Publishers of technology books, eBooks, and videos for creative people

Home > Articles > Adobe Photoshop > Technique

Working Smarter with Photoshop's Adjustment Layers

The catch phrase "work smarter, not harder" could have been written about Photoshop adjustment layers. If you're not using this Photoshop tool, you're probably costing yourself a lot of time. Adjustment layers are the smart way to apply many of Photoshop's most-often-used adjustments because they don't permanently change the image itself. Imagine being able to undo, remove, or alter an adjustment such as levels at any time without losing all your subsequent work. Helen Bradley shows you how to save time and effort and get better results using Photoshop adjustment layers.
Like this article? We recommend

The catch phrase "work smarter, not harder" could have been written about Photoshop adjustment layers. Adjustment layers are a smart tool to use when editing photos—they can save you effort because they don’t permanently alter your image, and they’re editable and removable at any time. Adjustment layers can be used as an alternative to making many of the adjustments you typically make using tools on the Image > Adjustments menu in Photoshop—including levels, brightness and contrast, and hue and saturation adjustments.

When you use an adjustment layer to edit your image you’re making a change that can be permanent or not—the choice is up to you. By contrast, if you make the same adjustment using the regular adjustment tools, the changes are permanent and can’t be undone without winding back all the changes you’ve made since.

By now you’re probably wondering how you can create and work with an adjustment layer. And are simple photo fixes all you can do with them? This article will explain how to create adjustment layers and how to use them to edit your images. You’ll also learn how to use an adjustment layer mask to control the area of the image that an adjustment is applied to and how this area can also be edited at any time.

Creating an Adjustment Layer

To create a new adjustment layer, open an image with only a background layer, choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer, and then choose the type of adjustment to make using it (for example, a Levels adjustment, as shown in Figure 1). Although you can change the settings for the adjustment layer later on, you can’t change the type of adjustment used on that layer.

Figure 1

Figure 1 There are 10 adjustments you can make—the Levels adjustment is selected here.

After you select the adjustment, you can name the layer, if desired. Click OK to continue. Depending on the type of adjustment you have selected, a dialog box will appear that allows you to configure the settings for that adjustment. In the case of a Levels adjustment, the Levels dialog box appears. When you have configured the settings, click OK to apply it to the image.

The new adjustment layer appears in the Layers palette above the background layer (see Figure 2). The adjustment layer has two thumbnails: the Layer thumbnail and the Layer Mask thumbnail. (You’ll learn more about using the mask shortly.) Notice that you can view or hide the adjustment layer’s effect on the image by clicking the eye-shaped icon on the left of the layer thumbnail. If desired, you can remove the adjustment layer by dragging and dropping it on the Delete Layer icon at the foot of the Layers palette.

Figure 2

Figure 2 The new adjustment layer appears in the Layer palette and shows a Layer thumbnail and a Layer Mask thumbnail.

To alter the adjustment settings, double-click the adjustment layer thumbnail to open the appropriate dialog box (in this case, the Levels dialog box). You can now alter the settings you created earlier and click OK to return to editing the image.

An adjustment layer affects all layers below the adjustment layer in the layer stack. If it is positioned between two layers, it affects the one below it, but has no effect on the one above it (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3 The adjustment layer affects only the layers below it; it has no effect on the right side of the image, which is on the layer above it.

If you want to limit an adjustment layer’s effect to only one layer, you can do this by creating a clipping grouping. First, ensure that the adjustment layer is positioned immediately above the layer that it should affect. Hold your mouse over the border between the adjustment layer and the layer below it in the Layers palette. If you’re using Photoshop CS2, press Control+Alt+G to create a clipping mask (or Option+Command+G on the Mac). In earlier versions of Photoshop, the command is Control+G (or Command+G on the Mac).

This clipping mask limits the affect of the adjustment layer to the base layer in the clipping group. Because this clipping group is only two layers, it’s the one below the adjustment layer (see Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4 Use a clipping mask to limit the affect of the adjustment layer to the layer at the bottom of the clipping group—here it’s the inset image.

Click the Adjustment Layer thumbnail in the Layers palette and you’ll see that adjustment layers have the same blend modes and opacity settings available to them as other layers in the layer stack.

Peachpit Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from Peachpit and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about Peachpit products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information

To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.


Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites; develop new products and services; conduct educational research; and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.


If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information

Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information

If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at and we will process the deletion of a user's account.


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by Adobe Press. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive:

Sale of Personal Information

Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents

California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure

Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact

Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice

We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020