Have you ever made extensive edits to images only to realize that there was a detail you missed at a specific step? Or, wondered what your image would have looked like done another way? Layers are an retoucher’s best friend. If you’re used to extensive editing, you know that whether you’re designing print or website layouts, restoring images, retouching, compositing multiple images, manipulating vector graphics, or adding text to an image – those layers can stack and add up quickly. And, without proper management, your masterpiece could quickly end up … well, a mess.

While the function of layers is a complex topic, encompassing all from panel options to adjustment layers, for this discussion we will focus only on management and practices that should be used with every image adjustment.

What are Layers

If you’re fairly new to PS (veterans can skip down to the next section), layers can best be described as transparent windows. Imagine that you have a window with clean glass and you want to paint a face on it. Then, on a second window, you want to add hair. And finally, on another window you add the body. If you stack all these windows together, then you end up with a person? This is an oversimplified explanation of layers, but if you can get the gist of the idea, you soon realize as you work with layers that there are many uses for them and why they’re important.

Each layer can be edited individually without causing any editing to other layers – also known as non-destructive editing. The wonderful thing about layers is that you can move, resize, have an endless stack of them and arrange them in any way you see fit. The number of layers you may have is only limited by your computer’s memory. (Actually, the limit is 8,000 layers - but who can manage this many!) This is when organization becomes important – when naming each layer for reference and creating groups becomes essential.

Creating Layers

There are three ways to create layers. The first method is from the menu, select Layer> New> Layer. The second is in the layers panel by clicking the icon that looks like a sticky note, next to the trash icon. And, the third is by pressing the shortcut keys SHIFT+CTRL+N (PC) or SHIFT+CMD+N (MAC).


Duplicating Layers

Duplicating layers is done much in the same manner as creating layers. From the Layer menu, you can select Layer>Duplicate layer. Or, press CTRL/CMD+J. And, finally in the layers panel select the layer you want to copy then drag and drop the layer onto the new layer icon.


Managing Layers

The beauty of layers is that they can be grouped and renamed for easy reference. This makes for easier management of layers and groups so that you can go back later at any time and easily find a layer. This matters, because as any seasoned vet knows, after extensive editing you can end up with literally dozens of layers and searching for the one you want can be really difficult. Being mindful at the onset and naming your layers with something meaningful will help you make improvements and cut down on editing time in the long run.

Let’s first look at a quick image of how to create a layer, rename it, and move it around.


First, we first create a layer by clicking on the new layer icon. In this demonstration, we will create 3 layers. Here, we click the layer three times, then double-click the layer name to rename each layer to something that is relevant and easy to remember. A description that applies to that specific layer is best. Try to be specific, for example as three generic names of “retouch” can be confusing later down the road. “Retouch – eyes” and “Retouch – lips” would be better examples of Remember, you can do this at any time and as many times as you want. However, a good practice is to rename the layer immediately after your edit.

Next, we move a layer by simply clicking the layer and dragging it above or below another layer. To move more than one layer at a time, press CTRL/CMD and click each layer you want to move. Or, to highlight a contiguous or string of connecting layers, click the first layer, then press SHIFT/OPT and select the last layer. This will select all of the layers between the first and the last layer initially selected.

Creating Groups

Now, when we create these layers or begin editing, you’ll soon learn that the layers begin to add up. Some retouchers accumulate up to or over 100 layers! Imagine trying to look for the needle in that haystack. An easy solution to this is to create layer groups. This is easily defined as a folder which will contain a specific set of layers. The beauty of this is that you can also create these at any time. So, if you find that you have 20 or 30 so layers, you can group these into sets for easy management. You can even create folders within folders.

This may sound confusing, at first, but it’s really easy. Remember the method we used to select multiple layers? Well, let’s do it here and look at the example below to see how easy it is to create a group. Let’s start with more layers and create groups, then subfolders.

The “group” icon is the folder located next to the left of the “new layer” icon. You can create a group in four different ways: 1) go to Layer>Group Layers, 2) use the shortcut CTRL/CMD+G, 3) click the folder/group icon, or 4) drag and drop any layer onto the group/folder icon.

What We Learned

Layers play an essential role in every aspect of editing. In this tutorial, we learned the basics of creating and managing layers and groups. For beginner and regular users, learning organization tactics can cut down tremendously on editing and speed up the editing process. They key is to use non-destructive edits by creating layers without making modifications to the original image. Groups help you keep things organized.

There are other types of layers and useful applications to layers such as applying adjustment layers, smart object layers, text layers, shape layers, transform layers, create layer blending options, and apply layer masks. Once you learn the basics of how to create and manage layers, you begin to learn the more advanced techniques of manipulating layers for editing. •••

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