How to Unmerge Layers in Photoshop

Uh-oh! Those shouldn’t go together! What do you do when you have merged layers in Photoshop that you need to separate?

Hey there, I’m Cara, a photographer who uses Photoshop frequently. A couple of weeks ago, June showed you how to merge layers. This can be helpful for organizing your layers panel and saving time by editing all merged layers at once. 

However, you might find that you need to separate those elements again. Perhaps you made a mistake that you need to fix or you need to make separate edits to one of the elements. 

Unmerging layers can be super simple or rather complicated depending on where you are in the editing process. Let me show you what I mean!

Method 1: Undo the Merged Layers

Let’s work with this simple design I created with a few shapes. Each of the four shapes was originally on its own layer, but I merged them onto one. 

I just merged them and have made no other edits. At this point, the simplest way to unmerge the layers is to undo my last command. Hit Ctrl + Z or Command + Z on the keyboard to undo the last step.

Alternatively, you can go to Edit in the menu bar at the top and choose Undo Merged Layers. If you’ve already made a couple of edits, you can still use this technique. You’ll just have to undo a few more times until you’ve backtracked enough to undo the merged layers. 

Method 2: History Panel

The obvious shortcoming of the last method is that its use is limited. Once you’ve made a few other edits, it becomes impractical to backstep so far.

You can use the history panel in this case, if you haven’t yet gone beyond the limit. Get to the history panel by clicking on the icon of three stacked boxes with an arrow curving from the bottom to the top. 

If you can’t find the icon on the right, go to Window and click on History to open the panel that way.

To demonstrate, I made a bunch of random squiggles on my canvas. You can see where I merged the layers, plus there are a bunch of brush tool edits afterward.

If I tried to undo it, I would have to erase every instance of the brush tool. But with the history panel, you can jump back to the step right before the one you want to undo. 

You’ll still lose all your work, (notice the squiggles are gone). However, this trick saves time when you have lots to undo.

Keep in mind that you can only go back so far. The default setting allows 50 steps to appear in the history panel. Once you’ve gone beyond 50, there’s no way to go back to the point at which you merged the layers and undo the action. 

Note: you can allow the history panel to show more steps if you prefer. Find out how to change this setting.

Method 3: Separating Elements

What if you have already gone too far (or don’t want to undo the edits you’ve made)? You can still separate the elements, but it will take a bit of work. 

You’ll have to create selections around the elements that you want to separate and copy them onto a new layer. 

For example, we’ll make a quick selection around one of the shapes. Hit Ctrl + C or Command + C to copy the selection. Then hit Ctrl + V or Command + V to paste your selection. Whatever you select will automatically appear on a new layer. 

Do this for each of your elements until you have pulled them all out.

Alternatives to Merging Layers

Obviously, for a simple design like this, separating each piece one by one isn’t too big of a deal. However, many of your projects will be far more complicated. With that in mind, it is generally a good idea to avoid merging layers. 

But, merging them can be handy for speeding up your workflow (as long as you don’t need to separate them again later). Here’s what you can do instead to enjoy the benefits of merging, without losing the option to separate the layers again later. 

1. Group the Layers

Select the layers you want to group and hit Ctrl + G or Command + G. The selected layers will put themselves together in a folder. You can make edits to the folder that will affect all the grouped layers. 

It works very similarly to merging the layers, with a big exception: you can easily ungroup them later if you want! All you have to do is hit Ctrl + Shift + G or Command + Shift + G to separate them once more. 

You can learn more about grouping layers here.

2. Merge Onto a New Layer

Another option is to conserve the original layers when you merge them. Do this by turning off all the layers you don’t want to merge. Click the little eye icon on the left side of the layer to turn it off. 

Once only the layers you want to merge are active, hit Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E or Command + Option + Shift + E on the keyboard. This will duplicate and merge all visible layers onto a new layer. 

To Merge or Not to Merge

There you have it! Unmerging layers can be a pain unless you used one of our tips to combine them. For that reason, we recommend staying away from merging layers unless you absolutely know you won’t need to separate them later. 

Interested to learn more about working with layers in Photoshop? We’ve got lots of great tutorials! Check out how to crop a layer in Photoshop next!

About Cara Koch
Cara fell in love with photography circa 2014 and has been exploring all corners of the imagery world ever since. When she felt limited by Lightroom, she dove headfirst into Photoshop to learn how to create the images she wanted.

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