Using Layers In Photoshop For Flexible, Effective Editing

Using Layers in Photoshop

I get asked many questions about using layers in Photoshop. What are layers? What type of layers should I use? How do I effectively use them? Yet the most important questions remains... why should I use layers?

The simplest answer is that layers give us total control over the changes we wish to make to our photos:

  • We can alter how much or how little of a change (like brightening/darkening, etc.) is applied to the image.
  • We can change our minds about changes during the edit process by going to a layer and lowering opacity or deleting it, without having to hit the "undo" button a hundred times and starting over.
  • We can go back into an edited image file weeks or months later and undo changes we made (if saved as a .psd file with layers open).

Layers are the individual steps you take during the edit process. They build on each other, blending from the top and going down. Edits or changes on the layers can be minimized/altered through use of masks or layer opacity.

layers in photoshop

When you are using layers in Photoshop, think about them like transparencies on an old overhead projector. Each transparency can have different pictures or text, then another one laid on top of it with new pictures or text, blending into the layer below it. If you change your mind about a word or picture, you simply go to that transparency layer and alter or erase whatever needed.

If you keep different content on different layers, you increase your flexibility in making changes and modifying the image. As you are using layers in Photoshop, you can change, tweak, decrease, increase, mask- or delete changes made on a layer. Layers can easily be duplicated to use again, but you should know that masks don’t duplicate; they have to be added on.

Types of Layers

  • Adjustment layers—small changes to your image, can be accessed over and over. These layers come with a mask.
  • Blank layer—empty, no pixels or change. You can put color on blank layers. A mask can be added to this layer.
  • Adjustment Layers Adjustment layers are considered “non-destructive edits.”
    • You can access and alter changes made in adjustment layers over and over (unlike changes made on duplicate/pixel layers).
    • Most used adjustment layers for photographs are: Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Brightness/Contrast, Hue/Saturation, and Photo Filter.
  • Type layer — This layer allows you to enter text into an image, with options to specify font, size, etc
  • Fill layer — These let you add and blend layers of color, gradient and pattern. You can add a mask onto a fill layer.

It’s not uncommon to have dozens- even hundreds, sometimes- of layers in an image, so it’s important to learn how to use them effectively. To develop your skills at using layers in Photoshop, just get using them. Play and have some fun!


The how of using layers is secondary to the why of using them. As your experience with layers increases, so will the advantage you gain as your photo editing  a much more flexible and smooth experience. 

Do you have any questions about layers? We love hearing from you! Please visit us at our private Pretty Photoshop Actions Facebook group and at the Pretty Forum!

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