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Getting Started with Photoshop

Information on Photoshop basics including: how to open and create a new image, navigating palettes, learning the parts of a layer, how to use guides, and where to go for more help at the University of Michigan.


What are Layers?Stacked layers creating an image

Layers are one of Photoshop’s most powerful features as they are individual slices of information that can be stacked or moved to create your image composition. With layers, you can draw, edit, paste, and reposition elements on one layer without disturbing the others. 

This graphic shows how layers would be stacked to create a composite. Layers contain both transparent and opaque elements, so keep this in mind when stacking. Looking at the example, notice that the top layer that contains text saying, "Photoshop 'till you drop!". Only the text in that layer is opaque and the rest of the layer is transparent so that information below it - the person,
cursor, and background color - are still seen. In Photoshop, transparency is identified by a white and gray checkered pattern.

Read the sections below to learn more about how to move, organize, and change settings using layers.


Navigating and Organizing Layers

The organization of layers and the ability to easiliy navigate are very important factors when working with layers. This section will show you how to select, move, create folders, search, and organize layers.


Screenshot of Layers Palette
Example of a selected layer.

Selecting a Layer

In order to perform most actions in Photoshop, you will need to have at least one layer selected.

  1. To select a layer, just click on it in the Layers Palette. The layer will turn blue [shown right] to indicate that it has been selected.

  2. To select several layers, hold down the CMD (Mac) or CTRL (Windows) key on your keyboard and click on each layer you would like to have selected. To select several consecutive layers, select the first layer and then hold the SHIFT key and select the last layer.

Moving Layers

As you know, the order in which layers are stacked does make a difference to the appearance of your image. It is important that you know how to move layers so that you are able to change the order of them as needed.

  1. Select the layer(s) you wish to move.

  2. Click and hold your mouse and drag the layer to the desired position. A thick line will appear between layers to indicate where the layer will be dropped. Once you have the layer where you want it, release your mouse and the layer will move to the new location.
Layers Palette Moving layers within layers palette
1. Select the Layer 2. Drag the Layer


Finding Layers

Almost every Photoshop document has more than one layer and those layers can quickly become overwhelming and and make it hard to find anything. Fortunately, there are some tools to help find different types of layers.

  1. Click on the Search Dropdown ( Search Dropdown ), to select whether you want to search layers by Kind, Name, Effect, Mode, Attribute, or Color.

  2.  After selecting a search method, use the options to the right of the Search Dropdown to select additional attributes to return search results.

Search layer attribute list
1. Search Dropdow

Search layer icons
2. Select layer attributes



Creating Groups

Another feature to help keep you and your layers organized is to create folders, also known as groups. You can add layers to a group and organize them however you wish. 

  1. Create a new folder by clicking the "Create a new group" button (  ) at the bottom of the layers palette.

  2. Drag layers onto the group folder layer to add them to the group.

  3. Double-click on the Group Name in the Layers Palette to rename it.


Layers Palette
1. Click "Create new group" icon

Layers inside a Group folder
2. Drag layers into the group



Types of Layers

There are many types of layers! Some layers are pieces of a final image that you are putting together, some are shape or text layers (created automatically), and some are fill or adjustment layers. Fill or adjustment layers allow you to play with different colors or effects without changing your main image. If you change your mind, you can delete or alter the fill or adjustment layer, and your original image layer is still intact.


Background Layer 

Whenever you first open an image in Photoshop, the default layer containing that image will be called the Background Layer. The Background Layer is a protected layer, and many filters and effects cannot be applied to background layers. 

Background layers will always be named, "Background", and will be locked, or protected, by default.  To unprotect the background, double-click layer's name in the Layers Palette, a dialog box will appear where you can change the layer nameand other details if you'd like, click OK and your layer will now be unprotected.

Background Layer


Image Layer

Image Layers are layers that contain any image information. Whenever we create a new layer, by default it is an Image Layer. The Layer Thumbnail of Image Layers contains a preview of the cotents of that layer. 

Image Layer

Adjustment Layer

Adjustment Layers are layers that contain only image adjustment information and can be deleted or modified at any time. Adjustment Layers are a recommended way to make color and tone adjustments to your images because they are non-destructive to your image. 

Adjustment Layers are very flexible by allowing the user to easily modify, mask, or delete them. Double clicking on the Layer Thumbnail will allow you to made changes to the Adjustment Layer.

Adjustment Layer

Type Layer

Type Layers contain only live type. They can be created and edited through the use of the Type Tool ( Type Tool Icon ).

Text layer

Fill Layer

Fill layers can contain solid colors, gradients, or patterns. Create a new Fill Layer by going to Layer in the menu and selecting New Fill Layer and selecting either Solid Color, Gradient, or Pattern.

Fill Layer

Shape Layer

Shape Layers contain shapes drawn using the Shape Tools. To edit a shape layer, select the layer and the Shape Tool for options.

Shape Layer


Parts of a Layer

Understanding the parts of the layer  will help you better understand how layers work and allow you start taking advantage of the many layer features. Layers are more than just a singular objects, but they can contain many parts and features that help you use layers to your full advantage. Below is a screenshot of a layer and an explanation of all the major parts and features.

Layer Thumbnail
The parts of a layer broken down
This thumbnail shows the contents of the current layer, or, if it is an Adjustment Layer, the Adjustment icon.

    • Tip: Press the CMD (Mac) or CTRL (Windows) key and click on the Layer Thumbnail to create a selection of all the contents of that layer.


Layer Mask

A Layer Mask is like the stencil to a layer. Layer Masks allow certain parts of a particular layer to be shown or hidden. Areas of white in the masks are shown while areas of black are hidden. 

  • Create a new mask by selecting a layer and then clicking the (layer mask icon) icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette.

  • Edit a mask by selecting the Layer Mask Thumbnail within the layer and use the paintbrush to paint

    • Tip: Press the CMD (Mac) or CTRL (Windows) key and click on the mask thumbnail to create a selection of all the contents of that mask.

  • Change mask properties by going to Window and then selecting Properties to reveal the Properties Palette.

layers palette with masked layer

edited image with a masked layer

Looking at Layer Masks...

The Layer Mask acts as a stencil to layers. Without a Layer Mask, the entire image would have an orange fill. With a Layer Mask, you can indicate which parts of the layer should be shown (white) and which areas should be hidden (black).

Look at the circular Layer Mask in the image to the left and compare it to the orange circle on the image to see how the mask works.



Layer Name

This indicates the name of the layer. By default, the name will be determined by the type of layer it is.

  • Rename a layer by double-clicking on the Layer Name, typing in a new name, and hitting the ENTER key.




Visibility Toggle
layer visibility icons

This is a handy layer feature that allows to to show and hide particular layers without having to delete them.

  • Hide or Show a layer by clicking on the eyeball icon to toggle visibility.




Layer and Mask Link

This link icon appears whenever you add a Layer Mask to a layer. The link helps ensure that any changes to the layer is also applied to the layer mask. 

  • Link or unlink a Layer Mask by clicking on the link icon (Link icon) in the layer. 





Layer Features

Layers are so powerful because of the many features and effects that can be applied to layers. Learning layer features will help you create some creative and unique effects for all of your images or composites. We have outlined some of the major features of layers in this section.

Opacity and Fill

The Opacity and Fill commands allow you to change the opacity (or transparency) of a layer. Both commands work the same except for one difference. In the circles shown below, notice that the Opacity change affects both the fill and stroke of the circle and the Fill change affects only the fill and not the stroke of the circle. Opacity and Fill changes can drastically change the appearance of a layer and are recommended when trying to blend objects or make adjustments more subtle.

Layers Palette - Opacity and Fill3 Circles with varying Fill and Opacity



Blending Modes
Blending modes affect the appearance of layers and how they will display. Blending modes are broken down into five different groupings that affect the layer differently. The best way to use Blending Modes is to mix and match them and experiment with different variations. This Adobe Website provides more detailed information and examples of layers with each blending mode applied.

Layers Palette - Blending Mode Dropdown
Blending Mode Dropdown

List of Blending Modes

      List of Blending Modes

Locking Layers
Locking layers can be a handy tool when working in Photoshop. There are several ways to lock the layer or layer contents. Each layer can be locked by selecting the layer, and then selecting the type of lock. Below are the types of locks.

layers Palette - Lock icons

Layer Buttons

Layers Palette - Layers buttons

There are several buttons that live at the bottom of the layers palette, which we will explore in this sections. Many of these buttons perform actions that can be found in other locations within the program, but are also in the Layers Palette for convenience and ease. These buttons are outlined below:

Link Layers button   Link layers - Select two or more layers and click this button to link them together. Linking means that they will all move together.

Add a new layer style button   Add a new layer style - This button allows you to add a new layer style without going to Layer and selecting Layer Style in the menu.

Add a layer mask button   Add layer mask - Clicking this will add a new layer mask to the selected layer.

Create a new fill layer button   Create new fill or adjustment layer - This button allows you to add a new layer style without using the Adjustments Palette.

Create a new group button   Create a new group - Click this to create a new group (aka folder). Drag layers into this group to organize them.

Create a new layer   Create a new layer - Clicking this will create a new, empty layer.

Delete a layer button   Delete layer - Select a layer or multiple layers and click this button to permanently delete them.



Merging and Flattening Layers

Right-click Layers menu

If you ever need to combine several layers or need to flatten the entire image, then use the merge and flatten commands.

Flattening Options

  • Combine or merge several layers by selecting the layers, and then right-clicking on the Layer Name of one of the selected layers. Select "Merge Selected" from the menu and all selected layers will be combined into one.

  • Combine or merge only visible layers () by right clicking on the Layer Name of any visible layer and selecting "Merge Visible".

  • Flatten an entire image by right-clicking on the Layer Name of any layer and selecting "Flatten Image"