Working with Adjustment Layers in Adobe Photoshop to edit your images can make your design life simpler and more efficient. Here’s why.

Better than “Undo,” and you can change them anytime? No, really — yes. Adjustment Layers aren’t necessarily new, but they’re the kind of super-useful functions that can get overlooked in the shadow of Photoshop’s other strengths, like effects or hip filter actions.

Paired with masking, which we’ll go over, Adjustment Layers give you ways to manipulate images non-destructively. That means you can make drastic changes to an image, save it, close it, come back to it years later, and change it.

Adjustment Layers will change the way you work and make you more efficient, less trepidatious in editing, and better at what you do. It’s all in the power of their non-destructive nature.

Working with Adjustment Layers

Adding New Adjustment Layers

In order to get to know Adjustment Layers, we’ll start simple with an image that contains no layers.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Adjustment Layers

We’ll refer to the Layers window. At the bottom is a row of icons, and in the middle, is a half-shaded circle for Create new fill or adjustment layer. Click that for the list of options.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Layers Window

When you choose an item from the list, you’ll see a new layer appear above the selected layer. This will also open the Properties window, where you’ll make your adjustments. The adjustment layer will come with a layer mask. We’ll get more into this later.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Adjustment Layer

We can freely adjust this Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer without fear of permanently changing the original image — or committing to a style just yet. All without saving alternative versions of the file. This saves a lot of time and file space, as well as reducing versions and confusion.

Stacking Adjustment Layers

We can use multiple adjustment layers stacked on top of one another. For instance, you can adjust Brightness/Contrast in one, adjust Curves in another, and apply a Photo Filter on top of it all.

In addition to grouping adjustment layers to control specific aspects of your image, the order they are stacked in makes a difference in how they behave together. Lighting adjustments on top of color adjustments is a different look than color adjustments on top of lighting adjustments.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Stacking Adjustment Layers

This image takes on a different overall look if you simply move the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer below the Curves. It’s a good idea to try changing the order of the adjustment layers to find the results you want.

Using Blend Modes and Opacity

Lastly, to get even more from adjustment layers, you can adjust the Opacity and Blend Modes just like regular layers. These intensify or completely change the way they work.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Blend Modes and Opacity

With the Hue/Saturation layer changed to Multiply, you can see in the top half of the image how the overall saturation becomes much more intense. Drop the Opacity back down, and it reduces that intensity, showing how much control you have over different parameters of each effect.

Controlling Adjustments with Masking

Masks hide or reveal specific areas in an image. Used with an adjustment layer, we can reveal the areas we want to change and hide the areas we don’t want to affect. When you open an adjustment layer, it comes with a mask.

Hiding an Area from Adjustments

With the brush tool set to the color black, you can simply paint out the area you want to shield from the adjustment.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Hide Area

Select the mask by clicking on the white box in the adjustment layer, first, then make sure black is the foreground color. Use a brush to paint out the area you want to keep the adjustment from affecting.

Showing the Adjustments in an Area with Masking

Conversely, you can fill the mask with black, then paint an area with white to reveal it for adjustment.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Masking

This will be especially useful with more complicated files or intricate retouching. Using selective masks to affect, hide, and reveal specific parts of the image, or its layers, is where the true scope of the functionality of adjustment layers . . . reveals . . . itself.

Using Adjustment Layers in Composite Images

In a multi-layer image, you’ll select the layer you want to adjust, then select an adjustment layer for it. The adjustment layer is on top of it, and it controls the adjustments for all the layers underneath.

Now, when you use an image with multiple layers, you’ll have to keep in mind that any adjustment layer will affect the layers below — unless you adjust its mask to include or exclude the other layers.

You can make the adjustment layer like normal, then use a selection method like the brush or pen tool to draw in the adjustment layer mask above the layer you want to isolate. A better way is to make the selection first, so when you hit the adjustment layer button and select the adjustment, it will automatically mask off your selection.

If your layer contains an image already isolated in its layer, and the rest of the canvas is empty, simply hold Command, and click on the layer’s icon. This will make a selection that exactly matches your layer’s pixel information, meaning your selection if perfect. Hit the adjustment layer, and it will be tied only to your image layer.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Composite Images
Extra cactus via an image by Vilsone.

Notice how the layer of the new green-potted cactus is brought in already isolated. I command-click the layer’s icon, choose Curves from the list, then freely adjust only that layer, seemingly.

You Should Be Using Photoshop's Adjustment Layers — Free Adjustment

As you can see here, if you click the visibility icon for the single cactus layer, the adjustments were actually made to the entire image, but the mask makes sure it only affects the selection we made previously. And the ordering ensures that this stays above the layers below.

With this info, you should be well on your way to safely editing images without fear of saving over previous versions or undoing multiple steps of other processes. Adjustment layers are a retoucher’s best friend. Really, they’re one of the most useful developments Adobe has added to Photoshop.

For more techniques and ways to manipulate imagery, check these out: