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The Graphic Details: Adjustment Layers in Photoshop (Intermediate)

January 17th, 2009

So you’re in Photoshop, muckin’ around with a photo you took — using the main menu’s “Image > Adjustments” tools like Levels, Color Balance, Brightness/Contrast… But then, maybe you:

  • want to keep some effects you’ve achieved while tossing others;
  • like what you’ve done, but can’t remember how you got there; and/or
  • want to apply the same changes to another photo you have… but can’t replicate what you did.

Adjustment Layers can save the day! I use these puppies constantly to keep track of everything I do and to keep my original images intact.

Open up a picture that needs touch-ups. At the bottom of the Layers pallette, click on the half-black/half-white circle, and you’ll see a drop-down list with the same tools that are available under the “Image” main menu items:

If I select “Levels” from this list, play with the sliders till I’m happy, then click “ok”… the Levels settings are now SAVED AS AN ADJUSTMENT LAYER, overtop the photo:

The key here is that the original photo layer (called “Background”, as it is whenever you open a digital photo in Photoshop) is UNAFFECTED — whereas if I’d made the change through the Image main menu tools, the only way to get the original photo back is to undo the adjustment.

Say I create another Adjustment layer — this time, “Color Balance”. Once I play around with the sliders and click “ok”, it’s ANOTHER layer saved overtop everything else:
You get the point: I can keep adding more and more Adjustment layers over the original shot.

So what??
So the beauty of these Adjustment Layers is that you can:

  • RE-ADJUST the values for each layer, as often and as much as you want (see red in example below);
  • hide or show the adjustments layer by layer (see green in example below);
  • drag and drop them into another photo file, and then the adjustments will be applied — ALSO appearing as Adjustment Layers there (NB: you can do all the layers at once by shift-clicking them before dragging them over — very efficient!)

***NB. If you want to keep the Adjustment Layers intact, save your image as a Photoshop file (PSD) with layers. This keeps everything intact, and you can always go back and make more changes if you feel like it.

If you’re going to develop this photo, post it online, or import it into other programs such as Word or Powerpoint… you will also have to save another version (a JPG, most likely). As soon as you do this, the graphic still looks the way you’ve fixed it, but ALL Adjustment Layer info is lost, since there are no layers in JPG files.

What if you add Adjustment Layers to a layered file?
This is a portion of the cover of a hockey summer camps brochure I’m currently working on:

The various graphic elements in the file are, as you can see, on different layers in the file. I would like to brighten/whiten the player’s uniform. I add a couple of Adjustment Layers overtop the player — and now the player’s uniform is nice and bright! But there’s a problem… while I only want to affect the player, the Levels and Color Balance affect ALL the layers below:


To fix this, I simply hold Option (Alt on a PC) while I click BETWEEN the “Player” and the “Color Balance” layers — when I do this, an arrow (hilighted yellow in example below) appears on the Color Balance layer, telling me that it ONLY applies to the Player layer. I do the same thing: hold Option (Alt on a PC) while I click BETWEEN the “Levels” and “Color Balance” layers, and again, the arrow appears — this now tells me that the two Adjustment Layers apply only to the Player:

So play around to your heart’s content, and know that as long as you save the file as a layered Photoshop file, you can always go back and re-jig more without losing the integrity of the original image.

As always, please comment to let me know if I’ve missed anything or need to clarify — and also if there are any topics you’d like to know more about. Happy adjusting!

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