Blog Home Tips & Tutorials Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs

If you’ve just started using Photoshop for your design or photography work, at some point you’ll want to being using layers. Layers are the very foundation of Photoshop, providing the full range of the app’s capabilities to create files, designs, or images that you can easily update or alter.

The following fundamental attributes will help you move past the beginner level. There are far more complicated functions to layers, but knowing these primary elements will make things easier in the future.

The Basics

Displaying the Layers Window

With an image open in Photoshop, choose Window > Layers to open the Layers window. This displays the layers of the image and contains many of the tools you’ll need when working with them.

The Background Layer

The Background layer is the base of a new image. It comes locked, which means that you cannot alter, move, or change the order with other layers unless you unlock it. If you choose to unlock it, it becomes a standard layer, which enables all the following editing functions.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Background Layer
The background layer is automatically locked. You’ll have to unlock it to make adjustments.

To make the Background layer a regular layer, click the layer’s lock icon in the layer window. Or you can double-click the layer to pull up more options. This will creates the same dialog box as creating a new layer, where you can preset Opacity and assign a Blend Mode.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Creating a New Layer
Double-clicking a background layer opens the same dialog box as creating a new one.

Lock and Unlock Layers

A very important function of layers is the ability to Lock and Unlock them. This gives you more control, helping you avoid accidental nudging or alteration. As with the Background layer, unlocking a layer is as simple as clicking the lock icon in the Layers window.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Lock Icons
Clicking the lock icons on your layers unlocks them quickly.

Circled in red above are the simple Lock/Unlock toggles. When you want to Lock multiple layers, hold Option and click to select each layer, or hold Shift and click to select layers in the order sequence.

Then, click the Lock All icon in the Lock: section of the Layers window. Each layer will now show a Lock icon, and to unlock these layers, simply click it. You can unlock multiple layers in unison by selecting them and hitting the Lock All icon in the Lock: section.

Name Layers

Naming layers helps you and anyone else understand what’s going on in a given file. Even if you work alone (you won’t always), make it a habit to start naming layers. To name a layer, double-click on the name in the Layers window and type.

Add New Layers

To add a new empty 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.

Copy Layers

There are several reasons to copy a layer. For intensifying or saturating a layer, you can make a copy and stack it above itself, then use the Multiply blend mode. For trying out an Effect before committing to it, make a copy and play around with it. If you don’t like the results, simply delete the copy.

Options to create a copy of a layer:

  • Drag and drop the layer onto the New Layer icon at the foot of the Layers palette
  • Right-click the layer, choose Duplicate Layer and click OK
  • Hold the Option key and drag the layer, within the Layers window, to the place in the stack order you want it.

Delete a Layer

To delete a layer, use one of these options:

  • Drag and drop it onto the trash can icon at the foot of the window.
  • Right-click the layer and choose Delete Layer.
  • Select the layer and hit Delete on the keyboard.

Reminder: deletion is permanent, unless you can Undo, but that presents problems when using complex processes with many steps. Delete content only when you’re certain about it.

Move Layers

Moving layers is one of the reasons we use them in the first place — changing the order to place objects at different depths in the visual space, or using the order with transparency to create depth itself. You can move layers by dragging them in the Layers window into another position in the order. Just keep in mind you won’t see the contents of a layer that sits underneath a full-screen layer.

Combining Layers

How to Group Layers

Grouping Layers puts them into a folder that you can then manage as a group. Move it around in the layer order and use a mask on the whole group. This is very helpful when dealing with a lot of pieces that you want to remain together.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Combining Layers
Grouping layers can make them easier to work with on complex projects.

To group 2 or more layers, select them in the Layers window and hit Command + G on the keyboard — or click the hamburger menu in the Layers window and select New Group from Layers. You can use this method to start a new Group from scratch, then fill it in later. Then, just name it the same way you name a layer, by double-clicking the name in the Layers window.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Naming Groups
Name groups to keep them organized.

How to Merge Layers

Merging layers, or combining them, is helpful when you want to permanently combine two or more layers. When you merge layers, any masks or attributes of the individual layers become permanent. If you want to retain the individual attributes of a single layer, use Group instead.

There are a few ways to Merge layers. To Merge a single layer to another, select it and either click Layer in the main menu, then find the Merge section, or click the hamburger menu in the Layers window. Merge Down combines the selected layer with the layer beneath it in the order.

To Merge multiple layers, select them by holding Option and clicking the ones you want in the Layers window. Merge Down in the menu now changes to Merge Layers. Selecting this will combine the selected layers and place them where the topmost selected layer’s position in the total order. So, any layer that was between two layers you wish to combine can either go above or behind the new layer, but no longer between them.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Merging Layers
Merging layers commits their individual attributes to a single layer.

Merge Visible, combining layers with Visibility turned on, and Flatten Image, combining all layers and delete those with Visibility turned off, are the two “nuclear” choices. You should only use these when you’re sure you want to commit to losing all your individual layers.

Layer Visibility and Order

Layer Visibility

Photoshop gives us a couple of ways to change a layer’s visibility: varying the opacity and fill, and turning the visibility on/off.

The Opacity control sets how much a layer shows over the layer underneath it. If no layer is beneath the layer, it will vary the transparency. You can click directly on the word Opacity and drag the slider back and forth to see the effect on your image. Or you can choose a percentage in the field next to it. (For more on the differences between Opacity and Fill, see this article.)

To toggle a layer’s total visibility, no matter the opacity setting, click on the eyeball icon for the the layer to the left of its name. Eyeball on = layer is visible, and vice versa.

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.

To place flowers in the foreground in the image below, we put them on a layer above the background, or base layer.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Layer Order
Any layer you place above another will determine how much of the original you can see.

Filling a Layer

Filling a layer with color is handy when you’re dealing with objects that have some transparency — or when you just want a flat background. To fill a layer, select an empty layer or create a new layer.

To choose a color, click on the color swatch at the bottom of the Tools window to open the color picker. To choose black or white, hit D on the keyboard. This will place Black as the foreground and White as the background.

Hold Option and hit Delete to fill the layer with the foreground color. Hold Command and hit Delete to fill the layer with the background color.

Saving Files with Layers

Although we may be building an image to use on the web or in print, we will want to retain the editability of our layers. After saving your flat image for use in other environments, such as .JPG, or .PNG to preserve transparency, save your layered file as a Photoshop, or .PSD file.

This way, you will keep all the attributes of your individuals layers: effects, transparencies, blend modes, visibilities, etc. A Photoshop file is the best type to continue to edit or make changes to the layers.

Photoshop Basics: Learn How to Use Layers in Your Designs — Save as .psd
Always preserve your layers and attributes as a .psd file before you finalize your image.

This post originally appeared in August, 2014. We’ve updated it to reflect changes in the software.


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