The How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop, Part 3: Layers

By Eric Z Goodnight on November 1st, 2010

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As one of the hallmark features of Photoshop, Layers are the foundation of learning good photo editing techniques. In this article, we’ll go through their basic usage, as well as cover some basic types of layers.

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Your layer panel is one of the most important within Photoshop. Whenever you use Photoshop, you’ll work spend a lot of time working in it.

If you’ve lost your layers panel, you can retrieve it by going to Window > Layers. For more on panels, look into Part Two of the How to Geek Guide to learning Photoshop.

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The lasso tool creates a selection in any shape: in this case, the word “Layer” is drawn in. But the lasso does not create a new layer, even though we can use the lasso tool to move our selection around.

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New layers can be created by clicking the new layer button in the Layers panel. You can also press ctrl shift N for a blank layer.

You can think of these layers as entirely new image files stacked on top of each other in your layers panel. By default, a new layer is transparent.

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A simple Edit > Fill fills our selection with black. We’ve put it in a new layer, which will help us understand what a new layer is.

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Our black fill exists in a new layer. We no longer need our selection, so pressing ctrl d deselects it.

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While this may look like a ruined image of the Apollo 11 rocket taking off, the drawn “Layer” text exists in its own separate layer, and is editable.

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The Move Tool, shortcut key v , illustrated above, is used for moving the layers selected in your layers panel.

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The image of the shuttle still exists beneath the new filled layer. It can be moved to any position without destroying any part of the layer below it.

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Individual layers can be moved, rotated, and transformed at your whim.

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And again, since layers exist independent of each other, they do not have to affect each other.

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Returning to a few older How-Tos, we can very simply add objects that have had their backgrounds removed to our image.

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Simply use the Move Tool (shortcut v key) to drag images from any open file to the one you’re working with. Photoshop will create a new layer in your target file with the dragged layer information in it.

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This image has quickly become ridiculous. Clicking the hide layer in the side of the layers panel will hide any layer you don’t care to see.

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Shortcut key t will give you the Type tool, which can create a different type of layer. Live type is editable, and can be changed at any time without disturbing other layers.

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Layers also have “Blending Options,” as illustrated in the contextual menu here. Right click on any of the layers in your layers panel to open this menu.

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Blending Options takes us to the Layer Style dialog box. Here, we can add shadows and glows, all editable at any time through this same menu.

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After adding a stroke to the text layer, other effects can also be added. A soft, white glow can make the text more legible against the complicated background.

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Even with these layer effects, these layers are still editable.

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The text can easily be set in a different font, with all layer effects staying active.

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The layer effects look something like this in your layers panel.

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In your layers panel, you can click the adjustment layer to create a different type of layer, called an Adjustment Layer.

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CS5 brings up this “Adjustments” panel. I create a “Photo Filter” adjustment layer to give my image a sepia tone effect.

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Adjustment layers also have a position in your layers panel and only affect the layers below. In other words, you can move your adjustment layers to affect the layers below it. I have my text above my Sepia Adjustment Layer, keeping it from turning sepia toned.

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There are many options for Adjustment Layers, including the “Gradient” adjustment layer.

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Gradients are great as adjustment layers, as they can easily be re-edited and adjusted. You’ll have numerous options for types of gradients, colors, angles, etc.

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Adjustment layers can be hidden or edited by double clicking them in the layers panel.

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Simple mastery of layers and the layers panel will greatly increase your ability to use Photoshop and get the effects you want to see in your photography.


Photoshop tips left you confused? Start at the Beginning! Check out the previous installments of the How-To Geek Guide to Learning Photoshop.

Image credits: Apollo 11 image created by NASA, in public domain. Information about other images available on their original tutorials.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 11/1/10
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