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Working with Layers in Adobe Photoshop

In the sample chapter from The Adobe Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers, author Scott Kelby explains the power of layers in Adobe Photoshop. Kelby walks readers through the basics of working with layers, making it easy to add, reorder, and delete layers to create stunning images.

This chapter is from the book

Okay, it’s another chapter and another opportunity to provide an invisible chapter name from a movie or song (though I don’t think we’ve actually named any chapters after a song so far). Ya know, this process of writing chapter intros is more complicated than you’d think, and it usually takes longer to write one of these chapter intros than it does to write one of the tutorials in a chapter. The reason is: it doesn’t really matter if the tutorials work or not because, at this point, you’ve already bought the book (and more often than not, they don’t work at all, but that’s not why you bought the book. It’s for these intros). But, these chapter intros are complex. They have to be spell-checked and need approximately 70% of the grammar to be at least in the ballpark, plus they need commas and stuff, and well, quite frankly, they’re a lot of trouble. Writing these intros is a process, and I have to be in the right frame of mind to write at this low/high level. So, if you’re thinking that when I write these, I’m sitting in my wife’s art studio in a cozy chair, with a throw blanket, with my feet up and a cold glass of Diet Coke on ice within reach on a small side table, with the dogs curled up napping on the floor as a warm instrumental jazz Spotify playlist is playing softly in the background, and sunlight fills the room on a warm Florida day, boy are you way off. Geesh, you don’t know me at all, and that’s disappointing because here we are at, what is this, like Chapter 5, and I thought by now we’d be close, like best buds. Well, to give you a peek into what my writing life is really like (so we can bond over it), here’s how I write these intros: First, I’m usually in a national park, probably Yosemite, and I’m sitting cross-legged under a tree, wearing a hand-woven Guatemalan pancho, with Yosemite falls roaring gently in the background, as a fawn scampers by after picking up the acorns and apples I had carefully laid out for her. The soundtrack for my writing is “Fantasia de Mon Triste” from La Compagna played on the lute. I nibble on wild berries, walnuts, and other healthy snacks as I sip cool, fresh water from the falls in a hand-crafted, eco-friendly cup carved from a burl of a birch tree. One reason the chapter intro writing process takes so long is that I don’t write on my laptop. I exclusively write by hand using a Caran d’Ache Ecridor retro palladium-coated fountain pen on crisp, white, feathery sheets of A4-sized Clairefontaine Triomphe stationery with a thickness of 90g/m2. So, if that’s what you were picturing when you think of me writing these chapter intros, you totally “get me.” This closeness we share is sometimes scary. It’s often hard to know where you start and I begin. #truth

Getting Started with Layers

Layers are one of the most powerful features in Photoshop because they do so much. A layer lets you add something on top of your image and position it wherever you’d like. For example, say you’d like to add a graphic or type to a wedding book page, or you’d like to blend two photos together for a fine art effect, you can do this with layers. Plus, we use layers for everything from fixing problems to special effects. Here are the basics on how layers work:

Step One:

Open an image and if you look over in the Layers panel (it’s found under the Window menu if it’s not already open), it will appear as the Background layer (as seen here). Let’s add some type here to appear over our image.

Step Two:

Get the Horizontal Type tool (T) from the Toolbox (as shown here), then click on your image and start typing. This creates a Type layer and you can see this over in the Layers panel (it’s the one stacked above the Background layer; the letter “T” thumbnail lets you know at a glance that this is a Type layer). Type in the phrase “always and forever…” (as shown here). The font I’m using is called “Cezanne” from the font developer P22, but you can use any script font you’d like (you choose your font and font size from the Options Bar near the top of the interface. You’ll see a font pop-up menu and a size field there where you can type in the point size you’d like. You can also choose the color here).

Step Three:

Once you’ve got your type in place, it’s floating above the background on its own separate layer, so you can easily reposition it by switching to the Move tool in the Toolbox and just clicking-and-dragging it (the Move tool is the topmost tool in the Toolbox). If you look at the type here, the left side of it is kind of hard to read because it blends in with the sofa, so let’s put a white bar behind the type to make it stand out. To add a new blank layer, click on the Create a New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel (it’s circled here in red). Now, get the Rectangular Marquee tool (M) from the Toolbox and click-and-drag out a thin, wide rectangle from side to side. Make it a little larger than the text, like you see here. Next, we want to fill this rectangle with white, so we need to set white as our Foreground color.

Step Four:

An easy way to do that is to first set your Foreground and Background colors to their default settings by pressing the D key. That makes black your Foreground color and white your Background color. However, we need to swap those two colors, so white is the Foreground color and black is the Background color (you can see their swatches near the bottom of the Toolbox). To do that, just press the X key. Now, to fill our rectangular selection with white, press Option-Delete (PC: Alt-Backspace), and then Deselect the selection by pressing Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D). This white bar now covers our type because it’s “above” our Type layer in the Layers panel (the bride image is at the bottom of the layer stack, the Type layer is on top of that, and the white bar is above the Type layer, so it covers it up). We need the white bar to appear behind our Type layer, not covering it up, so we just need to change the order of the layers.

Step Five:

Go to the Layers panel, click on the top layer (the white bar; Layer 1) and drag it down below the Type layer. Now, the type is visible again because the Type layer is at the top of the layer stack (as seen here, in the Layers panel). So, the stacking order has changed. The bride is still on the Background layer, the white bar layer is in the middle now, and the Type layer is on top. Let’s go ahead and rename Layer 1 (the white bar), so it’s easier to keep track of. In the Layers panel, double-click directly on the words “Layer 1” and it highlights so you can type in a new name (I named mine “White Bar.” I know. How original). By the way, Type layers automatically name themselves with the first few words you typed, so you don’t have to rename them unless you really want to.

Step Six:

We could leave the white bar solid white, but one of the nice features of layers is the ability to change their opacity. Let’s make that white bar a bit transparent, so you can see the image behind it. It will still do its job of making the type easier to read, but it won’t block as much of the photo if it’s a bit see-through. To do this, go near the top right of the Layers panel and you’ll see an Opacity field. By default, it reads 100%, but if you click on the little down-facing arrow to the right of its field, a slider appears and you can drag that slider to the left to lower the Opacity of that white bar (here, I lowered it to 60%). Now you can see through that white bar a bit, so it’s not covering as much of the image on the Background layer.

Step Seven:

It seems like our type and our white bar are maybe a little too high up in the image, so let’s fix that. Get the Move tool (V) from the Toolbox (it’s circled here in red), and in the image window (not in the Layers panel; it’s already our active layer), click directly on the white bar and drag it straight downward a couple of inches or so (like you see here). By the way, to make it drag perfectly straight down, press-and-hold the Shift key while you drag. Next, we’ll do the same thing with our Type layer.

Step Eight:

To move the Type layer, we’ll have to go to the Layers panel and click on that layer to make it the active layer (so things we do now will affect the Type layer, and not that white bar layer where we had been working). Once you click on the Type layer, with the Move tool still selected, click-and-drag the type on the image straight downward, so it’s over the white bar again. Now that we have it down there, let’s try something different: If you drag the text over to the right a bit, so it’s fully over her dress (like you see here), we don’t need that white bar at all, so let’s get rid of it. We can either hide it from view by clicking on the eye icon to the left of the layer’s thumbnail in the Layers panel, or we can delete it by hitting the Delete (PC: Backspace) key, or we can click-and-drag that layer down to the trash can icon at the bottom of the Layers panel (shown circled here in red). Okay, there ya have it—the basics of working with layers. Now you know how to add new layers, add a Type layer, reorder your layers, change their opacity, and delete them. We’re off and running.

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