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Layers Panel

Where Photoshop groups your image and adjustments


Types of Layers

Layers panel
Figure 1.  Photoshop Layers Panel

What is a layer?  It is a concept used to organize and display your image and adjustments.  The most fundamental layers are those that contain either pixels or an adjustment that alters the appearance of pixels.

Layers are arranged vertically in an area of Photoshop called the Layers panel (all of Figure 1).  When you look at your image in the Photoshop document window, you are looking at it through the layers in the Layers panel.  As Photoshop processes the layers in the Layers panel, it begins with the bottommost layer and works its way upwards.  This means the bottommost layer is altered by the layer above it.  And the resulting image is further altered by the next layer up, and so forth.  Therefore, the order in which layers appear is as important as the layers themselves.

There are seven basic kinds of layers: Image, Adjustment, Fill, Type, Shape, Sets (called Groups since CS2) and Effects.  In digital photography, the ones you will use the most are Image, Adjustment, Sets/Groups and possibly Effects.

Click on the button to float Figure 1 in your browser window as you scroll down to read the tables below.  When finished, click the Close button on the floating image.
 

Table 1.  Types of Layers

Layers Panel A The Layers panel is the working platform of your image.  It is where all layers are arranged and stored.
Background
Layer
B The Background layer is the Photoshop default image layer.  It is always a locked layer.  To unlock it, double click the layer, type a new name and click OK.  This also converts it into a normal image layer.

In a RGB, CMYK or Grayscale image, the Background layer cannot have transparent pixels.  The Background layer has to be converted to a normal layer to have transparent pixels.
Image Layer C Image layers are pixel containing layers.  These are the layers that contain your image pixels.  The Background layer is an image layer.
Active Layer D The active layer is the layer that is highlighted.  Whatever actions you perform will be applied to the active layer.  A layer does not have to be visible to be active.  Since CS2, multiple layers can be active at a time.  However, there are restrictions as to what actions can be performed when multiple layers are active.
Adjustment Layer E Adjustment layers are pixel altering layers.  Adjustment layers apply an effect to the pixel containing layers beneath them.  Adjustment layers only affect the layers beneath them, not above them.

There are many types of adjustment layers.  The adjustment layers commonly used in digital photography are listed on the Photoshop Topics page.

If you turn off the visibility of all layers except the adjustment layers, you will see nothing but a transparent document.  This is because adjustment layers do not contain image pixels.
Layer Sets/Groups F Layer sets/groups are a great way of grouping and organizing layers.  Think of a layer set/group as a folder where other layers are stored.  Layer sets is the pre-CS2 term.  Adobe changed the term to layer groups in CS2.

You can make certain changes to all the layers in a layer set/group by clicking on the layer set/group row and then applying the change; such as using the Move tool Move tool, or changing the opacity.

A layer set/group can have a layer mask.  The mask is applied to all layers in the layer set/group.

By clicking the triangle to the left of the layer set/group folder icon, you expand Expand Arrow or collapse Collapse Arrow a layer set/group.

You can have layer sets/groups within layer sets/groups.
Effects G Effects are special effects that are applied to the contents of the layer they are linked to.  An example of an effect is drop shadow.  You can have more than one effect applied to a single layer.  The effects linked to a layer become part of the layer's style.

To delete layer effects, either right click the layer and select Clear Layer Style, or drag the effect (not the layer) to the delete layer icon Delete Layer.  Clearing the layer style will delete all effects, reset the blending mode to Normal, reset Opacity to 100% and reset Fill to 100%.  Dragging the effect to the delete layer icon only deletes that one effect.
Type Layer H A Type layer is a layer that contains text.
Shape Layer I Shape layers contain shapes and lines.  Technically, a Shape layer is a Solid Color Fill layer with a vector mask.  It is the vector mask applied to the color fill that causes the shape and/or line to be displayed in the document window.  Shape layers are not used often in digital photography.

By selecting the arrowhead option on the Custom Shape tool Custom Shape Tool when drawing lines, single or double headed arrows can be drawn.
Fill Layer J Fill layers are another type of pixel containing layer.  There are three types of Fill layers:

Solid Color Fill

Gradient Fill

Pattern Fill


Solid Color fill layers completely fill the layer with a single color.  Gradient fill layers are used to create custom gradients.  Pattern fill layers are used to apply a pattern to the image.

The Fill option Fill Option is often used when creating Fill layers to reduce the Fill layer's opacity.  Otherwise, the Fill layer will obscure the underlying image.

Fill layers are not often used in digital photography.

 

Table 2.  Layer Options and Icons

Layer Name All layers must have a name.

Double clicking a layer's name will allow you to rename it.  Double clicking the default Background layer's name will allow you to rename the layer and unlock it.
Thumbnail Almost all the layers in Figure 1 have thumbnail images.

On pixel containing layers, the thumbnail is a miniature preview of the pixels in the layer.  For layer masks, the thumbnail is a miniature grayscale image of the mask.  On adjustment layers, the thumbnail is a miniature graph of the type of adjustment, as seen in layers E in Figure 1.  If the image is wider than it is higher, the adjustment layer thumbnails will be the generic adjustment layer icon Adjustment layer icon.

You can change the size of the thumbnail, or turn them off completely, by selecting Panel Options from the Layers panel's flyout menu Flyout menu icon.  Since CS2, you can change the contents of the thumbnail by selecting Panel Options from the Layers panel's flyout menu and selecting either Layer Bounds or Entire Document.  It can be confusing as to what Layer Bounds and Entire Document means.  Entire Document does not mean you will see a composite of all layers in the thumbnail.  It means you will see the contents of the single layer within the full dimensions of the document.  Layer Bounds means you will see the pixels of the single layer and transparent edges will not be seen in the thumbnail.
Layer Effects The Border layer in Figure 1 has layer effects (see G).

A layer's style is composed of all its individual effects, and its Blending Mode Normal blending mode, Opacity 100% Opacity and Fill 100% Fill.  All layers have a style because all layers have a blending mode, opacity and fill (Layer sets/groups have opacity, but not Fill).  But not all layers have effects.  Layer effects cannot be applied to a locked layer (including the Background layer), nor to a layer set/group.  If you wish to apply an effect to a locked layer, you must unlock the layer first.

A layer's style can be saved as a custom style that can be used on other layers.  To save a layer's style, double click any of the layer's effects.  You should get the Layer Style dialog box.  Click the New Style button.  Name the style and click OK.  To recall the style, activate a layer and click the Add a layer style icon layer style icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.  Select any of the effects.  In the Layer Style dialog box, click on Styles in the upper left corner.  Then click on the style you saved earlier and click OK.  When saving a style, you can elect not to save the Blending Mode, Opacity and Fill options.

To convert effects into layers, select the layer containing the layer effect(s) and click Layer > Layer Style > Create Layer.  The effects will become image layers.
Layer Mask Curves layer E in Figure 1 has a layer mask.  The mask for Shape layer I is actually a vector mask.

Masks are used to control which pixels in a layer are visible/affected and which are not.  We paint in the layer mask with black, white or gray paint to control which areas of the image are affected.  Black will block the area of the layer from being visible/affected.  White allows the area to be fully visible/affected.  Shades of gray temper the affect.  Light gray will allow more of the effect to be applied.  Whereas dark gray will allow less.

You can load a layer mask into the Photoshop document window by Alt + clicking (Option + clicking) the layer mask.

You can delete or temporarily disable a layer mask by right clicking the layer mask thumbnail and then selecting the desired option.  Below is how a disabled layer mask would be represented in the Layers panel.

Disabled layer mask
Vector Mask Shape layer I in Figure 1 has a vector mask.

Layer masks are created using the painting tools.  Vector masks are created using the paths tools Paths tool.

The image below shows a layer with both a layer mask and a vector mask.  Note the vertical bar to the left of the vector mask link.  This is how you can quickly identify a vector mask.

Vector mask
Blending mode Blending mode determines how an image layer is affected by painting or adjustments.

Blending mode
Opacity Opacity determines how opaque or transparent a layer is.  100% opacity is a fully opaque layer.  0% opacity is the same as turning a layer's visibility off.  Opacity affects both a layer's pixels and its effects. 
Opacity
Fill Whereas opacity affects a layer's pixels and effects, Fill only affects a layer's pixels.  As an example, create a new Photoshop document, fill the layer with black paint and add a stroke (Layer > Layer Style > Stroke).  Be sure the position of the stroke is Inside and be sure the color of the stroke is something besides black.  Leave opacity on the Layer Style dialog box to 100%.  Close the Layer Style dialog box.  Now lower the opacity on the Layers panel.  You will see that not only will the black pixels become more transparent, but so will the stroke.  Now set layer opacity back to 100% and lower the Fill value.  You should see the black become transparent but there will be no change to the stroke.
Fill
Locking Locking allows a layer's contents to be fully or partially protected.  To lock a layer, make the layer active and click on one of the locking options.
Lock Transparent Pixels

Lock Transparent pixels Lock Transparent Pixels icon will prevent transparent pixels in the layer from being changed.Lock Image pixels Lock Image Pixels icon will prevent image pixels in the layer from being changed.  However, the image pixels can be moved.

Lock Position Lock Position icon will prevent image pixels in the layer from being moved.

Lock All Lock All icon will fully protect the layer, including preventing it from being deleted.

When a layer is locked, a lock icon will appear to the right of the layer name.  If a layer is partially locked, a light gray lock icon Lock Partial icon will be displayed.  If the layer is fully locked, a dark gray lock icon Lock All icon will appear.
Locked layer

To unlock a layer, other than the Background layer, click on the layer to activate it, then click the corresponding lock icon to unlock it.  To unlock the Background layer, double click the layer, type a new name and click OK.  This will convert it into a normal image layer.
Visibility Column The layer visibility option is the first column in the Layers panel.
Visibility The eye icon Eye icon in the first column of the Layers panel denotes the layer is visible, or in affect.  It does not denote if the layer is the active layer.  If the layer that is visible is a pixel containing layer, you should see the pixels in the document window.  If the layer is an adjustment layer, you should see the affect of the adjustment in the document window.

Layers that are not visible are called hidden and will not have the eye icon.  It is valid for the active layer not to be visible.

To make a layer visible, click in this area until the eye icon is displayed.  To hide a layer, click the layer's eye icon.

Alt + clicking (Option + clicking) an eye icon on a layer will turn off visibility of all layers except the one you clicked.  Alt + clicking (Option + clicking) again will restore visibility to its original state.
Non visible layer
Paint/Link Column The second column in the Layers panel is the paint/link column.  This column was removed in CS2.  It has been replaced by the link icon on the Layers panel options bar.

This column is blank except for the active layer and any layer linked to the active layer.  When a layer is active you will either see the paint brush icon Paint brush icon or the layer mask icon Layer mask icon.  The paint brush icon denotes that any action will be applied to the pixels in the layer.  The layer mask icon denotes that any action will be applied to the mask.

If a layer is linked to the active layer, the link icon Link icon will appear in this column for the non active layer.  In Figure 1, the Clone layer and the Sharpened copy layer are linked to each other.
Layer linking in pre-CS2 You can lock the position of one layer to another by linking them.  To link two (or more) layers, make one of the layers active and then click in the paint/link column for the other layers.  This will cause the link icon Link icon to appear for these other layers.  The link ties the position of all linked layers together.  Therefore, if the move tool Move tool is used to move the contents of one of the linked layers, the contents of all the other linked layers will also be moved.
Image layer
Layer linking since CS2 You can lock the position of one layer to another by linking them.  To link two (or more) layers, use Shift + click to select contiguous layers or Ctrl + click (Command + click) to select multiple layers individually.  Once the layers to be linked are selected, click the link icon Link icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

The link ties the position of all linked layers together.  Therefore, if the move tool Move tool is used to move the contents of one of the linked layers, the contents of all the other linked layers will also be moved.
Mask link Layer and vector masks are automatically linked to their image.  If desired, you can unlink them by clicking the link icon Link icon that is displayed between the thumbnail and the mask.

When a layer and its mask are unlinked, you can move either the contents of the layer or the mask independent of the other.
Layer mask linked to layer
Clipping Mask Adjustment layers affect all the layers beneath them.  However, by using a clipping mask, you can make the adjustment layer affect just certain layers beneath them.

To create a clipping mask, hold down the Alt (Option) key and click on the border between two layers when you see the clipping mask icon Clipping Mask icon.  This will cause the adjustment layer to affect only the layer it is clipped to.

To undo a clipping mask, hold down the Alt (Option) key and click on the border between the two layers when you see the remove clipping mask icon Remove Clipping Mask icon.
Clipping mask
Paint on layer When painting, you paint in either a layer's image or its mask.  To paint in a layer's image, click the layer's image thumbnail.  A double border will be displayed on the thumbnail and in pre-CS2 versions of Photoshop, a paint brush icon Paint Brush icon will be displayed in the second column of the Layers panel. 
Paint on layer
Paint on layer mask To paint in a layer's mask, click the layer's mask thumbnail.  A double border will be displayed on the thumbnail and in pre-CS2 versions of Photoshop, a layer mask icon Layer Mask icon will be displayed in the second column of the Layers panel.
Paint on layer mask

 

Layers panel Options

The Photoshop Layers panel options  are the icons at the very bottom of the Layers panel.  The panel options for Photoshop CS and earlier versions looks like the following: Layers panel options.  Since Photoshop CS2, it looks like this: Layers panel options.  Each option is described in Table 3.

 

Table 3.  Layer Panel Options

Link Layers Link Layers icon Link Layers.  This feature is only available in Photoshop CS2 and later versions.  After selecting multiple layers in the Layers panel, clicking this icon will link them.  Linked layers will have the link icon to the right of the layer's name.  Versions prior to CS2 use the Paint/Link column described above.
Add Layer Style Add Layer Style icon Add Layer Style.  Allows you to create one or more layer effects on the active layer.

Locked layers and layer sets/groups cannot have effects.
Add Layer Mask or Vector Mask Add Layer Mask icon Add Layer Mask or Vector Mask.  Creates a layer mask on the active layer.  If a layer mask already exists on the active layer, a vector mask will be created.

If a selection is not active when this icon is clicked, the layer mask will be filled with solid white paint.  White reveals all.  If the icon is clicked using Alt + click (Option + click), the layer mask will be filled with solid black paint.  Black hides, or masks, all.

If a selection is active when the layer mask is created, the selection will be used to create the mask.  The part of the image that is selected will be revealed by the mask and the part of the image that is not selected will be hidden by the mask.  In the mask, the selected area will be white and the non selected area will be black.
Create Layer Set/Group Create Layer Set icon Create Layer Set/Group.  Since CS2, this feature is called Groups.  In versions prior to CS2, this feature is called Sets.  Clicking this icon will create a layer set/group above the active layer.  The active layer will not become part of the layer set/group.  If you drag an existing layer to this icon, Photoshop will create a new layer set/group and place the dragged layer into the set/group.

In CS2, you can select multiple layers and drag them to the Layer Group icon and all of the selected layers will be moved into the new group.  Also in CS2, you can use Layer > Group Layers/Ungroup Layers to group selected layers or to move all layers out of a group.
Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer Create Adjustment Layer icon Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer.  Allows you to create a fill or adjustment layer above the active layer.  If the active layer is a layer set/group, the fill or adjustment layer will be created within the layer set/group.
Create New Layer Create New Layer icon Create New Layer.  Clicking this icon will create a layer above the active layer.  If the active layer is a layer set/group, the new layer is created within the layer set/group.

Dragging an existing layer, layer set or adjustment layer to this icon will duplicate that layer.
Delete Layer Delete Layer icon Delete Layer.  To delete a layer, either make the layer active and click the delete layer icon, or drag the layer to the delete layer icon.  To delete a layer effect, drag the effect, not the layer, to the delete layer icon.

 

Selecting Layers

To select a single layer, click the layer in the Layers panel.  Or, use the Move tool as described below.
 

Selecting multiple layers

Since Photoshop CS2, more than one layer can be selected at a time.  To select multiple layers, use either Shift + click or Ctrl + click (Command + click).  Shift + click allows the selecting of contiguous layers.  Ctrl + click (Command + click) allows the selection of non-contiguous layers.  To select all layers, click Select > All Layers.  To select layers of the same type, click Select > Select Similar Layers.  Selecting similar layers does not distinguish between specific layer types.  It selects, as the name applies, similar types.  For example, if a Curves adjustment layer is selected, the Select Similar Layers command will select all adjustment layers, not just other Curves adjustment layers.

 

Selecting Layers Using the Move Tool

You can use the Move tool to select pixel containing layers.  This feature can be useful if you are not sure which layer contains the pixels you are interested in.  If you are sure, it is easier to click the layer in the Layer's panel.  If you are not sure, the steps below can help you find the elusive layer.  There are a number of caveats to keep in mind.  If the layer is not visible, you will not be able to select it using this method.  If there is an adjustment layer with a layer mask, clicking the pixels affected by the adjustment layer will cause the adjustment layer to be selected, not the pixel containing layer.
 

  1. Select the Move tool Move took.
  2. In the Options bar, select Auto Select Layer Move took options bar.
  3. In the document window, click the pixels you know are in the layer you wish to select.  The topmost layer containing the pixels you clicked will be selected.
  4. Or, right click the pixels you know are in the layer you wish to select.  A list of all layers containing pixels in this area will be displayed.  Select the desired layer.


To avoid having to change your selected tool to the Move tool, hold down the Ctrl (Command) key and right click the pixels you know are in the layer you wish to select.  A list of all layers containing pixels in this area will be displayed.  You can then select the desired layer.
 

Selecting Layer Contents

Ctrl + clicking (Command + clicking) the layer thumbnail will create a selection around the layer's content in the document window.

To display the transformation grid around the contents of a layer, make the layer active and then press Ctrl + T (Command + T).  The transformation grid allows you to resize, scale, rotate, etc. the layer's pixels.

Ctrl + clicking (Command + clicking) a layer mask thumbnail or vector mask thumbnail will create a selection around the mask's content in the document window.
 

Navigating Layers

The easiest way to activate the layer you want is to click on the layer in the Layers panel.  You can also use Alt + [ to cycle downward through all the visible layers, except for effect layers.  And use Alt + ] to cycle upward through all visible layers, except for effect layers.
 

Moving Layers

To move a layer to another position in the Layers panel, click the layer's name and drag it to the desired position.

To move a layer into a layer set/group, click and drag the layer to the layer set/group folder icon Folder Closed icon.  When the icon changes to an open folder Folder Open icon, release the mouse button.  (Since CS2, the folder icon no longer changes to an open folder.)  If you have two layer sets/groups next to each other and you are having difficulty moving a layer to between the two layer sets/groups because the layer keeps being moved into one of the layer sets/groups, close both layer sets/groups and then move the layer.

To copy a layer from one Photoshop document to another, tile the two documents so both are visible within Photoshop.  Make the source document the active document.  Make the source layer the active layer.  Shift click and drag the layer from the Layers panel to the target document window.  If after the copy, the layer is not in the desired position in the target document's Layers panel, reposition the layer by clicking and dragging the layer to the desired location.
 

Combining Layers

Combining layers allows the contents of two or more layers to be combined into a single layer.  You can combine both image layers and adjustment layers.  There are two ways to combine layers: merge and stamp.  Merging layers physically combines all source layers into the target layer.  The source layers are then deleted.  Stamp layers copies the contents of all source layers into the target layer.  Stamping does not delete the source layers.  When merging or stamping, the target layer will become an image layer.

In merging and stamping layers, the target layer can also be a source layer.
 

Merge Layers

Merge layers allows us to reduce the size of our files.  However, it should be done with care because once a file is saved and closed, merging cannot be undone.  Generally, layers in the master image file are seldom merged.  When the master file is duplicated to make a print file, then layers are usually merged.

The merge layer commands are described below.  They are located under Layer on the Photoshop menu.  However, not all of the commands will be visible at the same time.  Which options are available depends on the layers in the Layers panel.  When merging layers, the resulting layer is an image layer.
 

Merge Layers Combines two or more selected layers that are visible.  Since this feature requires multiple layers to be selected, this choice first became available with CS2.
 
Merge Visible Combines all visible layers.  The resulting layer is the one that was active at the time of the merge.
 
Merge Linked Combines all layers linked to the active layer, to the active layer.  This option is available only in pre-CS2 versions.  To replicate it in CS2, select Layer > Select Linked Layers and then select Layer > Merge Layers.
 
Merge Down Combines the active layer with the layer immediately beneath it.  Both layers have to be visible and only two layers are combined, regardless of how many other layers are visible.
 
Merge Layer Set/Merge Group Combines all the layers in a layer set/group.  The layer set/group has to be the active layer.
 
Merge Clipping Mask Combines all the layers in a clipped group into a single layer.  The bottom layer the other layers are clipped to has to be the active layer.
 
Flatten Image Combines all visible layers and deletes all hidden layers.  The resulting layer is a locked Background layer.  Any transparent pixels are converted to white since the Background layer cannot have transparent pixels.

 

Stamp Layers

Stamp layers is similar to merge layers in that two or more layers are combined into a single layer.  However, when stamping layers, the combined contents are placed into the target layer and the source layer(s) remains unchanged.
 

Stamp down Stamps two layers.  The source and target layers must be next to each other with the source layer on top of the target layer.  To stamp down, make the source layer the active layer.  Then press Ctrl + Alt + E (Command + Option + E).  The contents of the source layer will be stamped to the target layer.
 
Stamp Linked (pre-CS2) Stamps linked layers.  To stamp linked layers, make one of the linked layers the active layer.  This will become the target layer.  Then press Ctrl + Alt + E (Command + Option + E).
 
Stamp Multiple Layers (since CS2) Select all the source layers by Ctrl + clicking (Command + clicking) each one and then press Ctrl + Alt + E (Command + Option + E).  A new layer will be created and this new layer will contain the combined content of all selected layers.
 
Stamp Visible Stamps visible layers.  To stamp all visible layers into a new layer, turn off the visibility of all layers you do not want stamped.  Make the top most visible layer the active layer.  Press Shift + Ctrl + N (Shift + Command + N) to create a new layer.  Press Shift + Ctrl + Alt + E (Shift + Command + Option + E) to combine the visible layers into the new layer.

Tip

Ever created an adjustment or fill layer, apply a complicated mask to it and then wanted to change what type of layer it is?  I have.  Many a time I have created a Levels adjustment layer, applied a mask, and then decided to change it to a Curves adjustment layer.

Changing an adjustment layer's type is easy.  Simply use the Layer > Change Layer Content option on the main menu.  It will not convert your Levels changes to Curves changes, but it will change it from a Levels adjustment layer to a Curves adjustment layer while keeping the layer mask.

 

Working With The Document Window

The following are mouse and keyboard shortcuts that will help you move about the document window as you work with your image.
 

Table 4A.  Windows Keyboard Shortcuts

  Pre-CS2 CS2
Pan left/right Ctrl + wheel Ctrl + Alt +wheel
Pan up/down Wheel Alt + wheel
Zoom in/out Alt + wheel.  Will not resize the window. Wheel
Zoom in Ctrl + + (Control plus the + key).  Will resize the window as you zoom. same
Zoom out Ctrl + - (Control plus the - key).  Will resize the window as you zoom. same
Zoom in Ctrl + Alt + + (Control plus Alt plus the + key).  Will not resize the window. same
Zoom out Ctrl + Alt + - (Control plus Alt plus the - key).  Will not resize the window. same

 

Table 4B.  Mac OS Keyboard Shortcuts

  Pre-CS2 CS2
Pan left/right Command + wheel Command + Option + wheel
Pan up/down Shift + wheel Option + wheel
Zoom in/out Option + wheel.  Will not resize the window. Wheel
Zoom in Command + + (Command plus the + key).  Will resize the window as you zoom. same
Zoom out Command + - (Command plus the - key).  Will resize the window as you zoom. same
Zoom in Command + Option + + (Command plus Option plus the + key).  Will not resize the window. same
Zoom out Command + Option + - (Command plus Option plus the - key).  Will not resize the window. same