Improve your work flow in Adobe Photoshop with the freedom and flexibility of the layers feature.

Elisabeth Morningstar

Photoshop Layers Tutorial for Beginners

The "layers" feature in Adobe Photoshop is very addictive once mastered. It will make files a bit larger, but it also allows for more freedom in editing different sections of your graphics which is very useful for postcards,brochuresposters and other media. Layers also make it much easier to revert to an earlier stage of editing if you do not like the changes you've made. Even if you have some experience with layers, this tutorial covers the basic aspects of this handy tool, so you will probably find some tips and tricks to help improve your work flow. Let's get started!

Opening the Layers Palette

Usually the layers palette will open automatically when you open Photoshop, but if not, simply go to Window > Layers. The palette should look similar to the following image:

Basic Functions

You will need to have a basic understanding of how to work with the layers palette before beginning any projects:

  • Each new row is a separate layer, and each layer can be selected individually.
  • Only the selected layer(s) can be edited.
  • The bottom layer is the background and is automatically locked. You can only drag or transform this layer if you unlock it. Simply click on the padlock icon.
  • Each layer contains an "eye" box on the very left-hand side. It indicates whether or not the layer is visible. If a layer has been made invisible, it cannot be edited.

  • To make a new layer, click on the "Create a New Layer" button at the bottom of the layers palette, which looks like a large square with a small square in front of it.

  • Layers sit on top of one another in the palette in the same order as they do on the workspace. For instance, the very bottom layer in the palette is the very bottom layer in the graphic.
  • Layers can be dragged to different positions. For example, you can drag the second layer above the top one to now make it the top layer.
  • Delete layers by dragging the layer to the trash can icon at the bottom of the layers palette or right-click and choose "Delete Layer." Selecting the layer and pressing the delete key on your keyboard also works.

  • To duplicate a layer, which means that all aspects of that layer will be copied and applied to a new layer, right-click on the layer and choose "Duplicate Layer."

  • To copy a layer style and apply it to another layer, right-click on that layer and choose "Copy Layer Style." Then right-click on the layer you wish to apply the style to and choose "Paste Layer Style."

  • To select more than one layer, hold down Shift while clicking on each layer you want to select.


You will see the Opacity box in the upper right hand corner of the layers palette. This feature can be used to adjust color, brightness, sharpness, and more. The range for Opacity is from 0% to 100% and can be adjusted by selecting the numbers in the box and typing in the desired number or by clicking on the arrow and using the slider.

Merging and Flattening Layers

When you merge layers together, you can make transformations to both layers at once or simply reduce the size of your file. Merged layers act as one layer, saving much time and extra steps. Keep in mind that once merged, the layers are indefinitely one layer and cannot be separated without completely undoing all steps to your merge step by choosing the Step Backward function. On the other hand, flattening layers means that all layers will become one, which is why this is usually done right before sending the file to a printer.

  • To merge selected layers, click on the down arrow in the upper right-hand corner of the layers palette and choose "Merge Layers" while two or more layers are selected, or click on a layer and choose "Merge Down" to merge the selected layer with the one directly beneath it.
  • Choose "Merge Visible" to merge all icons that are visible (that have the "eye" icon showing to the right of the layer thumbnail).
  • To flatten layers into a single image, click on the down arrow and select "Flatten Image."

Stamping Layers

To merge layers but keep the originals intact (in case you would like to undo your merging and go back to edit the originals), you will need to "stamp" them. This puts the merged layers into a new layer above the originals.

  • To stamp linked or multiple selected layers, select the layers and hit Ctrl+Alt+E for Windows and Command+Option+E for Macs.
  • You can also stamp all visible layers. First make sure that the layers you want merged are the only ones that are visible (the "eye" icon should be showing). Then hit Shift+Ctrl+Alt+E for Windows or Shift+Command+Option+E for Macs.

Link Layers

Linking layers together makes it easier to move them around as one unit or to apply. To link two or more layers together, you will first need to select all desired layers by holding Shift while clicking each layer. Then simply click on the "Link Layers" button at the bottom of the layers panel.

To unlink layers, select one of the linked layers and click on the link icon. Or hold down Shift while clicking on the link icon in the thumbnail to temporarily unlink a layer. This will make a red "X" appear on the link icon which can be removed by pressing Shift and clicking on the link icon again.

Group Layers

Organize layers by creating groups. Do this by clicking on the "Create a New Group" icon at the bottom of the palette. This will place all layers underneath the group layer within a single group. You can also drag layers into the new group folder.

Of course, the layers panel involves much more than the actions and information revealed in this tutorial, but this will give you a good start. Once you feel comfortable with these basics, you will be much better able to handle the advanced features of the layers function in Photoshop and will be able to add more dimension and appeal to your brochures, business cards and posters.

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