The Master Guide to the Photoshop Layers Panel
The Layers Panel in Photoshop is one of the single most important aspects of the software’s UI. Odds are, you’ve spent a good chunk of your life staring at and interacting with the Layers Panel, but how well do you really know it?
Today we’re going to take a deep dive into what the Layers Panel has to offer and how to make the most of it in your workflow. We’ll learn about everything from keyboard shortcuts to obscure customization features. Whether you’re a beginner or a pro, you’re bound to learn a few new tricks!
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Get to Know the Layers Panel
At first, the concept of this overview may seem a little on the basic side, but it arose out of a realization of just how much of my time in Photoshop is spent fiddling around in this one single area. I live in the Layers Panel and my workflow is far more efficient for knowing its intricacies.
With Photoshop CS6, the Layers Panel has been given some fancy new features so it’s the perfect time to take a step back and refresh yourself on the old as well as the new. I promise that the more you know about this specific area of Photoshop, the smarter you’ll work.
The Buttons on the Bottom
There are six unique sections in the Layers Panel, each of which holds a wealth of features. We’ll start at the very bottom and work our way up.
Along the bottom of the Layers Panel is a strip of seven buttons. Each of these buttons is either dedicated to layer organization or visual manipulation. Here’s a rundown of what each icon is:
From left to right, these buttons are as follows: link layers, layer styles, add layer mask, new fill or adjustment layer, new group, new layer and delete layer. Each of these is a full topic on its own, so I won’t take up your time explaining them in-depth, but here’s a quick overview.
1. Link Layers
Allows you to move multiple layers every time you select any individual layer that is linked to others. In other words, it saves you the hassle of selecting multiple layers for conceptually connected content.
2. Layer Styles
Drop shadow, bevel and emboss, stroke; these are examples of scalable, non-destructive styles and effects that can be added to a layer and continually tweaked with a live preview of the result. CS6 brings the ability to add styles to a group of layers (finally!).
3. Add Layer Mask
Layer masks allow the user to specifically control the transparency of every single pixel within a layer. They can also be applied to groups of layers.
4. New Fill or Adjustment Layer
Adjustment layers are scalable, maskable, non-destructive layers that can be used to apply image adjustments such as Levels and Curves to the visible layers under them. Fill layers are pretty much what they sound like and can take the form of solid color, gradient or pattern.
5. New Group
In addition to linking distinct but related layers, you can group them together in a folder. This allows you to easily select, move and manipulate the entire group of layers as a single unit while still maintaining individual layer editing abilities.
6. New Layer & 7. Delete Layer
There’s nothing tricky about these buttons, one creates layers, the other destroys them. You get the idea.
We’ll end out each section with a brief discussion on some common shortcuts associated with the features we just discussed. Here we’ll go over some shortcuts related to the buttons at the bottom of the Layers Panel.
For the most part, there aren’t too many native shortcuts here. For instance, there’s no default shortcut for adding a Curves Layer Adjustment, though you can add one if you wish. There are a few to be aware of though.
To create a new layer, hit Command-Shift-N. This will bring up the New Layer dialog, with various options. To skip this dialog, use Option-Command-Shift-N instead. You can also hit the New Layer button or add Command to the New Layer button to create a new layer below the current one.
To copy a layer, you can drag it to the New Layer button, hold down Option if you do want to see extra options this time. Also, you can group layers by selecting them and hitting Command-G.
Clicking on the mask button will add a layer mask, hold down Command to add a vector mask instead.
To delete a layer, you can skip the trash can button entirely and simply hit the Delete key. The trash icon is still good for other things though. For instance, you can drag a layer mask to the trash to delete hit, hold down Option to skip the dialog. You can also delete Layer Styles this way.
Check out my Ode to the Option Key for over thirty awesome Option key shortcuts.
More Option Key Goodness
Always try to switch up an action in this section with the Option key to see what happens. For instance, creating a new Mask with Option fills it with black and creating a new layer group with this key gives you a dialog with extra settings.
Moving on up, the next section is the layers stack. This is where the visual representation of each layer resides along with its various attributes. Everything here is pretty intuitive and doesn’t require too much explanation. Click and drag layers to rearrange them, use the little eye icon to toggle the visibility; no real head scratchers here.
The two areas that you’ll run into that you might have trouble with or maybe don’t fully understand are masks and layer styles.
When working with masks in the Layers Panel, selecting specific things can get tricky. If you click on a layer or group to select it, you might accidentally select the mask instead. The difference is subtle but important.
If the mask is selected, whatever you do to that layer or group really affects the mask. So if you have a layer with a mask, and paint it black, you’ll paint the mask black if the mask is selected and the layer black if the mask isn’t selected.
This selection also affects how the layer is moved, especially when the link between the mask and the layer or group is removed (click to remove):
Here, when I move the layer group around, I’ll actually be moving the mask, because that’s what is currently selected and the link between the two is absent.
The other area that has hidden complexity is the little Layer Styles icon and drop down list that gets attached to each layer with styles applied. This is actually a highly functional little piece of UI.
For instance, do ditch the layer styles, you can drag the icon to the trash icon. Alternatively, you can expand the little drop down menu and drag specific styles to the trash individually.
If you’d like to move styles between layers, you can simply drag the little icon or the styles in the list.
A Shift-drag will move the styles from one layer to another and an Option-drag will copy the styles from one layer to another. If you want to copy the styles from one layer to a bunch of others, right-click on the effects icon and go to “Copy Layer Style.” Then select the layers that you want to apply these styles to, right click and select “Paste Layer Style.”
There are a ton of great keyboard shortcuts here so let’s just make a few helpful lists. Some of these we mentioned in the last section, but they’re worth reiterating.
Layer Creation and Deletion
- New Layer: Command-Shift-N
- New Layer without Options: Command-Shift-Option-N
- Delete Layer: Delete
Layer Navigation & Organization
- Move Layer Up the Stack: Command-]
- Move Layer Down the Stack: Command-[
- Move Layer All the Way Up the Stack: Command-Shift-]
- Move Layer All the Way Down the Stack: Command-Shift-[
- Select All Layers: Command-Option-A
- Select Different Visible Layers: Option-[ and Option-] (Try adding shift)
- Merge Layers: Command-E (select two or more first)
- Merge Layers to New Layer: Command-Option-E (select two or more first)
- Merge Visibile: Command-Shift-E
- Merge All Visible to New Layer: Command-Shift-Option-E
- Show/Hide Layers Panel: F7
- Duplicate Layer or Selection to New Layer: Command-J (Use Option for options)
- Turn Off All But Current Layer: Option-Click eye icon (repeat to turn back on)
- Active Selection from Layer: Command-Click on Layer Preview
- Create a Clipping Mask: Command-Option-G
The next section up includes the controls for blending layers together. These are comprised of layer blending modes as well as the opacity and fill sliders.
Layer blending modes are a crazy expansive topic and are far outside of the scope of this article. For more on them, check out this article.
Opacity vs. Fill
One of the most confusing parts about the entire Panel is the existence of both an Opacity setting and a Fill setting. After a cursory experimentation, you might conclude that they do the same thing, but this is definitely not true. Consider the follow example of a piece of text with various Layer Styles applied:
As you can see, when we reduce the layer’s Fill, the Layer Styles remain fully visible. However, when we reduce the layer’s Opacity, both the layer and its styles have lost visibility.
This is where just about everything that I’ve ever read on the difference between these two settings stops. However, in my own experimentation, I’ve discovered that the difference is more profound than that. Even without Layer Styles of any kind applied, Opacity and Fill can produce different effects.
Check out this example (from the aforementioned article), where I took a chunk of text, set it to Color Burn and reduced the Opacity and Fill separately to see how the two differ:
As you can see, when Blending Modes are thrown into the mix, the difference is profound. Reducing the Opacity produced a dull, flat look while reducing the Fill has created an interesting, more believable blend.
There are quite a few keyboard shortcuts to cover in this section as well. For starters, you should know that all of these shortcuts work specifically with the Move Tool (M) selected.
To adjust layer opacity, simply hit a number key. 1 = 10%, 2 = 20%, etc. Use 0 for 100% and 00 for 0% (CS6 only). Also, you can be more precise if you’re quick. For 23%, simply type 23 quickly. All of these shortcuts work for the Fill as well, you simply have to add the Shift key.
Amazingly enough, each Blending Mode also has its own keyboard shortcut. Let’s take a look.
- Shift-Minus (⇧-) or Shift-Plus (⇧+): Cycle Through Blending Modes
- Shift-Option-N: Normal
- Shift-Option-I: Dissolve
- Shift-Option-Q: Darken
- Shift-Option-R: Multiply
- Shift-Option-K: Color Burn
- Shift-Option-M: Linear Burn
- Shift-Option-B: Darker Color
- Shift-Option-A: Lighten
- Shift-Option-G: Screen
- Shift-Option-S: Color Dodge
- Shift-Option-D: Linear Dodge
- Shift-Option-W: Lighter Color
- Shift-Option-O: Overlay
- Shift-Option-F: Soft Light
- Shift-Option-H: Hard Light
- Shift-Option-V: Vivid Light
- Shift-Option-J: Linear Light
- Shift-Option-Z: Pin Light
- Shift-Option-L: Hard Mix
- Shift-Option-E: Difference
- Shift-Option-X: Exclusion
- None?: Subtract
- None?: Divide
- Shift-Option-U: Hue
- Shift-Option-T: Saturation
- Shift-Option-C: Color
- Shift-Option-Y: Luminosity
Our next section is where we control how layers are locked. I’ll wager that many readers only ever use one or two different lock styles but there are in fact four different ways to lock a layer, each of which is represented by an icon on the upper left of the Layers Panel.
From left to right, these four different locks are as follows: lock transparent pixels, lock image pixels, lock position and lock all. Let’s have a look at each.
Lock Transparent Pixels
This is one of the coolest locks available, and sadly enough, it’s probably also one of the most looked over. Press this button with a layer selected and you essentially only allow the non-transparent pixels to be manipulated.
So let’s imagine that we have a layer containing some grapes that has been cut out and placed on a transparent background:
Now let’s say we wanted to grab our brush, and paint in some funny color but only over the grapes. We don’t want to “color outside the lines” so to speak and start adding color out in no man’s land like this:
Instead, we want a clean look with only the grapes changing color. As with anything in Photoshop, there are a number of ways we could go about this, but one of the fastest and easiest methods is to click the “Lock Transparent Pixels” button. That’s it! Now we can paint all we want and neatly stay inside the lines.
Lock Image Pixels
By locking the image pixels, you’re preventing any pixel destruction via painting, blurring, sharpening, erasing or anything in that vein. This is good when you have a layer that you don’t want to screw up, but would still like to move around and resize it (both of these actions are still allowed).
Interestingly enough, Layer Styles, because they’re non-destructive, can still be applied and tweaked when the image pixels are locked.
This one is the opposite of the last one. You can jack with the layer’s appearance as much as you want, but moving and resizing are out.
Lock All is exactly what you would think, it locks down a layer so tight that you almost can’t do anything with it: no painting, no moving, no Layer Styles; nothing. You can’t even delete it. Oddly enough though, you can still change its stacking order in the Layers Panel.
The only keyboard shortcut that I know of here is that you can press “/” to toggle the “Lock All” command. If you know of any others, leave a comment below.
Adobe Photoshop CS6 brings the most significant addition to the Layers Panel in ages: searching. When you’re juggling twenty, fifty or even hundreds of layers in a single document, the document can become too cumbersome to manage effectively. Layer searching greatly improves this situation.
The default way to search/filter your layers is by “Kind,” which is extremely helpful. You’re presented with a row of icons that correspond to various layer types: pixel layers, adjustment layers, type layers, shape layers or smart objects. Clicking on one or more of these immediately filters out any layers that don’t match that criteria.
As you can see in the example above, we had a bunch of layers, then quickly drilled down to only the text layers. How cool is that? You can also filter by effect, mode, attribute and color or directly search for a layer by name.
To quickly turn off any filtering, just click the little switch at the top right of this section. Click it again to turn the filtering back on.
The sixth and final section that we’re going to go over is “Panel Options,” which is found in the little fly out menu at the top right of the panel. There are a lot of extra goodies in here, but they’re all straightforward so we’ll skip right to Panel Options.
Clicking this will bring up the window below. Here you can choose your thumbnail size in addition to a few other tweaks. These may seem minor, but pay close attention, they can really make the Layers Panel a more enjoyable place.
This shot shows the default options for the Layers Panel. I personally recommend considering a few tweaks. First, I like to change the “Thumbnail Contents” from “Entire Document” to “Layer Bounds.” This allows me to clearly see what each layer contains in the thumbnail preview, which is often not the case with “Entire Document” because it doesn’t effectively display small items. Here’s a comparison of the two with the same layers:
As you can see, the checkbox is much more visible using the “Layer Bounds” mode. The next thing that I like to do is turn off “Expand New Effects.” It actually drives me nuts that copying over and adding new effects expands the layer preview. This quickly leads to a panel full of expanded effects lists, which is unnecessary in my book. I’d rather expand them on an as-needed basis.
The final tweak that I make is to turn off the option to add the word “copy” to copies and groups. I hate having a palette full of layers with the word “copy” on them, it just seems sloppy. I can keep track of when I copy a layer just fine thank you very much.
What Did I Miss?
So there you have it, nearly every scrap of useful information that I can think of for making the most of the Layers Panel. We went over a ton of functionality so I hope even the advanced Photoshop users out there were able to learn a thing or two.
Now it’s your turn, if this information didn’t “wow” you, show off your expert knowledge by leaving a few top secret Layers Panel tips of your own below.