As one becomes comfortable with digital photography, the next natural step is to edit the photo in order to repair or enhance it. Digital photo editing is available to everyone through easy-to-learn software, among which my favorite is Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0.

To go beyond basic photo editing such as red eye removal, rotation, and cropping, one must become familiar with layers. Admittedly, the concept of layers is slightly more difficult to grasp due to its higher level of complexity and power, but not so difficult to cause the average photo enthusiast to shy away.

Common uses for layers in digital photography:

  • Change appearance of photo without altering original image
  • Add text to photo
  • Add other graphic elements to photo, such as shapes, textures, and fragments of other photos
  • Apply special effects to photo
  • Experiment with various effects by showing and hiding different layers
  • Merge multiple photos in creative ways

In this article I explain what the layers feature is, familiarize you with its basic operation, and walk you through a few simple examples. Once you have the basics down, you will be able to more easily follow other articles on this web site, most of which require the use of layers. So let's get started.

Understanding Layers

To visualize the layers concept, imagine the following: You have a color photo that you wish to change. You place the photo on a tabletop to use as a work surface. One of the changes you want is to darken the main subject's jacket with a black marker. However, you do not want to darken the photo directly in case you do not like the results or change your mind later. Therefore, you take a sheet of clear transparency and lay it on top of the photo. With the marker you draw on the transparency to darken the jacket. Lifting the transparency away leaves the unchanged photo.

In the above scenario you created two layers. The photo was the fist layer, and the second layer was the transparency to which the changes were applied. In the same manner you could have layered additional sheets of transparency to isolate various changes onto unique layers; on the next layer you could have drawn a mustache, on the one after that glued a bow tie, and so on.

Digital photo editing software uses the same concept of layers as described above, except it is all done electronically. If you are still not clear on the concept of layers, please keep reading—if you follow the steps below, I believe it will be clear by the end of this article.

Identifying Layer Features

In this article I assume that you have Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0 (or 3.0) installed on your machine and you know how to open a photo. Please follow along by starting Photoshop Elements and by opening a photo, preferably one that you don't mind mutilating.

Making the Layers Palette Visible

Layers palette circled on the Photoshop Elements window. Photo indicated as

Layers palette circled on the Photoshop Elements window. Photo indicated as "Background" in the Layers palette.

Photoshop Elements displays layers on your screen in a box called a "palette". Palettes are usually docked on the right edge of the screen, unless they have been moved elsewhere. To make sure that the Layers palette is visible, confirm that the following menu has a checkmark: Window > Layers

On the screen shot to the right I have circled the Layers palette in red. Keep in mind that the location of tools can change, so it may be in a different location on your screen.

Take a moment to do the following in Photoshop Elements on your machine:

  • Confirm that there is a check mark next to the Window > Layers menu.
  • Find the Layers palette on your screen.
  • Use the Window > Layers menu command to show and hide the Layers palette several times, and then leave it visible.

Creating a Text Layer

At this point we only have a single layer, and that is our photo. Technically, Photoshop Elements does not consider it a layer, rather the "Background". Let's create a text layer so we have something to work with:

  • Click the Horizontal Type Tool Horizontal Type Tool.
  • On the top toolbar select Arial Black as the font.
  • On the top toolbar set the font size to 72 pt.
  • On the top toolbar set black as the text color.
  • Click somewhere on the image and type your text. Press Enter within your text to start a new line.
  • When finished typing, click the Move Tool Move Tool.

Notice that the Layers palette now contains a layer named according to the text you typed. I entered the word "Cattails" and that is what I see in Layers.

Identifying Layers Palette Components

Layers palette containing a background image and a text layer.

Layers palette containing a background image and a text layer.

Now that we have a background and a layer to work with, let's identify the common components.

This article is not covering all layer features—I'm keeping it to the bare minimum for the benefit of those just learning.

Layers: Each item listed in the Layers palette is either a layer or a background. It is possible to have a background without any layers, or only layers and no background. In our example we have one of each.

Selected Layer: The selected layer is the one with the blue highlight. Click on a different layer to select it. All editing performed in Photoshop Elements is applied to the currently selected layer or background.

Layer Visibility: The small eye to the left of each layer makes the layer visible or invisible. Click on the eye to hide the layer. Click again to show the layer. Hiding all layers leaves only the canvas visible.

Blending Mode: The drop-down list in the top left corner of the Layers palette is the blending mode. New layers are set to "Normal", meaning the layer is stacked on top of lower layers as if it was solid, without any blending between layers. The blending mode is used for special effects as illustrated in other articles, such as Coloring Pages From Your Digital Photos.

Opacity: The drop-down list in the top right corner of the Layers palette is the master opacity control. It can be set between 0% for completely transparent, all the way to 100% for completely opaque. Opacity is used to blend layers with varying levels of subtlety. Experiment by selecting your text layer and setting the opacity to 50%—notice how the black text fades. Feel free to try other settings, then set it back to 100%.

Changing Layer Order

Layers are stacked on each other. Lower layers show trough transparent areas of upper layers. In places where an upper layer is not transparent, it hides the lower layers. It is often necessary to change the order of layers to show desired components.

Rectangle shape layer hiding text layer.

Rectangle shape layer hiding text layer.

Before we change the order, let's create a new layer containing a rectangle shape:

  • Select the text layer by clicking on it in the Layers palette.
  • Click the Rectangle Tool Rectangle Tool.

    Rectangle Tool may be hiding behind other tools such as the Custom Shape Tool Custom Shape Tool.

  • On the top toolbar set desired Color. Let's use something bright like yellow.
  • Drag your mouse over the text to draw the rectangle, covering the text completely. This process creates the rectangle in a new layer of its own.

Layers palette after moving text layer to top, above the Shape 1 layer.

Layers palette after moving text layer to top, above the Shape 1 layer.

Now we have three items in the Layers palette: Background, a text layer, and the Shape 1 layer on top containing the rectangle.

Since we do not want the rectangle to cover our text, we will move the text layer to the top. This is accomplished by dragging the text layer with our mouse to the top of the list within the Layers palette. Go ahead and try it now. When you are finished, the text layer should be on top and the rectangle shape layer second, and the text visible once more.

Layer Styles

One of the best features for adding visual appeal to a photo are the various layer styles; special effects applied to a layer to alter its appearance.

To find the Styles and Effects palette, look above or below the Layers palette. If you only see the Styles and Effects title, click the right-pointing triangle to open it.

Many styles are available, but let's learn by applying one of the more popular effects to our text layer, the drop shadow:

  • Select the text layer by clicking on it within the Layers palette.
  • In the Styles and Effects palette select Layer Styles and Drop Shadows.
  • Click on the Soft Edge style box. Now the text has a drop shadow appearance.
  • In the Layers palette double-click on the text layer style indicator Layer Style Indicator to bring up the Style Settings dialog box.
  • Adjust style settings as desired and click OK when finished.

To remove a layer style, right-mouse click on the layer within the Layers palette and choose Clear Layer Style.

In this article I covered just enough material about layers to give you a taste and provide the very basics on how to use them. If you desire to learn more about layers, try one of the following digital photo projects:

Have patience while learning layers; it is an advanced photo editing feature and takes practice to master.