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The Layers Panel

Lesson 19 from: Foundations of Adobe Photoshop CC

Dave Cross

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Lesson Info

19. The Layers Panel

Lesson Info

The Layers Panel

As soon as you start having layers, the most important thing to get comfortable with is the layer's panel. Way back at the top in one of the first segments, I talked about the layout of everything and I mentioned at the time, the biggest panel I have is layers. This is why, because I spend half my life, more than half my life in here, I'm in Photoshop because everything revolves around layers. So rather than trying to have multiple panels open for swatches, and libraries, and blah, blah, blah, I keep those collapsed so I can see the layer's panel as big as I can. Now it's quite possible that when you first start working with layers it looks like this. And you have teeny, tiny thumbnails, which is okay, another reason for naming your layers by the way. That can be useful the more layers you have. I started making my thumbnails bigger from a teaching point. It was easier to see, but then I realized, I just like it too because sometimes, I've got to be honest, I forget to name a layer. So...

if I see little, tiny thumbnails that say, layer two, copy six. I'm like, I have no idea what that is, but if I look at the thumbnail I can see what it is. So that's just a matter of going to this fly up menu on the side of the layer's panel and choosing panel options and making them bigger. Again, a personal preference but especially when you're first starting with layers, I think this is useful too. I'd rather scroll up and down a little bit in layer's panel to really see what I'm doing. So, as we're in this panel, there's a few things to remember. The first one is, as part of that checklist again, is to make sure you're on the correct layer first before you go and do anything. So if I decide I do wanna move that white box up or make it skinny or something, I have to make sure I'm on the correct layer and right now I'm not. Even though I might take my move tool again and it looked like I positioned it right on top of that white box, I have to look at the layer's panel and go, but that's not the active layer. The active layer is the shield layer. So I'm gonna hide this writing layer for a second by clicking on the little eyeball. This is another advantage of this whole non-destructiveness. I didn't delete the layer because I might want it. I just hid it for now. So you always have the ability to... A great way to experiment Photoshop is add more layers than you think you'll need and just show and hide them and see what combination you like and eventually you may decide to throw away a layer. I tend to keep them a while just in case someone says, "don't you have that version that has the such and such?" And I'm like, well yes I do. But I wanna show you something that's kind of interesting, is that right now I have just the shield layer active. So of course if I take my move tool only that layer will move but if I really like the relationship between the shield layer and the white box, I wanna move them both together and to make sure both of those layers are active in my layer's panel. And I can do that. This layer is already selected. If I hold down the command key on the Macintosh or control for Windows and I have to do that because they're not contiguous. There's another layer in between. If they were right beside each other I could use the shift key but because they're separated... So now you can see how both layers are highlighted. Now some people who don't quite understand layers and non-destructiveness would have merged the two layers together and are to move them as if they were one but now you just painted yourself in a corner. This way, I can take my move tool and I can reposition them but then as soon as I continue they're still separate or they remain separate. So everything revolves around the layer's panel. When we talk about other things like change in the opacity or adding something to it, it all is in there. So everything is part of the same process. Now, I'm gonna go back here and make my white box again to show you a thought process that I would suggest we think about a little bit in Photoshop. So I'm gonna add a new layer again, take my marquis tool and do that white box. In my mind I'm thinking, what I really want here is I want to end up with a white rectangle but that's semi see-through. So I want it to be kind of see-through to the background. So with that in mind, one approach would be to go to the fill command which is one of the ways we add colors as we'll see, and say I want to fill it at 50% opacity. Which is a good theory but I'll explain why I think there's a better way to do it. And I click okay and now I can see how that box is now nicely 50% see-through. The problem with that, potentially is now I've set the ceiling at 50%. If I decide later on I wish it was 70, oh well, because you can't put the opacity up when you filled it at that setting. It's just like if I took the paintbrush and I painted at 50%, I can no longer get it higher than that. So what I would suggest the way we think is part of that end up with philosophy is always, fill, paint, whatever it is at 100% complete and then use the layers to lower it, because in the layer's panel you can go up and down. A lot of people just say, well I know I want it 50%. Well right now you might know that but you might look at it 20 minutes from now and go, maybe it should have been 60. Well as soon as you filled it at 50, there's no easy way to change. Oh I'm gonna start again. So what I would suggest that we do for anything of this nature is to always start off keeping everything at a 100% opacity and then in the layer's panel come over here to where it says opacity and lower it down this way. And the advantage of doing that, is like other things we've talked about so far, that's just where it's at for now. I didn't click okay. I didn't say, make it 53% permanently. For now it's 53%. The reason I like doing this is because anytime you're working in Photoshop it might look great right now but if you then save at as a jpeg or you're printing, and go, "ah it's a little too see-through." At least I know I can go back up again. Because technically that layer has the ability to go all the way back to a 100%. And that's just a matter of changing this opacity slider to put it back again. I can put it back again now or four years from now, because it's a separate layer that will always remember its opacity setting. Even though you might be a 100% convinced that you just know that box is going to be semi see-through 50%, I would avoid the temptation to fill it at 50%, fill it at a 100% and change it in the layer's panel. It takes one extra step but then it opens up all these different possibilities. And it could be something not just not a simple as a white box but something much more complicated you then wanna use on a different document. If that other document you want at a 100% but you filled it at 50, you're kind of stuck because you can't go up. There's always ways around it and I wanna make this point because every so often I'll show something and say there's no easy way to fix it and I'll often get follow up messages saying, "well you could always," and then they show the 17 steps. Yes you're right. You could take 17 steps to get it back but I don't wanna do that, I'm too lazy. So, I'm trying to make the point that anytime you can set yourself up for success rather than have to fix it later through some convoluted work-around, this would be better. So let's put this back and call it white box, again. Now again, it's not a requirement to name your layers and I know that now that I've been using Photoshop a little bit, I don't tend to name my layers as much as I used to, unless I know I'm sharing with someone else and they're probably going to get confused by my setup. But it's really, at first, just for your own purposes so you get used to doing things a certain way. But, keep in mind that throughout the process you always wanna make sure, am I on the correct layer? So I wanna move this shield up again so when I click on that shield and take my move tool, and drag it up here, and stick it there, and go back to the white box, maybe lower the opacity. Now I've made some changes to this so I'm gonna hit save. Remember, it's started life as a jpeg so it's automatic, and say we're gonna have to save it as a PSD because now you have layers, which is perfectly fine. I want that. So I'm gonna save it. I don't even have to change the name because the extension is going to be different so that tells me this is my layered files. This is the reason, as I said before, that I like to use PSD as my file format. So now, moving forward, anything that I do I just hit save and it updates. Notice that I have that one layer called writing that's still hidden. It's gonna remain hidden until I show it again but it's still there just in case I decide, well maybe I do want that. I'm gonna look at that later on. If you think there's even a remote chance of using a layer again later on, just keep it in there. It's not gonna add a whole lot to your file size for something like this but it means, instead of having to redo it later on, you don't have to. Of course, you can always say, I don't really like that. I'm just gonna hit delete and then it's gone. And that's fine too but that's a decision you have to make. In this case, I deleted it so now I probably hit save to say, I know I don't want it there so now I've updated the PSD file with one less layer. Now let's go and get this other photo. And again just to kind of revisit what we talked about before. Get rid of this other one. A habit that I think is a good one to get into is to, so you don't get any surprises, is to look at the relative enlargement size, view size. Right now this document's saying 50%. The one I'm putting it into says 22%. So even though on the screen this photo looks almost as big as the other one, it's not because that's the viewing size. And I say that because I often meet people who say, "they look the same size to me." But they weren't really looking closely at the view size to realize they weren't the same at all. So once again, I wanna get this image onto that other one. I'm gonna use that same drag and drop method which is really click, hold, drag, wait, pull down, release and see how much smaller that is. I automatically created a layer so I didn't have to do anything but of course it's just called layer one so I would call it something else. Small photo perhaps. The name is not important, it's just something that so you know what it is so it's easier to keep track of. Whenever you're adding a new layer, it's gonna be added in that stack of layers depending on where you currently were. In other words, let me step backwards here and get rid of that layer. See how the white box layer is currently my active layer, so when I drag this one in, it's automatically above that in the stack which is not a huge deal because you can always move it down but the reason I point that out is I've had people who are a little bit thrown off because they had a really big layer, active but they were below that when they dragged in so they thought it didn't work. I dragged an image and I can't see it because it's in the wrong stack of the order and they have to bring it to the top. So if ever you can't see something, just look at your layer stack in the layer's panel and realize, oh wait, they're in the wrong order. I need to drag this down or that up or whatever it is. The only thing you can't do, which is okay because it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense anyway, is to drag something below the background layer. First off, if you did, you wouldn't be able to see it because it would be covered up, but also why would you, because it's the background. So when I say drag something to the bottom, it means the bottom immediately above the background layer and that's because the background is locked. If you did decide, for some reason that you were doing something where you're gonna add more canvas size or something and it made sense to move the background layer further up in the stack then you have to unlock it. (chuckles) I shouldn't tell stories about Adobe but anyway, I won't. So to unlock the background layer, you just click on the padlock and it's gone. Lets just say, a while ago, it was a little more complicated than that. It was a much convoluted things that really can I just not. And one year they said, "you can now click on "the lock symbols." I was like, thank you, finally. So now it means I can move this layer up or down in the stack but of course because it's so big it's gonna completely cover up everything else so it wouldn't make a lot of sense in this case but that's, for some circumstances, if you're working on a bigger file perhaps or you add more canvas size or something, but anyway, the bottom line is, when you unlock the background layer, it always defaults to the name layer zero. Who knows why. That's just what it does. I'm going to make sure I don't do that again. So the other thing we can do, and this is personal preference but this is why... Let me rename this layer so I can demonstrate this better. I'm gonna move this so I have all these layers in the same place. I personally find it just as easy as a habit to go look at the layer's panel to make sure I'm in the correct spot but there's another option which is kind of interesting in some cases. You might find it useful in some circumstances rather than looking at the layer's panel. Earlier, in a previous segment I talked about modifier keys like option or all, things like that. There's another one that's kind of interesting in Photoshop, it's right click if you have a mouse that does that. On the Macintosh we don't have that. It would be control click. If you don't have a Macintosh mouse that gets a right click get one because it's so much easier than always remembering control click, but anyway, control, click or right-click in Photoshop creates this thing or pops up this thing called context sensitive menu which means it gives you choices that will change depending on the situation. So for example, right now I have several layers here, and if I position my mouse right over here on top of the nine and right or control click, it's allowing me to choose the layer right here on the screen. So if you don't wanna look over at the layer's panel, you can do it this way. This also demonstrates however the reason to name your layers because you get a pop-up list that says, layer one, layer nine, layer seven, layer eight, and you're like, yeah I don't really know. But just to show you what I mean about the importance of this context sensitive thing for a moment, because this is sort of layer-to-layers but it's an important note across the board I don't wanna forget to say, that one of the challenges of Photoshop is depending on, as soon as you make a change, like in this case I've suddenly made a selection that wasn't there before, now my choices are different than they were just two seconds ago. So instead of always trying to remember what are those choices and where are they? Now that I have a selection, if I right click, look at all these things that are popping up here. These are under, two, three, four, five, six, seven different menus I'd have to go to to find these operations. But because I've made a selection Adobe has said, here are the most common operation as you can do when you have a selection. So that saves you from having to go, I think it's under this menu and no maybe it's under here because it gathers them all together. So the idea of a context sensitive menu is gonna give you choices that are relevant to what you're currently doing. So because I had a selection it gave me way different choices and when I only had layers, it's like, well the only real option is which layer do you want? If I was using the paintbrush, it gave me different options because there are different options to do with painting. So if you're ever working on something, you just wanna say, I just wanna get an idea of what I can do next, this idea of right clicking and popping up a menu of choices, all these different things we can do just means saves me from having to go and remember, okay, I think this function is under select menu maybe? It doesn't matter. I don't need to know where it is because it's right there gathered together. Sometimes when you right click, you'll see hardly anything because there's not a lot of choices based on your circumstances. But as another example, let's say I was gonna add a blank layer. I was gonna back to my paintbrush so I tap B for my brush and I want to paint something but I want a different brush. To work with brushes, and we'll get into more detail later on about this, I could go up here to this picker of all these different brushes I have but that means I'd have to leave where I was to choose which brush I want. I don't really want to do that. If my mouse is up here in the top right hand corner and I wanna pick a different brush, guess what? Right or control click there's my brush picker, now I can pick the whatever brush I want. I think it's really small so you can't see it probably. That's interesting, I must have some setting turned on that's not... Because you can see the size of the brush, but anyway. Caps lock. No it's not caps lock. I tried that. That one's working for some reason, anyway. The point is, instead of having to leave where you are, you can do it right at that place. I talked before about the importance of option or all as a way of modifying some operation, this is a great way to be offered choices. So whether it's different menus or in this case brushes or something like that. That's why I say, especially to Mac users, because the Macintosh by default doesn't have a built-in right click, to some degree it can get newer mice that do but if you don't have one, get one. I use my tablet. Sometimes I put my pen setting so it's the same as right clicking but it's a very useful command you can use for lots of things. I was gonna put this bride brush but it would be kind of weird for her to be a bride and class of so I don't think we're gonna go down that road because it's just a little awkward (chuckles). Now, some people look at a bunch of layers and say, well I wanna be as efficient as possible. I know there are some people who play with layers who, it's kind of making their skin crawl a little bit that I have a blank layer there serving no purpose. But I do that deliberately to show you that there's no downside to it. It's not adding any problems to it except potential confusion later, because if you see a layer there, you might think; did I put that there to do something or did I just add a layer and then forget? Which is another reason for naming your layers. If I see a layer that's just called layer something without a name on it, that often suggests I added a layer and then forgot to... I didn't really need it after all. There's no problem to having empty layers just sitting there other than it just adds clutter that's unnecessary. But there's no downside to it. Because some people think; what if I have all these blank layers? Well then you just have extra sheets of plastic that are doing nothing for no purpose.

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Bonus Materials

Adobe Stock Contributor

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Quick Notes Guide
Landscape Image for Practice Edit
Senior Portrait Missing Element for Practice Edit
Senior Portrait With Element for Practice Edit

Ratings and Reviews


I really like Dave's methodical teaching style. Step by step works best for my learning processes. He also has a lovely voice to listen to during his classes, that is important if you have to listen to someone talk for any length of time. I also like the "dance" he does by explaining what he is going to do, then does it, and then comes back to explaining the choices he made and why. Very, very easy to follow him in his straight forward explanations. He increased my understanding of so many tools I use and so many I have never used. Wow! Photoshop with Dave took away a lot of "fear"! (Wish I had a "happy face" to place here!) I bought this class today because I don't think I can get along without it!

Jim Bellomo

I was so lucky to get to attend this class in person here in Seattle. I have been a fan of Dave's for years and own a number of his courses from Creative Live. When this class was announced I almost decided to skip it since it was listed as a "beginners" class but decided that it "might" be worth it. One of the reasons I wanted to take it was that I am self-taught. I had started with Photoshop 5 (not CS5 but 5) about 15 years ago (at least). I figured it I took this class I might learn a little something that would help me in my work. Well, two days later I have 18 pages of handwritten notes, a whole new way to work and it has already paid off in a huge way in my daily workflow. I bill out my hours at around $100 an hour as a graphic designer and marketing person. That means in the two days that I spent 10 hours a day taking the class and commuting to it, it cost me about $2000 in working time. But it didn't. I can guarantee that I am way ahead on this one. I l learned so much. The real world things I learned will pay off for a very long time. Within one day after the class I had already started changing my workflow to be more non-destructive and faster. Dave is an awesome teacher and I can't say enough good things about this class. Even if you think you know Photoshop, you don't. I teach it in my small world but I learned so much.


A writer and an old person (over 60), I rarely use neat exaggerations like "great" or "fantastic," and never say "awesome" in the currently fashionable manner. However, I would call this class both great and excellently planned. Cross is well-spoken and a consummate teacher with a rarely non-irritating voice. It is information packed, clearly presented, well-organized, and extremely helpful. I wish I could afford his others.

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