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Photoshop Tutorials For Beginners Lesson 2: Introducing Photoshop Layers

Now that we have made sense of the workspace, in lesson 1, it's time to look at the wonderful system of Photoshop layers. Editing photos using the layers system might seem unfamiliar at first, but it's a very powerful and simple system that I think you're going to enjoy discovering. Let's take a look...

What are 'layers'?

When you open a photo in Photoshop it is labelled the 'Background' image. You will see a thumbnail version the photo in the layers panel on the right hand side of the workspace.

Layers are literally the new images, or new adjustments, that are layered up on top of this background image. For example, go to Layers>New Adjustment Layer and choose Levels from the options (or click on the half black and half white cricle at the bottom of the layers panel, and choose Levels). Drag the black slider beneath the graph (histogram) to the right, which will increase the shadows in your image.

It appears that we have directly adjusted the background photograph. But, in fact, this edit has only taken place on the new layer, called Levels 1.

If we wanted to make another adjustment, say to increase colour saturation, we would do so on a new, second layer. Layers mount up-and-up as you make edits to a photo.

What's the point in that? Well, it means that the original photograph remains undamaged througout the entire editing process. You can easily delete layers if you decide you do not want them (by tapping backspace when the layer is highlighted). Additionally, the settings on each individual layer can be re-visited and fine tuned at any point.


Adding different types of layers

A we've seen, it's very easy to add an Adjustment Layer to a background image. This is one of the most common ways you'll be using layers as we learn more about Photoshop in future lessons.

When you need to add another photo as a layer on top of the background photo (i.e. as part of a collage), simply open MiniBridge (Organizing Photos In Bridge) by going to Windows>Extensions>MiniBridge. From MiniBridge you can choose any file from your computer, and simply drag and drop it on top of the open background image.

To add an image as a new layer that's already open as a separate Photoshop document: select it by hitting Cmd + A, then copy it by hitting Cmd + C, then go back to your other image and hit Cmd + V to add it as a new layer.

Another kind of layer we can add is simply a blank layer, with no information on it at all. This comes in hany in lots of ways, for example you can paint, fill or add text to the layer and it will be visible on the image. To add a new blank layer click on the Create A New Layer symbol (a page with the corner turned up) at the bottom of the layers panel.

For a beginner-friendly book with step-by-step Photoshop tutorials, I recommend "Photo Nuts and Post" by Neil Creek.

Moving layers and changing their visibility

Sometimes you will need to move the position of a layer within the image. To do this, first make sure the layer is highlighted in the layers panel. Select the Move tool, which is the tool at the top of the toolbar. Click on the layer in your image and drag it into its new position.

When you need to resize a layer go to Edit>Free Transform, which will place a boundary around the layer indicating you can drag to resize. Hold Shift as you drag to the corners of a layer, to prevent it from being stretched out of shape.

It's also good to know how to move layers within the layers panel itself. Remember, layers are literally stacked on top of each other, so the layers at the top of the layers panel are sitting on those below them. If you have 2 photos as 2 separate layers, the image on top could hide the one below if they are in the same position on the page. This is not the case with adjustment layers, which combine to create an overall effect. To move layers within the layers panel, simply click on one and drag it either above or below another layer.

You can easily control the visibility of layers too. Open a photo and add either a Levels adjustment layer, or new photo as a layer. In the layers panel, click on the little eye icon to the left of the layer thumbnail to make the layer invisible. Click the same place again to make it visible. This is really useful for assessing changes you have made to an image.

We can also make layers partially visible. Go to the Opacity slider at the top of the layers panel, which by default is set to 100%, and move it to the left to reduce opacity. This is useful for blending images and for fine-tuning edits made with adjustment layers.


Naming and organizing layers

To name a layer, double-click on its name in the layers panel (i.e. Levels 1) and type in the new name (i.e. Increased Shadows). As you build up lots of adjustments to an image, this can be really useful.

The layers panel can quickly become a confusing mass of thumbnails and words if you do not keep on top of it. Right click on a layer thumbnail and choose whether to display them as small, medium or large thumbnails. I like to work with small thumbnails, because they take up less space.

As more and more layers build up on top of the background image, you can group them together. This is useful, because some edits only apply to certain parts of an image.

Select the layers you want to group by Cmd clicking them. Go to Layer>Group Layers, or use the shortcut Cmd + G. The group will be shown as a folder icon, which you can give a name. All layers within a group can be expanded and edited individually again. But you can also move the whole group, or change its visibility simultaneously.



Layers are the system that allows us to make complex changes to a photo, without damaging the original image. You now know how they work, how to add different types, how to move them, resize them, change their visibility, name them and group them. I hope you found this tutorial introducing Photoshop layers was useful.

Photoshop Tutorials For Beginners

Lesson 1: Getting Started In Photoshop

Lesson 2: Introducing Photoshop Layers

Lesson 3: Organizing Photos In Adobe Bridge

Lesson 4: How To Read A Histogram In Photoshop

Lesson 5: Photoshop Blending Modes and Techniques

Lesson 6: Having Fun With Adjustment Layers

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