Layers are undoubtedly one of the most versatile and (at least, somewhat) non-destructive features of most of today’s image processing software. This article introduces you to the various characteristics, modes and commands for layers.
Layers can help in many types of operations, and I’ll cover the most important of these here. I won’t have room, however, to cover every possibility. If you want to know even more, check out the Adobe site, AccessDigitalPhotography, and the many sites associated with the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. At least this article will clarify the basics. I’d suggest printing it out and keeping it handy until you’ve pretty much got it memorized.
Note: If you shot in RAW mode (and there’s hardly ever a good reason not to do that), be sure to do as much of the processing as possible in a RAW processing program such as Lightroom, Aperture, or Camera Raw. Everything you do there will be non-destructive, you can make multiple interpretations from the same image, you’ll get perfect white balance, maximum image definition, and maximum dynamic range (4,086 shades of brightness/color vs. 256). Don’t worry: There will still be lots you can add in Photoshop and you’ll have lots more time to do it because you will have saved so much time getting the basic image to look just as you want it to look. Where Photoshop will shine is in highly “localized” and specialized types of processing.
What is a layer?
Think of a layer as a transparent sheet. Whatever you put on it becomes superimposed on the rest of your image. You want to put the image that belongs on top at the top of the stack in the Layers Palette. If you want to put the contents of one layer over another, just click on the layer’s name and drag it up or down…depending on where you want it to appear. The highest layer always affects all the layers below it unless you make it a part of a clipping path or layer group
The bug is a Smart Object on a Smart Layer above the horse. Note that each layer has been named for its purpose. Blend Modes are on the menu that says Normal. Opacity and Fill are on sliders when you click the arrow. The Eyeballs mean a layer is active. Click to turn it off. Smart Layers have a square taken out of the lower right corner. Commands are on the Layers menu that appears when you click the arrowhead at upper right. The icons in the lower row are: Link, Layer Effects, Mask, Adjustment Layers, Layer Group, New Layer, and Delete Layer.
What are the different types of Layers and what do they do?
Background: A background layer is the original photograph as you imported it from your camera or opened it from Lightroom or Camera Raw. You should NEVER make changes to this layer…especially if this is the only copy of the photo. That’s because once you’ve saved the file or deleted it, the work you did on it replaces any area you worked on with whatever you did. The very first thing you want to do is select the Background layer and press Cmnd/Ctrl + J to make a copy of that layer.
Type: These are words that you’ve composed with your program’s Type tool and fonts. As soon as you start typing, the words immediately appear on a new transparent layer above all the other layers. If you have multiple messages, type colors, or may want to edit only some of the type later, create a new type layer.
Basic: This is a layer that you create by simply duplicating another basic layer (by dragging it to the New Layer icon) or creating a new empty layer by clicking the New Layer icon. You can use any of the tools in the Toolbox or any of the commands in the Image > Adjust menu to affect only that one layer. You will probably create several basic layers for different purposes such as retouching, compositing, creating shadows, adding layer effects such as glows and drop-shadows, painting, and special effects. Get in the habit of naming any layer for the purpose for which it’s intended and of not using the same layer for multiple purposes.
Adjustment Layer: Most of the commands that are in the Image > Adjust menu are more effectively applied by using an Adjustment Layer above the layer or layers that you want to apply them to. The Adjustment Layer functions are Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, Exposure, Vibrance, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, Black and White, Photo Filter, Channel Mixer, Invert, Posterize, Threshold, Gradient Map, and Selective Color. Adjustment layers automatically appear above the currently selected layer, so you can easily have them affect only certain lower layers or put them at the very top to affect all layers. You can also use them as Smart Layers and Clipping Paths.
Smart Layer: A Smart Layer is one that contains Smart Objects. You can recognize them instantly in the Layers palette because the Icon for that layer has a small square in the lower right corner. They are created automatically whenever you create a Smart Object. So what does that mean, in practical terms? In other words, what can you do with it? Basically, it lets you place that object in multiple places, at multiple sizes, and with different adjustments and rotations. These copies can even use different Blend Modes. You can do all this without ever increasing file size or changing the original image. A Smart Object can even be a RAW file and you can adjust its copies just about any way imaginable.
Clipping Path: Choose this from the Layers Palette menu when you want an Adjustment Layer to affect only the layer or Group immediately below it. Otherwise it will affect all the layers below it to an equal degree. Adjustment layers automatically have a Mask attached, so if you want to block or lower the Adjustment’s effect on specific parts of a layer, just choose the Brush tool and make the foreground color Black. You can adjust the Brush’s Opacity to make the mask less effective to whatever degree you want.
Layer Group: A Layer Group will have the same effect on the layers below it and can be moved to any location in the layer stack. To group layers, select them and then press Cmnd/Ctrl + G or just drag each layer in the group to the Layer Icon (folder) at the bottom of the palette. Be sure to name groups, or you’ll almost certainly forget their purpose.
Always check to make sure that the layers in the file you’re working on are in the proper stacking order.
Be sure the Layers palette is always showing…can’t select the active layer by cllicking in the image window.
Double cllick a layer name to change it
To quickly select the Move tool to move the content of a layer, press V
To make a layer from the current combination of layers, press Cmnd/Ctrl + Opt/Alt + Shift + E
Save at least one copy of the file with all its layers intact. To do that, you must Save As and add layers to the file name and make sure the file format is either TIFF or PSD. If you click Save in the menu when you’re working on a file that’s been sent to Photoshop from Lightroom, the file will be automatically flattened when saved.
There’s lots more to say on this topic, but, over time, more details on more specific operations will appear in other posts in the Digital Photography Club.