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Getting started with Layers in Photoshop

When Photoshop debuted, it did not have layers. Its original purpose was to touch up frames of motion picture and photography film. It was, as its name implied, a photo shop that provided a digital darkroom where photos could be enhanced, color corrected and repaired.

Over time, people wanted to do more with Photoshop, such as create print advertisements and television graphics. As people expected Photoshop to do more, Adobe responded with the introduction of layers.

What are Layers?

In traditional cel animation, artists would paint their animations onto clear sheets of acetate. These clear sheets would often contain a single character or element. They could then be laid together with sheets containing other characters and backgrounds to create a composited scene.

Layers work the same way. Each layer can contain discrete elements of your design. You then combine them to create the finished product. Layers can contain photos, text, logos, shapes, and even textures. There are lots of ways to create and manage layers, but it all comes back to having an organized design. Every layer should have a clear, descriptive name to make your design workflow easier.

Why you need Layers

If you plan to create complex designs in Photoshop, layers are a must for a few reasons:

Easy modification

Layers make it simple to modify your design. Separate elements can be easily accessed and edited.

Easy manipulation

If you are using Photoshop to create web or video animation as well as multimedia elements like slides or DVD menus, individual elements can be animated, high- lighted, or revealed.

Interface with other programs

Many other software programs rely on Photoshop layers as a content creation tool because these other programs lack Photoshop’s drawing and painting tools. By supporting the layered Photoshop format, these software programs cleanly interface with the best-selling, image-editing tool.

Managing your Layers

Creating Layers

You can create a new layer easily in several ways. You can click the Create new layer icon (looks like a notepad) at the bottom of the Layers panel. If menus are your thing, choose Layer > New > Layer or press Shift+Command+N (Shift+Ctrl+N).

Additionally, you can drag layers up or down the layer stack or from one document to another, if you are so inclined. You can move layers or reorder them with key- board shortcuts to change your image. 

Duplicating Layers

When you need to duplicate a layer, you have a few choices. You can choose Layer > Duplicate Layer or right-click (Ctrl-click) the layer’s name in the Layers panel and choose Duplicate Layer.

Another method is to drag one layer onto the Create new layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. My favorite method is to press Command+J (Ctrl+J) — think jump — to create a copy of a layer immediately above itself.

Deleting Layers

If you decide you don’t need a layer, you can throw it away. This reduces the size of your file, which means it’ll take up less disk space and require less memory to work with.

To throw away layers, drag them into the trash icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. You can also right-click (Ctrl-click) a layer’s name and choose Delete Layer to throw it away or choose Layer > Delete > Layer.

If you are in a hurry, you don’t have to throw away layers one at a time. Just Command-click (Ctrl-click) on multiple layers, and then delete the layers using one of the previously mentioned methods.

Types of Layers

Adjustment Layers

While clicking through your Layers menu, you likely noticed Adjustment Layers (like Levels or Hue/Saturation). These important layers are for image enhancement and color correction. They offer a nondestructive way to fix image problems.

These special layers can contain one of 15 image manipulations. Unlike normal image adjustments, these can be enabled or disabled as well as modified with no loss in image quality.

Fill Layers

Photoshop allows you to create specialty Fill Layers, which let you quickly create graphical content for your designs. Choose Layer > New Fill Layer, and then choose Solid Color, Gradient, or Pattern (alternatively, click the black and white circle icon on the bottom of the Layers panel). Create a new document (sized 1024 × 768) and try out these new layers:

  • Solid Color: Choose Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color. Pick from any color using the Color Picker or Color Libraries. To edit the color layer, just double-click its thumbnail in the Layers panel.
  • Gradient: Choose Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient. A gradient is a gradual blend between two or more colors. You can use gradients as backgrounds or blend them over an image to perform the same function as a cam- era filter. Photoshop supports five types of gradients: Linear, Radial, Angle, Reflected and Diamond. You can double-click the gradient in the Gradient Fill window to launch the Gradient Editor. Within the editor you can modify the gradient or click the submenu to load addition gradient presets.
  • Pattern: Choose Layer > New Fill Layer > Pattern. Photoshop comes with a variety of built-in seamless patterns, which you can access from the Pattern Fill window. To choose a different pattern, click the drop-down menu to see the active patterns. To load even more patterns, click the triangular submenu on the right edge of the drop-down panel.

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Rafael Jones

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