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Working with multiple layers in Photoshop

As Photoshop has continued to evolve, so has its ability to offer powerful layer management. When creating complex designs, such as website mock-ups or print advertisements, it is important to maintain control over your design. This includes naming all your layers, as well as creating relationships or linking between them. Depending on which version of Photoshop you are using, you may find slight differences in layer behavior.

Selecting multiple layers

Hold down the Shift key and click to select multiple contiguous layers or hold down the Command (Ctrl) key to select noncontiguous layers.

Linking layers

Linking layers creates a family relationship. When one of the family moves, the others move along with it (the same goes for scale and rotation). You link two layers together to create a relationship of particular elements that need to react to one another. For example, if you had a logo and text that you wanted to scale at the same time, you’d link them together.

When both layers are selected, they are temporarily linked. You can use the Move tool, for instance, to reposition both layers. To make a connection persist when you deselect the layers, click the link (chain) icon at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Aligning and distributing layers

A design can look sloppy if the designer relies solely on his or her eyes for a precise layout. Alignment is the process of positioning multiple objects on a straight line. This line is usually determined by one of the edges of the selected objects. This is useful to create a professional-looking design where the objects appear precise and organized. Align the two layers you are working with.

With your layers selected (or linked), press V to activate the Move tool. In the Options bar you will see the alignment options. Hover your pointer over each to become familiar with their names. Select the object that you want to use as a reference point for the alignment.

Distribution places an identical amount of space between multiple objects. This can be an important step in creating a professional-looking design. Distribution is similar to alignment in how it is accessed. However, the intent is slightly different. You will need three or more objects to distribute them. In the Options bar you will see distribution options (to the right of the alignment options).

Grouping layers

ometimes you’ll want to take several layers and treat them as if they were one layer. This is useful for aligning a design composed of multiple images or just general cleanup for organizational purposes. The process of nondestructively joining layers is called grouping. A permanent technique is called merging, but that is pretty decisive.

Select your layers using the Command-click (Ctrl-click) technique. Then, press Command+G (Ctrl+G) or choose Layer > Group to place these layers into a new group (which looks like a folder). If you’d like to name the group, double-click the folder’s name in the Layers panel. You can now move these elements together.

Locking layers

Sometimes you need to protect yourself from your own worst enemy (you). Photoshop gives you the option of locking properties of a layer to prevent accidental modification. Just click the icons next to the word Lock in the Layers panel. You can lock three separate properties (or a combination of the three):

  • Lock transparent pixels: The grid icon locks all transparent areas of an image, but you can still modify any data that was on the layer prior to locking.
  • Lock image pixels: The paintbrush icon locks all image pixels in the layer.
  • Lock position: The arrow icon prevents you from accidentally moving a layer out of alignment or changing its position.
  • Lock all: The padlock icon locks all three properties in one click.

Clipping Mask

Sometimes you’ll want to place the contents of one layer inside those of another. Designers often use this technique to fill text with a pattern or to constrain a photo to fit inside a shape. The concept is called a Clipping Mask (earlier versions of Photoshop called it Group with Previous), and it’s fairly easy and flexible.

All you need to do is place the content layer above the container layer (the one you want to “fill”) and choose Layer > Create Clipping Mask.

Filtering the view of layers

As you build a complex layered graphic, the Layers panel can get pretty cluttered. Photoshop has the ability to filter which layers appear in the list based on user-specified criteria. To change which type of filter is used, click the Filter Type menu. These criteria make it easier to find a specific layer or layer type based on the following filter types:

  • Kind: You can choose to see one or more category of layers by clicking on the associated icon type.
  • Name: You can enter text into the field to search by a layer’s name.
  • Effect: Once the Effect filter is chosen, a second pop-up menu lets you choose a specific type of layer effect.
  • Mode: This method lets you choose from any one of Photoshop’s blending modes.
  • Attribute: Filtering by attribute type lets you find very specific types of layers. For example, you can choose to look for empty layers to discard them or to find all locked layers at once.
  • Color: If you’ve used colored labels to organize your layers, this filter will show you a specific color, which makes it easier to find layers you’ve marked for review.

Merging layers

Sometimes you’ll want to permanently merge layers together to commit to a design. This can be useful to reduce file size or to improve compatibility when importing a layered Photoshop document (PSD) file into another application (such as Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro, or Adobe After Effects). This process is destructive (in that it permanently joins the layers, which limits future changes).

To merge layers, follow these steps:

  1. Select two or more layers by Command-clicking (Ctrl-clicking) on their names in the Layers panel.
  2. Choose Layer > Merge Layers or press Command+E (Ctrl+E).

Flattening an image

If you want to merge all your visible layers and discard all the layers with visibility disabled, choose Layer > Flatten Image. However, flattening an image is a permanent change. You work hard for those layers — keep them! Here are some alternatives to flattening that will preserve future flexibility:

  • Save a copy of your image in a flattened format. By choosing File > Save As (with the As a Copy check box selected) or File > Save for Web, you can save another version of your image.
  • If you need a flattened copy to paste into another document (or within your current document), use the Copy Merged command. Select an active, visible layer, and then choose Select > All. You can copy all visible items to your clipboard as a single layer by then choosing Edit > Copy Merged or by pressing Shift+Command+C (Shift+Ctrl+C).

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Rafael Jones

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