Skillfeed, Shutterstock’s online learning resource, offers access to unlimited courses from professional instructors around the world. With Skillfeed, you can learn photography, coding, graphic design, and more, with thousands of classes available to take at any time, from anywhere. In this tutorial, instructor Helen Bradley explains one of Photoshop’s most important basic features. Watch the video below and read on for a step-by-step written tutorial with sample images.

If you use Photoshop for your design or photography work, at some stage you’ll need to use layers. While they may seem confusing at first, using layers will open up a world of creative potential, as well as a way to create designs that can be easily updated or altered.

Displaying the Palette

With a photograph or other image open in Photoshop, choose Window > Layers to open the Layers palette. This displays the layers in the image and gives you access to many of the tools you’ll need when working with them.

Many images, including photos that you download from your camera, will have a single layer called Background. To the right of the layer name in the Layers palette is a lock icon.

The Background Layer

The Background layer is a special layer in an image. It has some unique properties, and one is that it does not support transparency. If you target the Eraser and erase content from this layer, in its place you’ll see the background color appear.

Another property of the Background layer is that you can’t move it. If the image contains multiple layers on top of the Background layer, you can’t drag the background layer higher up the layer palette. It’s fixed in place until you unlock it.

Unlocking the Background Layer

To make the Background layer a regular layer, you can drag and drop its lock icon onto the trashcan icon in the Layers palette. When you do so, the background layer is unlocked, so you can move it and erase content from it, leaving the erased areas transparent.

You can also unlock a background layer by double-clicking the Background layer and clicking OK, or by choosing Layer > New > Layer from Background. Choose the method that’s most intuitive for you.

Layer Visibility

This image has three layers: one has a milkshake on it, one has a cupcake, and the third has a splash of milk. The eyeball icon to the left of each layer in the Layers palette toggles that layer’s visibility on and off. Use this to hide or display the contents of a layer.

Here, only the milkshake layer’s visibility is enabled, so that’s the only layer you see:

Layer Stacking Order

The order of the layers in the Layers palette affects what you see in the image. The content on any layer appears over the content in any of the layers below it in the Layers palette.

In the image below, we see the cupcake because its layer is the topmost layer. The milkshake is visible only where it is not covered by the cupcake, and we see only that part of the milk splash that’s not covered by the cupcake or the milkshake.

Moving Layers

You can move layers by dragging them with your mouse and dropping them into another position in the Layers palette. Here, the layer containing the cupcake has been moved below the other layers. Even though this layer is visible, you won’t see the cupcake because it is now completely hidden behind the content on the layers above.

Adding, Duplicating, and Deleting Layers

To add a new blank layer, click the New Layer icon at the foot of the Layers palette, or choose Layer > New > Layer and click OK. In either case, the new layer appears above the currently selected layer in the Layers palette. Here, the topmost layer was selected, so the new layer appears on top of that one.

To make a copy of a layer, either drag and drop the layer onto the New Layer icon at the foot of the Layers palette or right-click the layer, choose Duplicate Layer and click OK.

To permanently delete a layer, either drag and drop it onto the trashcan icon at the foot of the Layers palette or right-click the layer and choose Delete Layer.

Filling a Layer

To fill a layer with the foreground color, first click the layer in the Layers palette to target it. Then either click on the image with the Paint Bucket tool to flood it with the foreground color, or press Alt + Backspace (Option + Delete on a Mac) to fill it.

Naming a Layer

If you have a number of layers in an image, it’s useful to name the layers to describe their contents. To do this, double click on the layer name in the Layers palette, then simply type the new name and press Enter.

Saving Files with Layers

When you save a file that contains layers, you need to make a decision about the file format, as it can impact the layers in the image.

This is the image we’re about to save. It has four layers and all are visible. The bottom layer has had some of its content removed so it is partially transparent:

If you save an image as a JPEG file, which is ideal for photos shared on the web, it will be flattened to a single background layer, and any transparent pixels will be filled with white. The image below is our layered image saved as a JPEG.

If you need a file format suitable for the web and it contains transparent pixels that you want to keep transparent, then the PNG format is a good choice. The layers in an image saved as a PNG file will be flattened to a single layer, but transparent pixels will retain their transparency. This is our layered image saved as a PNG file:

A third scenario is when you want to save the file as a layered file and maintain the transparent pixels. In this case, Photoshop’s own PSD file format is ideal. It retains transparent pixels and it retains layers, so you can reopen the image at any time and the layer structure will be unaltered. The downside of this format is that it can’t be used to show images on the web.

This is the image saved as a PSD file — the layer structure and the transparency are unchanged from the starting image.

If you have created a multi-layer file and want to both share it on the web and retain its layers, you will need to save two copies. Save one in PNG or JPEG format to share on the web and sone in PSD format to retain the layers and transparency, in case you need to edit the image at a later date.

Layers and Photos

If you’re working with photos rather than designs, there are also lots of scenarios in which you can benefit from using layers. One is when dealing with an overexposed photo, or one you want to darken.

If you duplicate the background layer of the image, you can blend the two layers together using a blend mode. These are accessible from the Layers palette if you click the dropdown list at the top left of the palette – this displays Normal by default. Blend modes blend the pixels on two or more layers together according to a set of preset rules.

If you target the topmost layer in a file where both layers contain the same image and set the blend mode to Multiply, you will darken the image. The Multiply mode is a darkening blend mode.

If you have an underexposed image, or one which is darker than you want it to be, duplicate the background layer of the image. Target the topmost layer and set its blend mode to Screen. This is a lightening blend mode, so the dark image will be lightened as a result.

If, instead of using the Multiply or Screen blend mode, you select the Overlay blend mode, the result will be an image with more contrast.

You may wish to experiment with other blend modes to see how they affect your image. Make sure you always target the top layer when applying a blend mode, and be aware that some blend modes may have no effect when the content on the two layers is the same.

Adding Texture to a Photo

Another handy use for layers is to add texture to a photo. To see this at work, open a texture photo and choose Select > All and then Edit > Copy. Click on your photograph and choose Edit > Paste to paste the texture in as a new layer. If necessary, click the Move tool and resize the texture to match the size of the photo.

To blend the two layers together, click the texture layer in the Layers palette to target it and then choose a blend mode for it. The Overlay blend mode is a good choice, but feel free to experiment with other blend modes to find a result that you like.

If you find a result you like, but the result is too intense (as mine is above), you can make the texture layer partially transparent. To do this, click the texture layer to target it and reduce the value for the layer’s Opacity using the slider in the top right of the Layer palette. As you do this, you will make the top layer more transparent, so you’ll see more of the layer below through the texture layer.

Whether you’re a photographer, a designer, or another type of digital artist, you’ll find that layers are an important part of your Photoshop toolkit, allowing you to apply effects and build complex images that are easy to edit.

View all of the images used in this post in the lightbox below »