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Photoshop Layers 101 Photoshop Tutorial

Here is a Layers crash course for you. Layers were introduced in Photoshop 3.0. This totally revolutionized Photoshop. For the first time you could do complex compositions easily without having to be a channels guru. I remember before layers, if a client wanted to make changes to a composition, or even change a font you were in big trouble. This article will teach you what layers are and what all the part in the Layers panel do.

There is a lot to layers and they will take some time to master. But they are not that difficult once you understand how they work. In this tutorial I will explain the concept of layers, describe the features and walk you through a simple tutorial. Along the way I will throw in a few cool tips to help you work faster and easier.

Photoshop Layers Basics

We have tutorials here to get your hands dirty, learn how to composite and collage in Photoshop Layers

Part 1. What is a Layer?

A layer is simply one image stacked on top of another. Imagine I have a piece of paper and I paint it red. Then I take a peice of clear celophaine and paint a yellow circle, and lay it over the paper. Now I take another peice of cellophane and paint some blue type and laythat on top of the yellow circle. I now have a background (red) and 2 layers (yellow and blue.) Just like in the picture below.

A background with 2 layers.


This is how your image with would look on the screen or when printed.

Broken apart so you can see how the layers work
Each layer stacks on top of the previous one.


That is it! The concept of layers is that simple. Photoshop uses the Layers Pallete to allow you to do this with your images. More than one layer is called a composition.

Layers Panel

Photoshop’s layers Panel is a powerful tool that allows you do many special things to your layed compositions. Next we will look at the Photoshop layers pallete.


Have you ever wondered what all the parts of a layers panel do? Here is a screen grab of the layers Panel. I’ll explian what all the parts are here.

Layer Filter: This enables you to hide layers based on different things. Makes it easier to find the layers that you want to work with.

Opacity: 0= transparant 100 = fully opaque. press number keys on keyboard to instantly set to multiples of 10, or adjust the slider for an exact amount of transparency on each layer.

Blend Modes: Change these to change the way that the selected layer blends with the layers underneath it. Great for compositing and special effects. (With the move tool selected, press Shift+ or Shift- to cycle through blending modes.

Fill opacity: Adjusts the amount of opacity of the pixels only, but any layer styles are uneffected and remain 100% opaque.

visibility: If the eye is showing that layer is visible. Click on the eye and the layer will still be there but invisible until you click on the eye again.

Locked: The padlock means that something is locked in the layer. (Also click in the 4 icons in the “lock” next to fill opacity to make certain things editable of locked). Here are the different things that can be locked/unlocked.

Lock all: If the box is checked the layer is totally protected from any editing.
Lock Position: You can make any changes except for moving the image.
Lock Image pixels: You cannot draw on this layer if checked.
Lock transparent: You can paint on this layer but not where it is transparent.
Useful tools at the bottom of the panel

Link: Enabled you to link layers. These will all move together unless unlinked.

Layer Effects (Styles): Special effects applied to your image layer. Noted by the little f. Each effect will be listed. multiple effects may be used at once.

Add Layer Mask: This is the button to press to add a layer mask to the currently selected layer. Allows you to paint away parts of your layer without damaging your original image.

Add Adjustment Layer: The best way to apply image adjustments. There can change the color or tone of an image. All layers are affected underneath an adjustment layer (Unless clipped). This is a good option to using Image>Adjustments because adjustment layers are non-destructive and re editable.

Layer Groups: A good organizational tool. This puts layers into a folder. You can choose multiple layers and press Cmd/Ctrl+G to put them in a group, or create a group by clicking this icon. Layers can be dragged in or out of groups in the Layers panel.

Create New Layer: Press this icon to create a new layer. Drag an existing layer into this icon to create a duplicate of that layer,

Delete Layer: Drag a layer into this icon to remove it. Or select the layer and then press this icon to get the same result.

Panel Options: This will open a drop down menu that provides a number of options, many that aren’t listed anywhere else.

Types of Layers

In Photoshop there are a number of different types of layers. They are usually indicated by icons, here is what they all do.

Thumbnail: A small picture of the layers contents.


Layer Group: This puts layers into a folder. Layers can be dragged in or out of groups in the Layers panel.

Type Layer: The same as an image layer, except this layer contains type that can be edited; (Change character, color, font or size)

Adjustment Layer: An adjustment layer is changing the color or tone of all the layers underneath it. To only affect th layer directly underneath it (an ignore the other underlying layers): Move your pointer on the line between the adjustment layer and the layer directly beneath it, hold down Alt/Option. You will see a symbol appear. Click to limit the adjustment. (clip to layer) do the same thing again to toggle this option off.

Layer Style: An effect has been applied. Click the eye to turn it on or off. Double click “effects” to open the Layer Styles options.

Layer Mask: Allows you to paint on the mask to show and reveal portions of the image.

Smart Object: A special type of layer that is actually a container that can hold; multiple (or 1) layers, vectors for illustrator, raw files, video, 3D or many other types of objects. To learn about Smart Objects in depth, check out this video,

Art Layer: a regular layer

Background: Always locked, cannot be moved or have layer effects applied to it. The little icon of the padlock on the right, indicates it is locked. Can be changed into a regular layer by simply double clicking on the thumbnail.

Special Types of Layers

There are two different types of layers that have appeared in newer version of Photoshop. These used to only be in Photoshop Extended. With Photoshop CC, there is no longer a seperate Extended version, all the features are now inluded with every copy of photoshop.

Screen Shot 2014-03-28 at 3.03.32 PM

Video Layer: This indicates that there is video on this layer. Photoshop is now able to be used as a video editor, to worki with video, animated slideshows and motion graphics. See Video in Photoshop if you want to learn about video editing in Photoshop.

3D Layer: Photoshop is capable of importing and working with 3D objects. It also has the ability to do 3D printing.

Layer Tips:

Here are some useful tips for working with Photoshop Layers:

Click to select a layer

Cmd/Ctrl+click to select multiple layers

Drag your curser through the eye incons to turn the visibility on or off on multiple layers

Cmd/Ctrl+ J to copy a layer

Cmd/Ctrl+ J to copy a selection to a new layer

Cmd/Ctrl+Shift + J to Move a selection to a new layer

Click the padlock icon on the background to convert it to a regular layer

Press Cmd/Ctrl+G to Move all the selected layers into a new group

Cmd+Option+Shift+E (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E windows) to create a new merged layer above all the other layers

Hold Option/Alt while adding a mask to create an inverted layer mask

You can drag elements from the layers panel into other documents

Hold down Option/Alt and click the pane between two layers to clip the contents of the top layer into the transparencey of the layer underneath it

Choose the move tool “V key” Press Shift + “+” to cycle through all the blending modes. Shift + “-” to cycle in reverse.

Ill see if I have time to keep adding to this list. If you like this kinds of tips, subscribe to our newsletter for more.

This has shown you the concepts of layers.
Are you ready to begin actually using layers? Ok Lets go!

Also, check out our ultimate guide to layer blending modes in Photoshop. All the blend modes explained and practical ideas to use them, tutorials,  explanations and a video overview.


Layer Blending Modes. Free eBook by Colin Smith (Yes, really free)

Grab your free PDF ebook right now. We were going to sell this for $9.99, but figured we would give it away instead and see what happens


Check out the video training that includes Layers, Channels and Masks, Route CS6

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36 responses to “Photoshop Layers 101 Photoshop Tutorial”

    • Without clicking on the link, which I don’t in comments, I see red, that means a mask or channel is being activated somewhere.

  1. I know this is an old page, but it is full of typos and misspellings. Hope later ones are better. Good information, though.

  2. Was very helpful; just slow down a little bit more. Moving your cursor slow enough so I can see where it is going.

  3. Thanks Collin:
    I teach high school Photoshop and we are frequent users of all your tutorials. Just transitioning from CS6 to CC so this will be a great beginning lesson for my students. (and much more interesting for them in your accent! Cheers!

  4. Very well done Colin. So many tutorials move as such a rapid pace, I end up having to stop and go back often. I always enjoy your videos. Thank you,

  5. Yes I am a newbie and an oldie trying to learn all about Photoshop which is a marathon in it self and am so great full for you going back to basics nothing like seeing it visually and having the written word. Thank you so much Colin now i feel a bit calmer when i go into Photoshop knowing you are not far away for help.

  6. Thanks very much. Sorry it took so long to get around to viewing the video. I now know the basics about layers but I’m expecting there is a whole lot more to learn about them, like everything in that bottom row (groups, adjustment, mask, effects and more) plus how to access the tools and use them effectively in a layer (I’ve been having trouble with some of them, as in non-functioning tools in a layer).

  7. I have been a CS6 user since its inception (declined to subscribe, so I’m in stasis), and I nevertheless found out a couple things I didn’t know by watching your tutorial. I guess it’s asking a lot, but if you could indicate occasionally what is exclusive to CC and what is universal, that would be helpful. In any case, well done and thank you.

  8. Although I’ve been working with PS for quite a while, I never knew you could move the layer contents, which could have saved me a considerable amount of frustration and revealed unrealized possibilities! Your pace was just right and the material was well described. I especially appreciate the fact that your videos are accompanied by written instructions. Thank you! One problem though – I’ve never been able to find the Like button on your videos!

  9. Good day. I’m currently working on my module and I would like to obtain permission to use the content of this website as part of my materials. I would greatly appreciate receiving a positive response from you. Rest assured that your material will be used for educational purposes only. Thank you and God bless.

  10. Thank you for your clear and easy deep explanation; please keep on; it’s one of the best tutorials on YT!. please consider teaching brush tools & path tools & shape tools in depth; as those need your excellent professional explanation… Also Blending options and convert layer to SMART OBJECT Very appreciated. ONE OF YOUR BEST FEATURE THAT YOU TALK SLOWLY and teaching steps organized well so as any person (that the English language is not mother language) can understand you very well; so important to keep that tone for all future lessons
    ; I will recommend you for anyone who needs to understand photoshop basics in the right way…

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