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Why Use Layers?

Lesson 18 from: Foundations of Adobe Photoshop CC

Dave Cross

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Lesson Info

18. Why Use Layers?

Next Lesson: The Layers Panel

Lesson Info

Why Use Layers?

Anytime we talk about layers and working with layers, that's what we need to think about. And it works the same way in PhotoShop. So here's my photograph I want to add some handwriting to it. I'm not gonna take my paintbrush and paint directly on it. I'm gonna click on the New layer icon which adds a sheet of plastic. You can't see it, because it's not really plastic that's the analogy we are using. But if I were to hide the background layer and the way we do that, see the little eye icons beside each layer, if I click on that eye icon then we're actually looking at the top layer and we see this checkerboard of gray and white. Anytime you see that in PhotoShop that equals transparency. So that's our sheet of plastic in that sense. Now, when you just put a layer on top with nothing on it and if you just were to stop there, it would kinda be pointless because the whole point of adding a layer is to put something on it. So I'm gonna take my paintbrush and let's make it a little smaller, a...

nd I'm just gonna do Class of, I should make a smaller brush but that's okay, so you can see now it's kinda the same as my Sharpie, but the difference is because it's separate, I can play with it. So, one of the fist things you find in working with layers is the most important tool when working with layers is the Move tool. Because the Move tool is almost like our Layer tool. That's the one where we want to identify which layer we are working on and move the contents of the layer. So I'm gonna click on my Move tool, I could also have tapped V, for Move. So here's something I want to demonstrate to kind of show the principle of layers to make sure we think about this clear plastic concept. If I wanna move that writing, human nature would make me position my Move tool right on top of the word Class. Because in my mind I think, I need to move that. So I would tend to go and take the Move tool right here, but I could put the Move tool right up here because this is a big sheet of plastic. So where you click on the image has nothing to do with it, it's are you on the correct layer in your Layers panel. And we'll talk about that more as we go. So I say that because some people think as if in their mind they're thinking the only thing on that layer is the writing in this case. Well, kind of but technically, it's still a big sheet of plastic. Sometimes that's easier instead of worrying about am I clicking right in the right place, it really doesn't matter, as long as over here see how this layer has a gray highlight on it, that's telling me, that's the active layer. The other layer is still there, it's still visible, but this is the layer I'm working on so I can move it around like I did with my sheet of plastic. But here's where PhotoShop takes over for things you can't do with a sheet of plastic. So for example, I could use a command like Free Transform which allows me to make it smaller and on an angle. I couldn't do that with that ink on a piece of paper or a piece of plastic. Also, and these are all and, or, I could also say well I want that to be somewhat see-through so it's not quite as obvious we're kind of seeing through the photo underneath. All these things are possible because I've separated it initially on a piece of plastic. Now one of the first questions that often comes up when we're working with layers is, when do I need to add a blank layer and put something on it, and when does it happen automatically> well, there's a few functions in PhotoShop where layers automatically happen. When you drag and drop from one photo to another, it automatically creates a layer with that new content on it as we'll see in a moment. If you copy and paste, same thing. There's a command in PhotoShop called Place which is like import, that makes a new layer. So for a lot of those functions the layer automatically happens. If we use the Type tool to add Type it automatically adds a layer. A lot of the time layers are made for you the time it's not made for you is if you think things like, I think it involves like painting, like using your paintbrush or cloning with the Clone stamp, or using the Healing brush. Because all those are like painterly type things. Those you tend to need to make a new layer first then put the results of that tool on to that layer. So, remember way at the beginning, we talked about Checklist, that's a big part of my Checklist is wait, before I use that tool, should I add a new layer? The answer is almost always yes, unless I happen to have already made one. But that's part of my thought processes. I don't want to paint directly on the background layer I want to avoid working on the background layer as much as I possibly can. There's very few reasons to work directly on the background because, again, it's very permanent and destructive. I just wanna point something out to you here because it's important, a lot of people get thrown off by this. Look over here on the background layer see that little padlock symbol? That suggests that this layer is locked therefore protected, it isn't. The only thing that's locked is your ability to move it. You could paint on it, you can change it so it's not in any way. Don't let that throw you and say oh, but look my background seems to be protected, no, it's not, it's simply locked from being able to move it, but I could still paint on it I could still Clone stamp, all those things directly on it, which is never a good thing. So let's build on this a step further, here's my logo and you'll see it. Here's one of the things you have to get used to always looking at the Layers panel. So when you first look at the image itself it looks like this shield with writing and white around the outside, right. That's what it looks like. But if I look in the Layers panel, I still have background and separate layers. So, I hide the background, oh, I see checkerboard, which means the only thing on that layer is the shield cut to that shape. Which I want, because when I drag it into the photo I don't want a white box around it and that depends on how that is created. So sometimes we have to get used to looking at the image on our screen, but then very quickly looking at the Layers panel see well, how is it made. Because for example, originally when I made this this was actually four separate layers. I chose for the purpose of demonstration today to make a version I merged together so it was easier to understand. But when I created this it was actually separate layers. Because that's the way I made it. Normally I would leave it that way for the purpose of demonstration, it was easier to show. I did that deliberately making sure even then when I made this logo I didn't make the shield on the background layer because then I would have had a white box around it. The reason that I was able to open this logo and have it cut to shape like that is because when I created it, I saved it as a PSD file. PSD files can include layers and transparency. If I had thought oh, just for the sake of ease I'll save this as a JPEG, JPEG would have put a white box around it. Because JPEG cannot support transparency. Even though I created this with transparency around it as soon as I save it as a JPEG it's gonna automatically be white box. So, anytime someone says I don't understand I thought I had transparency on my logo but when I save it as JPEG I'm like. That is why, because when you save it as JPEG it can't have layers, therefore it can't have transparency. So in this case, even though there was a white background there I don't want that so I'm just gonna ignore it. All I do is make sure my top layer, the one that I very cleverly named Layer 1, which we'll talk about in a second. That's the one I want to move on to that other photograph. Just to reiterate the talk before I have two windows open, here's my original photograph, here's the one I want, so I use this drag and drop method click and hold with the Move tool, drag up to the other window, drag down, let go. Notice how it looks a lot smaller now? That's because the relative resolution's was not the same. And that's okay, because I don't want the logo to be huge. So you can see now I have another layer. So now I have the background, the original photograph, this handwriting layer that I currently have hidden, and the logo layer. So now I can move that around, it doesn't matter where I drag. The only reason frankly, for clicking right on the middle of it, can you see when I'm over here, can you see the little numbers here showing me the position that's the position of my mouse. So if I wanted to position the logo in that case I'd wanna click right on it and then those numbers will be relating to the logo. If you're just moving something visually and going yeah, maybe here, then it's just simple to do it that way. So now I have a couple of, well three layers in total, so here's the next thing in our checklist of things to do. Anytime I'm now working with a multi-layer document, the first thing I usually want to make sure I do is make sure I'm on the right layer, or the right layers active, and that's what that shaded box shows that right now at the moment the top layer is active. What if I want to move the other layer? Well I have to make sure I click on that layer. Because watch over here if I carefully position my mouse right on top of the number two it still moves the shield because that's the active layer. So it's not where you click on the image that's influencing it, it's which layer is active in the Layers panel. That's why as part of my checklist I'm always thinking oh wait, before I do anything, am I on the right layer. Oh, no, I need to be on this layer. Then I can adjust accordingly. Now we'll talk in a moment, more about working with these layers but I want to make a suggestion to you that I think will be useful, at least at first. You may decide later on not to do this. When you first start working with layers I think it's very useful to get in the habit of naming your layers something that makes sense to you. Because even though we have the thumbnails which I can sort of see, at a certain point, it's not unusual to have, I don't know, 15 layers. All of a sudden you can't see them all, so you might want to make your little thumbnails in that panel a little smaller, now you can't rely on the little image to tell you, so having a name is very useful. To rename a layer you just click right on the name double-click and it highlights it, and then you can call it whatever you want. I usually make a joke and change it from layer one to layer seven, but I'm not gonna do that today. So, call it something that makes sense to you. I say that with one disclaimer, and that is if you end up sharing your PhotoShop files with someone you work with make sure it also makes sense to them. I used to work with a guy who is a genius in PhotoShop his work was staggeringly amazing and every so often he'd send me his PSD file and I'd call him on the intercom and say, so the layer called doc1a/b, which one is that? It's the flag. OK. I would have called it like, flag, but he had this system in his head so every layer was called some number which made perfect sense to him, and I was just like, I have no idea what's happening here. So, calling layers something is just something that you know, it's a good idea. So here's another example of a time where you need to add a layer, I wanna now add kind of a white box going across here that I can make maybe semi-seethrough or something. So I'm just click on the New layer button. Add the blank layer, take my Marquise tool, and just say I want a box maybe, I don't know, that big and then we'll need some color in here so we'll talk about this a lot more in future segments, but I just wanna fill it with white, click OK, and then deselect. So now I have several layers but there's a bit of an issue where I don't really think I want the white box to cover up the writing layer. So the order of the stack of layers is incorrect. Just like when I was talking about the sheets of plastic before and I had to reorder them for it to look the way I want, you do the same thing in the Layers panel. It doesn't matter which way you go, you can either drag a layer up or drag a layer down, doesn't matter. The order is gonna show from bottom up. So, right now I want this, wait, white box layer to be below the writing layer, so I literally just drag it down and then they're repositioned. You can see they're showing in the correct order that I want. Now if you click on this layer, take my Move tool, say I kinda want this over here somewhere, maybe it's a little too big so we'll scale it down. Then I wanna take this layer and move it over here. So, basically, that's the principle is that you're building up, each individual element's gonna be in its own layer and there's really no, I think there technically is some limit to how many layers you can actually have in a document but I wanna say it's something like 99 thousand layers or something ridiculous that I don't know that anyone, I do know one person that's come close, but most people haven't. I did hear a rumor once of a guy in Texas that had like 400 layers and his brain exploded. Because he just couldn't handle the complexity of it, so you might wanna be careful about that. Really, it's up to you, what I would say is whatever gives you the most options and flexibility. So even though you might look at that white box layer and say that's the perfect position, I'm not gonna take it away from being a layer. Save it as a layer, keep it as a layer just so that later on if I look at it again and go well, it could be a little smaller up or down, whatever. Every so often I hear people say things like, well at a certain point I merged those layers together. Merge is a very close second to flattening as to how bad it is, because merging says take these separate layers and make them into one. Why would you you do that? Frankly, I don't know, some people say well, saving space, what kind of space? Hard drive space? Get a bigger hard drive. I'm not kidding about that. I would much rather make an enormous file size with multiple layers and have to go buy a bigger hard drive, than merge or flatten layers and then regret it later. Because trying to rebuild something from scratch and make it look the same, as I told you earlier, it's a nightmare, you just don't wanna do it. Years ago, like I said, we used to worry about that because storage was smaller, but now, I probably in my briefcase hanging around, I probably have a couple of thumb drives that are bigger than my entire hard drive was like 20 years ago, by far. Now, in this case, remember, this started life as a JPEG that's what I opened. As soon as you create layers, when I go to save it, as we talked about before, it's gonna prompt me to save it as a PSD file and that's fine, that's what I want. I want this muti-layer PhotoShop document gonna preserve all this important information for me.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials

Adobe Stock Contributor

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Quick Notes Guide
Landscape Image for Practice Edit
Senior Portrait Missing Element for Practice Edit
Senior Portrait With Element for Practice Edit

Ratings and Reviews


I really like Dave's methodical teaching style. Step by step works best for my learning processes. He also has a lovely voice to listen to during his classes, that is important if you have to listen to someone talk for any length of time. I also like the "dance" he does by explaining what he is going to do, then does it, and then comes back to explaining the choices he made and why. Very, very easy to follow him in his straight forward explanations. He increased my understanding of so many tools I use and so many I have never used. Wow! Photoshop with Dave took away a lot of "fear"! (Wish I had a "happy face" to place here!) I bought this class today because I don't think I can get along without it!

Jim Bellomo

I was so lucky to get to attend this class in person here in Seattle. I have been a fan of Dave's for years and own a number of his courses from Creative Live. When this class was announced I almost decided to skip it since it was listed as a "beginners" class but decided that it "might" be worth it. One of the reasons I wanted to take it was that I am self-taught. I had started with Photoshop 5 (not CS5 but 5) about 15 years ago (at least). I figured it I took this class I might learn a little something that would help me in my work. Well, two days later I have 18 pages of handwritten notes, a whole new way to work and it has already paid off in a huge way in my daily workflow. I bill out my hours at around $100 an hour as a graphic designer and marketing person. That means in the two days that I spent 10 hours a day taking the class and commuting to it, it cost me about $2000 in working time. But it didn't. I can guarantee that I am way ahead on this one. I l learned so much. The real world things I learned will pay off for a very long time. Within one day after the class I had already started changing my workflow to be more non-destructive and faster. Dave is an awesome teacher and I can't say enough good things about this class. Even if you think you know Photoshop, you don't. I teach it in my small world but I learned so much.


A writer and an old person (over 60), I rarely use neat exaggerations like "great" or "fantastic," and never say "awesome" in the currently fashionable manner. However, I would call this class both great and excellently planned. Cross is well-spoken and a consummate teacher with a rarely non-irritating voice. It is information packed, clearly presented, well-organized, and extremely helpful. I wish I could afford his others.

Student Work