If there’s one feature of Photoshop we take for granted, it’s Layers. This feature lets us use multiple layers to create a composition, which can add a lot of value to the process. This month, we’ll stretch your understanding of layers with some lesser-known techniques.
To begin, choose a handful of digital photos and copy them into a test folder. We’ll show you how to use layers to combine several separate snapshots into one coherent image.
Set Up The Experiment
Because we’re experimenting, let’s start with a large new image file-one with plenty of room for playing around. Click New from the File menu and create a file that’s 2,000 pixels wide and 1,000 pixels high. Keep the file’s resolution low, such as at 72ppi (pixels per inch). Also, keep the background transparent. Before you start working in your new file, open the Window menu and make sure Tools, Options, and Layers are showing.
Open a test image, select an object or person within the image, and copy the selection. (Make your selections using the Marquee or Lasso tools or the Select/All command.) Then paste that selection into the new file you’ve just created. Save the file in the proprietary Photoshop format, PSD (the only format that saves layers). Please note that below Save Options, the Layers checkbox is selected by default.
Add & Arrange
In the Layers palette, click the Create A New Layer icon to create two or more new layers. Next, copy and paste a new image into each layer. Select the Move tool from the Tools bar and select the Auto Select Layer checkbox from the Options bar. Doing so lets you click to move edited images without first selecting them in the Layers palette. (You may wish to deselect Show Bounding Box, which can be annoying.)
Use your mouse to move selections around in the large image file’s window. To change the arrangement of your layers, drag and drop them above or below one another in the Layers palette. To get a better view of your layers in the palette, right-click an empty area of the palette and select Large.
If you need to create a copy of a layer, simply select it, right-click, and choose Duplicate Layer.
Layer styles. You can use Photoshop’s Drop Shadow tools to create the perfect lighting angle, distance, spread, and size. Just click any layer, click the Add A Layer Style icon, choose Drop Shadow, use the tools in the middle of the dialog box to make your adjustments, and click OK. (If the other images are in your way, click the eye icons to hide their layers.) You’ll see a lowercase "f" icon beneath the newly styled layer. Click the arrow next to the "f" icon to toggle the layer description off or on.
To apply the Drop Shadow style you just created to another layer, right-click the layer and select Copy Layer Style. Then, select another layer, right-click, and select Paste Layer Style. You can even drag and drop a style from one layer to another. To remove a layer style, right-click the layer and select Clear Layer Style.
Link layers. The purpose of linking layers is to move and transform two or more layers together. Select any layer in the Layers palette and click the empty square area (next to the eye icon) of any other layer. You’ll see a chain icon appear, indicating these two layers are linked. Select the Move tool. Use your mouse to move the layers in unison. Or, with two layers linked, open the Edit menu and click Transform and Rotate. Again, the images should move together. You can click the chain icon to unlink them.
Fill in your background. To create a uniform background for a multilayered composition, use the Fill Layer option. In the palette, select the bottom layer and click the black-and-white circle icon. Three fill types are available: Solid Color, Gradient, or Pattern. Select the Solid Color option, choose a color, and click OK. Gradient fills also are fun to experiment with, so don’t be afraid to try other options.
Adjust the image’s color and tone. Even more interesting are adjustment layers, especially for effects across multiple layers. Select the topmost layer in the palette, click the black-and-white circle icon, select Levels, and use the slider to lighten all the layers. You also can try other adjustment options, such as Posterize, for other cool effects.
Merge & Flatten
To keep your image’s file size manageable after working with multiple layers, merge the layers when you finish tweaking them. Click the eye icons to make all the layers you’d like to merge visible, open the Layer menu, and choose Merge Visible.
When you’re ready to save the file in its final version, it’s time to flatten the image. This action deletes hidden, unused layers and merges all the layers into one, greatly reducing file size. Because you’ll lose the ability to edit the flattened layers, be sure to save a copy of the PSD file first. After doing so, you can select Flatten Image from the Layer menu.
Now that you’ve put a few practice layers to good use, you can start experimenting with these new techniques.