Advanced Editing

Layers: Harnessing their power

Written by Digicamhelp Editor

Layers allow you to create powerfully enhanced digital photos and sophisticated graphics. This tutorial gives you the basics of understanding and using Layers when editing an image.

Three separate layersA decade and a half ago, Adobe dramatically improved the art of digital photo editing (and its market share) with the development of layers. Layers allow you to create powerfully enhanced digital photos and sophisticated graphics. Today, many basic photo editing software packages include this feature.

A layer is simply an image that is placed on top of another so it can be edited independently. You can duplicate a layer, add text or clip art on separate layers, then reposition each.

Each layer can be adjusted individually until the desired look and position is achieved. Layers can be turned on and off, or deleted. The stacking order of layers can be changed.

When a multi-layer file is saved as an image file such as a jpeg, the layers merge and the resulting image is a single-layer file.

The following tutorial covers the basics of using layers.

Getting started with Layers

Three layers combinesThis tutorial is illustrated with examples produced in Adobe Photoshop Elements, but the principles are the same for other editing programs that have layering capabilities (not all do).

For this example, three layers were created – the background photo, the party graphic and the text.

The bottom layer, called the background layer in Elements, is a photo (jpeg). Layer two is a graphic of a party hat and noisemaker, which is a gif file with a transparent background. The third layer is created when you begin using the text type tool.

Start by launching your photo editing application and opening a photograph. Open the graphic and copy and paste it into the photograph. In Elements, this action automatically creates a new layer for the graphic element. Other programs may require you to first create a new layer, then paste the graphic.

Layers dialog boxYou can resize, move and adjust the graphic to your liking.

Next select the Type Tool. In Elements, clicking anywhere in your image will establish a new layer for the text. Again, other programs may require you to first create a new layer. Type your message.

In most image editing programs, you can highlight the text and change the font style, size and color just like you do in a word processing program. Click the Move Tool and then select and drag the type for repositioning.

You can click on a layer in the Layers dialog box to make it the active layer. You can then manipulate it to your satisfaction. The checkerboard pattern in a layer’s icon means that the background for that particular layer is transparent. You can select and drag layers to change the stacking order. In this instance, the final stacking order for our birthday image is background (photo), middle layer (party graphic) and top layer (the text).

Saving the image

Once your layers are adjusted and positioned, you can save the image. In Elements, the image will be saved as a Photoshop Document file (psd). This file maintains all the layers you’ve created.

To save the image in a different format, like jpeg or tiff for use in print or web applications, the image layers first have to be merged or flattened. In Elements, click on the two right arrows in the Layers dialog box header and select Flatten from the drop down menu that appears. You can then “Save As” and select a different format file from the options in the Save As menu.


  • Samantha, make sure you image editing software supports layers, such as Photoshop Element, then check the help files. Or check out some of the free programs that support layers here. Or try a free online editor such as Aviary. Also do search Layers Tutorials that offer similar help as outlined in this tutorial.

  • Hi, i have just bought a template to make some birthday invitations. They have multiple layers. I also bought some digital clip arts and digital scrap book layers. I want to first paste the scrapbook background on first then add a clip art on top of that and then do a number 1 and some writing etc.. please i have no idea how to do this? any help?

  • I just started using Elements 9.  I edited a couple of pics and when I started it today I got a message that said ” The command could not be completed because the Editor was busy. Pls finish the current operation and try again.”  I do not know of any current operation that I am doing.  How do I find out what it is?  Jim

  • Hi
    I have an IMAC and with it I have IPhoto.  I have a few thousand pictures in IPhoto.  I am a beginner at digital photography.
    Some of the pictures in my IPhoto are beach scenes, park scenes, etc. that do not include any of my family members but could include strangers standing around.
    I want to put a picture of my wife or kids in one of those pictures.  Called layering?  I don’t necessarily need to eliminate the strangers in the photos.
    So the final picture is the original photo and now has my wife standing on the beach in that photo.
    What is the best software, easiest  to use, and least expensive that allows me to do this?
    Thank you