Photoshop Layers for Beginners: Basic Guides & Tips

One of my favorite things about Photoshop is how layers keep my work organized and the ease to manipulate layers to make my work efficient. And the greatest advantage is that I can edit objects separately without affecting one another. 

What’s so great about layers? There’s so much you can do. Work on separate layers, group layers, add a mask, effects, merge layers, etc. 

In this article, I’m going to share with you some layer basics including the Layers panel, what you can do with the layer options, and some useful tips. 

Let’s begin with a quick introduction of what a layer is in Photoshop. 

What is a Layer in Photoshop

You can see a layer as a transparent sheet that you can add content or adjustment and you can stack a layer on top of each other. You can also move a layer to show which one goes above or under, as well as editing and adding effects to the layer. 

There are two categories of layers that you can create from the Layers panel. You can create a content layer, an empty transparent sheet (layer) where you can add objects like shapes, images, text. Or add an adjustment layer that you can choose effects like a solid color, gradient, brightness, or other adjustments.

The layers panel has quite a few icons and options that you might get lost if you’re new to Photoshop. That’s why I’ve created the Layers panel overview below to help you get a better idea of what I’m talking about. 

The Layers Panel Overview

If you don’t see the Layers panel on the right-hand side of your Photoshop document, you can quickly open your Layers panel from the top menu Window > Layers

And this is what the Layers panel (or some might prefer to call it palette) looks like, and I’ve pointed out the layer options that you’ll frequently use. 

Note: All screenshots are taken from Adobe Photoshop CC 2021 Mac version. Windows or other versions might look different. 

I’ll explain the basics of some of the layer panel options I pointed out in the screenshot above starting with the most essential Create a new Layer button.  

When you click Create a New Layer, a new empty layer will be created. This is the content layer I mentioned earlier. You can add any objects like text, shapes, or images to this layer. Each time you click, a new layer will show above the existing layer. 

Tips: You can also select the content you want to create and add to the canvas. A new layer will automatically be created. For example, if you select the Type Tool and click on the canvas, a text layer will appear on the Layers panel.

Another layer type is the adjustment layer. When you click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon, you will see many options, and you can choose the adjustment you need to make. 

It’s often used to manipulate image colors and lighting or add effects to an existing image. 

Tips: You can simply click and drag up and down to change the position of the layers.

The fx (Add a layer style) icon is used to add effects to the layers. Similar to adding an adjustment layer, when you click Add a layer style, you’ll see many Blending Options. 

You can add multiple styles to your layer. 

For example, I just added a Color Overlay to my flower and changed its color to black. 

The Layer Mask is a deeper concept, but basically, a layer mask controls the transparency of specific areas of a layer. When you paint or erase on a layer mask, it changes the opacity of the original image of the layer. 

Tips: Don’t forget to adjust the opacity of the brush before you paint.  

Delete layer literally means what it says. You can select any layer or mask and click the Delete layer button to remove the unwanted layers or masks or you can directly drag the layer to the trash bin icon. 

Not sure if you want to delete it? You can click on the eye (view/hide layer) icon to hide the layer to see how the image looks without this layer. 

As you add more layers, you need to pay attention to which layer you’re working on to avoid messing up with the other layers, so this is when the lock/unlock option comes in handy. 

When you lock the layer, you wouldn’t be able to modify it, which ensures that you don’t erase or move anything by accident. 

Grouping layers also help to organize your workflow. You can select multiple layers and drag them to the Layer Group icon. Don’t worry if you make a mistake, layers can be dragged in and out from the groups. 

Tips: Hold the Command/Ctrl and click on layers to select multiple layers.

Moving up to the top of the Layers panel. 

You can use the Layer Filter to search for the layer you are trying to find. It’s very useful when you have lots of layers. For example, I select the filter Name, and I search for color, only the layer that’s color-related shows up.

The Blend Modes option is quite useful when it comes to special effect poster design. There are many mode options you can choose and it affects how the layer will show on the layer underneath. 

Now you might get a bit confused about the difference between Opacity and Fill because both control the transparency. The difference is Opacity controls the transparency of the entire layer while Fill only adjusts the opacity of the pixels. 

By now you should have a better understanding of the Photoshop Layers panel. I do have a couple more tips to share with you. 

Final Tips

There’s one last option on the Layers panel that I didn’t mention above, which is the Lock All layers option. 

It’s not what you would usually do during your work process but I suggest you do it when you share your files with others to avoid editing by mistake. If you need to send your PSD file to print or share with others, it’s not a bad idea to use this option. 

Speaking of locking layers, another tip I want to share with you is that it’s always better to lock the layers that you’re done working on because sometimes when you click on the canvas, it’s easy to move from one layer to another when you have multiple layers. 

Of course, it’s good to have multiple layers and I do encourage you to put different elements on different layers. Just pay attention to which layer you are working on.

About hannah
Hannah works as a website designer for a digital agency based in the UK. She has over 15 years of experience using Photoshop and has been using it daily since 2005.

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  • Nirav

    Very very useful info. With systematically and easly to understand style thank you so much for your effort for us. You make the difficult work very simple. Thanks.

  • Jen

    Thanks for this tutorial. It has helped me understand layers.

  • hannah

    That’s great. I’m really pleased I could help 🙂

  • Sageek

    I didn’t know layers are s powerful tool to learn until I came here

  • hannah

    Thanks for your comment, layers is definitely a good area to look into as it will be useful for a great deal of Photoshop processes.