.
There are a few things you should know about working with layers, and believe me, it will make things much easier. I’ve listed them as handy bullet points below:
- If you don’t see the layers panel like the one I have above, go to window --> layers. It should show up after that.
- Layers are stacked on top of one another, just like slices of cheese. If you have a layer with a white rectangle sitting on top of your photo, you will see the white rectangle instead of the photo underneath it.
- You can delete a layer by clicking on it and dragging it to the little trash can at the bottom of the panel.
- You can also move a layer up and down the stack by clicking on it and dragging it up or down.
- You can make a layer partially transparent by changing its opacity number. At 100%, a layer is has no transparency. At 0% it is completely transparent.
- Do you see the little eyeball on the left side of the layer? If you click on it, the eyeball disappears, and so does the layer. This is handy for reducing some of the clutter you get when working with a lot of layers.
I should also discuss the one thing that confuses most people.
Any changes you make to your photo will only be made on the layer you have selected. If you’re wondering why your clone stamp or blur tool isn’t working, this is probably the reason.
This happens to me all the time when I’m creating action sequence photos. I want to delete the part of the photo that doesn’t contain the subject, but I end up deleting a bunch more because I haven’t selected the correct layer. Always pay attention to this.
Adjustment Layers Are A Photographer’s Best Friend
As a photographer, you won’t be using layers to “design” your images. You will be using them to tweak your images and put them in the best light possible. One way to do this is to use adjustment layers instead of using filters and image settings. Here’s how they work.
To start, you create an adjustment layer by clicking on Layer --> New Adjustment Layer. From this menu, you have a variety of options. Each of them corresponds to image settings that can be found under the Image --> Adjustments menu. Have a look at the image below.
When you create an adjustment layer, you are doing the same thing Image --> Adjustments does, but you get the benefit of being able to “throw out” the adjustment if you don’t like it later on.
You might do this if you just took a portrait and wanted to improve the color with curves. You would create a curves adjustment layer, change the curves accordingly, and then save the new file as the color corrected version. You could then come back later and add a contrast layer to sharpen your image (of course, only if you want to).
Why edit files when you can edit layers! This way, all of your photos remain in their original unmodified condition. When you want to save modified versions, you can export them with different filenames so you know which ones have been through post production. To make things even better, you can always go back to your adjustments any time you want. They’re saved as layers. They’re not hidden in a bunch of steps you can’t access.
Layers make Photoshop the fantastic photo editing software that it is. There is no way to avoid them, so keep playing with them and learning more.
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