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The Advantages of Adjustment Layers

Before we really dive into color, we need to spend two minutes with the Adjustments palette. Of all the enhancements in Elements 8, the Adjustments palette was at the top of the list, because it streamlined our workflow so dramatically that even if you had never used adjustment layers before, you had to start working with them. In fact, from this point in the book on, we’re going to try to use adjustment layers every chance we get, because of all the advantages they bring. Here’s a quick look at them and why we need them:

Advantage One

Undos That Live Forever

By default, Elements keeps track of the last 50 things you’ve done in the Undo History palette (from the Window menu, choose Undo History to open it), so if you need to undo a step, or two, or three, etc., you can press Ctrl-Z (Mac: Command-Z) up to 50 times. But, when you close your document, all those undos go away. However, when you make an edit using an adjustment layer (like a Levels adjustment), you can save your image as a layered file (just save it in Photoshop format), and your adjustment layers are saved right along with it. You can reopen that document days, weeks, or even years later, click on that adjustment layer, and either undo or change that Levels (or whatever other one you used) adjustment. It’s like an undo that lives forever.

Advantage Two

Built-In Masks

Each adjustment layer comes with a built-in layer mask, so you can easily decide which parts of your photo get the adjustment just by painting. If you want to keep an area of your photo from having the adjustment, just get the Brush tool (B) and paint over it in black. There’s more on layer masks to come. They offer tremendous flexibility, and since they don’t actually affect the pixels in your image, they’re always undoable.

Advantage Three

Blend Modes

When you apply an adjustment layer, you get to use the layer blend modes. So if you want a darker version of your adjustment, you can just change the layer blend mode of your adjustment layer to Multiply. Want a brighter version? Change it to Screen. Want to make a Levels adjustment that doesn’t affect the skin tone as much? Change it to Luminosity. Sweet!

Advantage Four

Everything Stays Live

Back in previous versions of Elements, when you created an adjustment layer (let’s say a Levels adjustment layer, for example), it would bring up the floating Levels dialog (as seen here). While it was onscreen, the rest of Elements was frozen—you couldn’t make changes or do anything else until you closed the Levels dialog by either applying your adjustment or clicking Cancel. But thanks to the Adjustments palette, everything stays live—you just go to the Adjustments palette (which will open when you add an adjustment layer) and make your changes there. There is no OK or Apply button, so you can change anything anytime. This will make more sense in the next step.

  • Step One: The best way to understand this whole “live” thing is to try it, so go open any photo (it really doesn’t matter which one), then click on the Create New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette (it’s the half-black/half-white circle) and choose Levels from the pop-up menu to open the Adjustments palette. Rather than bringing up the Levels dialog in front of your image (and freezing everything else), the Adjustments palette displays the Levels controls, so you can make your adjustments while everything stays live—you can adjust your Levels sliders, go up to the Layers palette and change the blend mode of a layer, or paint a few brush strokes, then grab another slider and adjust it. There’s no OK button, and again, everything stays live. This is bigger than it sounds (ask anyone who has used an earlier version of Elements).
  • Step Two: Let’s delete our Levels adjustment layer by clicking-and-dragging it onto the Trash icon at the bottom of the Layers palette, and then let’s add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer by clicking on the Create New Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the palette again, but this time choose Hue/Saturation from the pop-up menu. When the Hue/Saturation controls appear in the Adjustments palette, drag the Saturation slider all the way over to the left to remove the color, for the look you see here.
  • Step Three: Now, the way adjustment layers work is this: they affect every layer below them. So, if you have five layers below your active layer, all five layers will have their color desaturated like this. However, if you want this adjustment layer to just affect the one single layer directly below the active layer (and not the others), then click on the clipping icon (it’s the first icon on the left at the bottom of the Adjustments palette, shown circled here in red). This clips the adjustment layer to the layer directly beneath it and now the adjustment layer will only affect that layer.
  • Step Four: There are a some other options when working with adjustment layers: To edit any adjustment layer you’ve already created, just click on it once in the Layers palette and its controls will appear in the Adjustments palette. To hide any adjustment layer you’ve created, click on the Eye icon (either at the bottom of the Adjustments palette, or to the left of the adjustment layer itself in the Layers palette). To reset any adjustment layer controls to their default settings, click the round arrow icon (the fourth from the left) at the bottom of the Adjustments palette. To see a before/after of just your last adjustment layer change, click the icon to the left of the Reset icon.

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