Photoshop For Beginners: The Power of Layers

Photoshop For Beginners: The Power of Layers

This is the third of a series of tutorials thought for Photoshop beginners. I’ll explain in depth those features that can result difficult to understand for a newbie. In the previous two articles I’ve explained how the pen tool works and some useful extracting techniques.

Today I want to go one step backwards, and deal with Photoshop power core: layers. It’s like to ask: how does Photoshop work? The answer is: with layers. Once understood this concept, everything in Photoshop will be more clear. As always, after a brief introduction, I’ll drive you through a series of micro-tutorials to understand better this matter. Let’s start!

How Photoshop works:

A graphics designer who understands layers mechanism in Photoshop is like a soccer player who understand the offside rule. It’s the key. What are layers and why are them so useful? You have to think in this way: every composition realized in Photoshop is the result of several layers combined together. So a layer can be defined as the fundamental Photoshop unit.

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This example will show you the meaning of what I’m saying. Let’s create a new document in Photoshop (File>New):

In the bottom right you should have the layers window. In case you don’t see it, go to Window>Layers:

Here you can visualize, select and modify all the layers that compose your final result. As you may have noticed, in this moment we have a single white filled layer. Create a new layer by pressing the appropriate button at the bottom of the layers window. Now you can see a new layer, but nothing has changed in your canvas. This is because Photoshop automatically create blank layers.

Set the foreground color to black by clicking on the foreground color thumbnail to open the color picker and selecting black (#000000).

Now grab the Paint bucket tool (G) and click on the canvas to fill it with black. Let’s analyse the layers window: the blank layer is now black. This is because what we do on the canvas affects only the layer which is selected. We have 2 layers, one black and one white. Since the black one is above, it’s displayed while the white one is hidden (layer hierarchy).

Switch the foreground color to yellow (#f9d904) and use the horizontal type tool (T) to write something. Note that Photoshop has automatically created a new type layer:

The background layer is locked (note the padlock on the right of the layer thumbnail). This means it can’t be modified. To unlock the background layer double click on it an hit OK in the window that appears:

Every time you want to prevent a layer from casual adjustments you can lock it by selecting it from the layers window and pressing the lock button.

You can give a title to each layer. This is a good practice in particular when you work with complex compositions. Simply double-click on the layer title in the layers window to re-name it.

Select the bottom layer (the white one), set the foreground color to orange (#eb6e08), grab the paint bucket tool and click to fill. Apparently nothing has changed but the bottom layer is now filled with orange, as you can notice from the layers window.

Select the black layer. Grab the eraser tool (E) and select a round 300px brush:

Click once in the center of the canvas. What happens? Once erased the center of the black layer, a part of the orange one appears.

This is due to layers hierarchy:

In the layers window move the text layer below the black one:

As you may have imagined, a part of the text is covered, while the area below the spot is preserved (layers hierarchy). Right-click on the layers thumbnail and select Blending options. Here we can add some adjustments to the layer. Select “drop shadow” with the following settings (screenshot). In this way we can add depth to the image:

You can add a soft shadow to the text too. In this way you can feel more the sensation to work with 3 different levels one on the top of the other.

Why are layers so useful?

In this mini-exercise I want to show you the usefulness that derives from a correct use of layers. Create a new document in Photoshop and unlock the background layer as we did in the previous tutorial. Grab the brush tool and paint over the canvas:

What does happen if you want to move the brush effect? You’re obliged to move the entire image (brush+white background):

Let’s go back. Instead of painting directly on the white canvas, create a new layer and paint over it:

Seemingly the result doesn’t change. But this time if we try to move only the brush effect…ta daaaaaaa! We can! Because we affect only the layer that contains brushes. So this is the essence of the speech: layers can give you full control on your works. In particular if properly used they allow you to modify any detail of the composition at any moment (full control!). And this is fundamental when you are working on projects composed by 100-200 layers. Always try to create a new layer for every important modification.

The key is organization

As I’ve previously written, titling each layer is a good practice to don’t get lost among your layers. When the amount of layers grow up consistently, you can set them up into groups. To create a group, select the layers from the layers window and go to Layer>Group layers (or press ctrl+G).  Organization is not only a good practice, but something important when you’re dealing with complex projects. For example, tale a look at how I organized the layers of WeGraphics theme layout. Every group contains 10+layers. Do you imagine how the layers windows would look like if I hadn’t use groups???

Hope you’ve understood something useful about how Photoshop works. I’ll work soon on other topic (blending options, masks…) for beginners, so if you have any suggestion, don’t hesitate to use the comments ;-)

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(+add yours)
  1. Sofia

    Thanx!! this was very useful!! keep on the good job :)

    • You’re welcome Sofia ;-)

      • Pallavi


        when i am trying to create the text layer. i.e the 3rd layer. i did as u said. select yellow color and select horizontal tool. a new layer is created. I wrote the text in the layer. but im not seeing it on canvas? why is it so?

      • sonofthesebastiano

        hey bro why don’t you fuck your ass and sex on the beach?

      • ???

        ???? ????

      • Jerome Frasley

        I think I just realized something…for one my wife left me…and she took the cats to which sucks, but I am pretty sure we all new this stuff, thx for helping me figure out I have no life man:(

      • Pen Island

        This tutorial was great but it did not show me how to remove this dick out of my ass…plz help me

      • Jerome Frasley


      • So, guess what happened the other day. It all started on the roof. I was wearing nothing but my girls clothes since she was at a work meeting somewhere in like Europe or some crap like that. Anyway, I read this tutorial and thought I would give it a try. That one step with like the circle and text in the middle, yeah, that part took me like 5 hours to try to figure out, but I had no luck. I decided I needed a break, so I jumped off the roof so I could grab the keys and stuff, but landed the wrong way and ended up twisting my leg. It hurt so bad and I just said “FUCK!!!!” and the pain was just so unbearable and stuff! I figured I should go to the hospital so they can like fix up my leg, but when I got in my car, I attempted to move my foot to accelerate the vehicle, but It just freaking hurt, so I smashed the window, and realized…THIS WAS MY GIRLS CAR!!! I wondered why she hadn’t taken her car instead of mine, but I didn’t have to think of that because…as I crawled out of the car…my girl was standing in front of me, and she looked so pissed…thanks a lot for ruining my life bro…

    • hy,

      thanks… this was very useful… carry on the good job…

  2. Tuntikorn Asawayuthapol

    Nice Tutorial Thank you.

  3. giti

    thank you hust the same

  4. Margarita Thimann

    Sebastiano, I have to congratulate you, I am starting in Photoshop and I found your tutorial very well posted. How I will know when yo start with the “masks and all other steps that you mention on this tutorial?
    Thank you
    Margarita Thimann

    • Hi Margarita,
      Thanks for your kind words. I’m planning to publish 1 tutorials per week. I think the tutorial about mask will be published at the end of this week

      • Mark


        Awesome tutorials – thank you. Looking forward to the Mask tutorial!!


  5. Future Designer

    Sebastiano, your tutorials are so well done. Thanks so much for this!

  6. diva

    thankz sebastiano for a great tut…i’m new to photoshop…this tut really helped me alot…..

  7. Gigi

    Thanks,your tutorials are so well done. Thanks so much for this!

  8. Very nice basic tutorial man. Love the site too!

  9. good one!!!!

  10. Sweet! I already knew this but a great way to get started with Photoshop. Im tired of just following a tutorial and not really knowing what I am doing. Tutorials like this actually are far better than just copying someone elses creation.


  11. great tutorials, I did really understood everything, thx!

  12. Vivian

    Thank you very much! It’s really useful. :)

  13. Guinod

    merci pour ces tutoriels très clairs. Bravo! Continue!!

  14. giazi

    thanks a lot clear!!!

  15. Dean


    Excellent explanation of how layers work in Photoshop!! Very helpful as I begin my journey to learn the software…

  16. Stephen

    Hi Sebastiano!
    Thanks for the well written, interactive tutorial. I am new to PS and did not quite understand Layers… I believe I do now! I’m looking foward to other tutorials. Very neat website with lots of info too.


  17. Hey, Sebastiano!
    I live in Ukraine and I’m translating tutorials for Photoshop on Russian language
    I have a question for you. Can I translate your article and place it on my website, of course, I’ll point a link to the original.

    Thank you, Victoria.

    • Hi Victoria,

      Sorry but re-publication of the entire tutorial/article is prohibited both in english and in any other language.

      • Ok, thanks for your time! And for the answer!

  18. Dhruv Arora

    this is an extremely useful tutorial. thnx for it.

  19. Nisha

    Thank you so much for such a nice tutorial….Really help me a lot
    Keep up the good work

  20. paradise

    it helps a lot .most people make the tutes harder but this is simple work for a beginner.

  21. Jagzy

    Thanks Bro
    I appreciate the way you explain the tutorial very clear and understandable……..As a
    beginner the tutorial really fits and can give more design technique for me as a beginner…

    Great Job well done bro
    Keep it up.

  22. Mohd. Izhar

    Thanks , i want to became a graphics designer. kindly assist me

  23. Tina

    Does this work for photo images as well?

  24. Virginia

    Your tutorial was clear and really explained the importance of layers. It also had good tips about naming and grouping them. I am a newbie, but really want to learn all about Photoshop.
    Thanks for your help,

  25. mia

    i am just a beginner n ur tutorial was a big help…..

  26. kyaemone

    Thank you so much for your tutorials.It is very helpful to me and learn easily.


  27. Hola! Gracias me sirvio mucho ya habia estado hace tiempo usando el photoshop pero gracias por el contenido me ayudaste mucho!

  28. This was the most helpful blog I have ever read that is helping me get started with Photoshop. I just got the program and I aspire to be an excellent graphic designer. I look forward to reading future blogs.

  29. Excellent tutorial – the first tutorial about photoshop layers that I can really follow clearly and understand!!


  30. Chassey

    Thank’s for the effort, but this did not help me at all

  31. CoNiGMa

    Nice tutorial. What font is that you used and where’d you get it? I love it!

  32. Krystal

    I’m going to try and apply this tutorial to the project I’ve been trying to finish for a month now. I’m looking to take photos of my children that they are actually smiling real smiles in and super impose them to a background that is professional looking. In other words, I want professional photos for amateur prices. So far, I’ve been hopelessly unsuccessful. If I get it this time, I will be forever indebted to you! Fingers are officially crossed xxx. Thank you in advance!

  33. Dee

    Thanks, this was a very helpful and clear tutorial

  34. Truly awesome! Have been looking for this kind of info for ages to brush up on skills learnt years ago. Great, clear instructions and I don’t feel like a total imbecile ;-)

  35. Imran

    It was really great and very easy to understand article. I have just started the photoshop and was wondering here and there in search for some good stuff. Thanks for such good stuff. When are you putting some more stuff on layer mask, blending and others for beginners.

  36. JYOTI

    Very nice tutorial…..:-)

  37. Drew Griffiths

    Thanks mate, this is brilliant for beginners

  38. mahfooz

    very helpful for newbies like us

  39. Srihari

    This was extremely useful. I am a newbie to Photoshop and I really found the Layers concept pretty overwhelming. But your tutorial was excellent. I think I have a very clear idea of layers now. Thank you and keep up the great work!!

  40. really helpful stuff !!!

  41. pooooooooooj

    thanks for the tutes!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! greatest evazzzz

  42. Kelvin Chan

    Excellent tutorial. Thanks for all your work.

  43. saturnino

    hey Sir great job! if you run for president you will beat barrack! lol tnx for this so useful!

  44. Taib

    very helpfull thank you so much


    Taib frm Tanzania

  45. JAVED

    hi, nice tutorial.. have you published your tutorial articles on Blending options and masks and other tools for adoble photoshop

    thanks for your good work

  46. Ami

    Thanks, really helpful.

    keep up the good work, and keep on posting

  47. khrao

    I agree with Srihari and very useful article.

    Thanks for the nice tutorial.

  48. Suresh g

    Amazing Tutorial…really got me the idea of layers …though m not basically from designing field

  49. shubham

    its really good……..!

  50. asha

    thank you so much! that was really very helpful…I tried using it without reading/watching any tutorials and it was like greek to me o.O

    It sucks that you can only undo (ctrl z) one mistake at a time though…unless I am mistaken about that…

  51. prajakta

    such a simplified tutorial for beginners ..thanks a lot..

  52. Durgaprasad

    Thanks. I am also a self learner like you. It’s good that you thought to help others in this way. Please keep it up.

  53. Parag

    This post is useful for the beginners. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with others.

  54. John Smith

    I appreciate your efforts as I am understanding well…. Thank you is a small word for in front of this work!!

  55. Ginger

    Thanks !!!! :)

  56. Tania

    Thank you! very useful!!!

  57. Mariyam KB

    This was so helpful! thanks a lot sebastian!

  58. Conota

    Great post, its easy to follow and understand. I can’t figure out how to group layers, I currently use Photoshop Elements 10. Is linking layers the same?

  59. Dawn

    Thank! This is really helpful!

  60. April B

    Thanks so much for posting this tutorial about layers. I mainly use InDesign in my current job as a Tech writer, but have wanted to learn about Photoshop and this is very helpful.

  61. Priya

    Hi, I am a beginner in Photoshop and this site is amazing. Thank you so much.

  62. Nice tutorial.. Thanks.

  63. Carla

    Awesome tutorial! I’m glad I found your site :)

  64. Jamil Akbar

    terimakasih, this is very help full for the beginners :) keep up good works man..

  65. Hélène QUEVA

    Thanks a lot!!!
    This tutorial is very useful, it saved me a lot of time.
    I’m looking forward to reading the other tutorials you’ve made.


  66. Cynthia

    This was so basic – but therefore so helpful. Sometime instructors forget to cover the very basic things and then learning Photoshop becomes more difficult than it needs to be. So Bravo to you!

  67. g7go8yg98tgf76rf9

    lol lol lol lol lol lol lol lol lol lol

  68. rimstim

    Great tutorial, dude. Very illuminating. Going to work through the rest too!

  69. I love it thanks so much

  70. Salam Persahabatan OK biggrin

  71. shyon

    this sucks! i cant do crap

  72. mr. henzbaba

    Men you are 007 in this field……..cudos …….thanks……am so greatful

  73. A B MEHTA

    congratulation. I am 73 and beginer in Photoshop. Your tutorial was crystal clear explained in simple words so that a beginer can follow,,,,,,,,,Pl. keep it up God bless you.


  74. Rishi

    thank you tutorial is very useful to the beginners like me… god bless you…

  75. Wiener!!!! dogs!!!! like Chocolate Pudding!1

  76. Plopdeggy

    anal cancer is very rare

  77. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here by searching for photoshop

  78. maine

    fresh from an authentic educator’s perspective! easy to follow, simple and prolific! keep it up sebastiano!

  79. Ben Kid

    So swiggity sweg breua Ah can does the photoshapz things now maaan cool bru!!!

  80. I am in fact happy to read this webpage posts which consists of tons of useful information, thanks for providing
    these statistics.

  81. Great and easy to understand tutorial. I find it very useful for my teaching.

  82. Barry

    Could you please advise me on how to set-up a Graphics Tablet for CS3.

  83. Thanks for this tutorial man.

  84. Betta

    Grazie! Molto utile!!!!

  85. emma

    it is useful thanks!!

  86. libby

    How do I add a photo on one layer?

  87. Thanks for some other informative blog. The place else may I get that kind of information written in such an ideal approach?
    I have a project that I’m simply now working on, and I’ve been on the
    glance out for such info.

  88. Hayley

    This was great, thank you so much! Really useful for a complete Photoshop beginner!

  89. this sucks! i cant do crap

  90. Awesome tutorials – thanks you. Looking forward to the Mask tutorial!!

  91. Erika

    Thanks for that! This is exactly what I was looking for, it makes the whole concept of layers so easy to understand.

  92. This was great, thank you so much

  93. Sageek

    This article is very useful to me. Thanks for sharing

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