Introduction to Adjustment Layers

An Adjustment Layer is a powerful editing tool that allows you to apply color and tonal adjustments to an image without altering the original. If you want to use Adjustment Layers, you’ll need a photo editing program that supports layers.

Layers pallete

Layer palette shows two Adjustment Layers

Non-destructive editing

Adjustment Layers allow for non-destructive editing, which means that an original image is not in any way changed or degraded. The original quality of the image is retained.

For example, you can create a Levels Adjustment Layer without applying Levels directly to the actual image.

Any adjustments you make are stored in each Adjustment Layer and affect all other layers below it. The layer can be tweaked and re-edited at any time and as often as you like. To do so, simply double-click the Adjustment Layers and make desired changes in the dialog box that pops open.

Opacity slider

Use the slider to change the opacity of a layer.

Adjustment Layer effects

The effects of an Adjustment Layer can be reduced by decreasing its opacity. You can also use the paint and erase tools directly on the Adjustment Layer to selectively work on specific areas of an image.

To see the overall effects of Adjustment Layers, they can be turned on and off by clicking the eye symbol associated with the layer. This allows you to make a before and after comparison of a photo.

Creating an Adjustment Layer

Adjustment Layer menu

Layer Adjustment options. Click to enlarge.

To create a Adjustment Layer in programs such as Adobe CS or Photoshop Elements, click the Layer menu, select New Adjustment Layer and then choose the type of Adjustment Layer you wish to use.

Some of the most commonly used Adjustment Layers are Levels, Color Balance, Brightness & Contrast and Hue & Saturation. Another is the Selective Color, which allows you to adjust individual colors.

For the sample images below, two Adjustment Layers were used: Levels and Selective Color.

Selective coloroptions

Choose the color, or colors you want to enhance in the Selective Color Options dialog box.

Like all layers other than a Background layer, an Adjustment Layers can be deleted. They can also be saved. When you close an image file and save it, any Adjustment Layers are saved along with all other layers.

The best way to become familiar with Adjustment Layers is to simply create and experiment with them. Check your editing program’s Help files for an explanation of the types of Adjustment Layers. You’ll soon understand their usefulness in improving image quality and come to appreciate their flexibility.

Comparison of photo before and after basic editing, including two Adjustment Layers:

For some photos, changes will be very subtle but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The best approach is to not draw attention to any editing by over processing an image. For many images the goal is simply to improve brightness and contrast, enhance color and sharpen them..

Original - unedited

Original - unedited

Edited version

Edited version

This article only covers the basics of creating and using Adjustment Layers. For many, following the steps outlined above are enough to improve and enhance most photos. However, if you want to gain a deeper understanding about how to use Adjustment Layers even more powerfully, do a search as there are many advanced tutorials online.

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