Layers: The Key to Expert Mode in Photoshop Elements 12

When I started off in Photoshop Elements, I didn’t have any clue how to use it. None. I didn’t dare venture into the land of multiple layers for many months.

Well that was almost five years ago. Looking back, I think one of the biggest most important steps in learning to use Photoshop Elements I ever took was learning about layers. They are an integral part of working in Expert mode in Photoshop Elements—and it’s ooper-shmooper easy, as my kindergartener puts it. This is how the magic is made behind the scenes with all those effects and tools you were using in the Quick and Guided modes.

What are layers, and adjustment layers? And how do they work?

Just to show you an example, I’ll go to the Guided mode and apply an effect to a photo.

PSE Layers Example 1

Now that I’ve applied the effect, I go to Expert mode and look at the layers panel (right side of the screen. Click Layers at the bottom of the screen toward the right if layers aren’t showing).

PSE Layers Example 2

See? Do you see? Those layers are what created the effect I applied in the Guided panel. Today we’ll just talk about what these layers are and how to create them.

To make this as understandable as possible, we’re going to talk about your photo like it’s a stained glass window, because next time when we talk about layer masks this will be especially helpful.

Okay, so going with the stained glass window analogy, your photo or background layer is the stained glass—the original stained glass design with no alterations. The appearance of the window will change depending on the qualities of the layers added on top of it. If you put wax paper on top, it will just look a little blurry and soft. If you put lace on top, it will give it a little bit of texture, although obscuring the design of the window a bit. If you put a thin layer of yellow paint on top, it will look a little aged.

In Photoshop you see the layers starting from the top most, all the way down to your background photo at the bottom, thus changing the way your photo looks. The combination of all the layers added on top of the original can adjust the lighting, the hue, the contrast, the blur of the photo, add effects, add color tints, change the focus, add text or graphics…the list goes on.

Keep in mind that the opacity of each layer will determine how well you will be able to see that layer. Like if you were to put a painted canvas over the top of the window, it would take over the window. You would only be able to see the canvas plus any layers that are above it, and none of the layers below it. Like they aren’t even there. Versus, if you were to put another glass pane painted with watercolor over the original window, which is very translucent (or low opacity), you will still be able to see the layers below and it will still affect the overall look of the window. The higher the opacity, the more light it stops, and the stronger the effect is. Likewise, the lower the opacity the less it affects the photo, and the better you can see the layers below.

But the beautiful thing is that through all this adding of effects and changing the way the photo looks, you aren’t altering the original photo yet. If you decide you don’t like how a layer looks, you can adjust that layer or even delete it with no harm done to the original photo. Worry free editing!

How do you add a layer?

There are a few ways to do it and I’ll show you two of them.

Fill Layers

Fill layers are useful for adding color tints, as well as changing blending modes (blending modes change the way the colors of the different layers interact with each other. I will probably spend an entire post on blending modes in the near future).

PSE Adding Layers and Adjusting Them

Step 1:  Start from Expert Mode with the Layers panel open.

Step 2: Click on the icon for a new layer (at the top of the layers panel it’s the first icon. It looks like a dog-eared paper).

Step 3: If you would like to adjust that layer you must first select the layer you want to work on by clicking it in the layers panel.

Step 4: If you want to add a color fill, select the bucket tool (hotkey K), check the color palette to make sure the foreground (top box color on the lower part of the tool panel) is the color you would like to use.

Step 5: Click on the photo. The color will be 100% opaque by default. You won’t be able to see any of the layers below. To adjust this so you can still see the layers beneath, lower the opacity percentage which is found near the top of the Layers panel (as always,make sure your intended layer is still selected before changing opacity).

Step 6: If you would like to change the blending mode, click the drop down menu to the left of opacity (should default to “normal”) and choose your blending mode.

Adjustment Layers

Adjustment layers are more about tweaking the lighting, contrast, hue, and other such things, and they automatically come with a layer mask attached.

PSE Adding Adjustment Layers

Step 1: Start from Expert Mode with the Layers panel open.

Step 2: Click the Adjustment Layer icon at the top of the Layers panel (the half blue and half white circle).

Step 3: Choose the type of adjustment layer you want to apply.

PSE Adjustment Layers Box

Step 4: Most adjustment layers will pop up a little box where you can make…yes…adjustments.

Step 5: If you want to make changes to the adjustment layer after closing out of the box, just double click the adjustment icon on that layer (the little picture on the left of that layer, not the box to the right).


*Note: Photoshop Elements will automatically add your new layer just above whichever layer is currently selected in the Layers panel. The order of the layers is important. When dealing with more opaque layers (like text and shapes, or layers with a “normal” blending mode), they will block out all layers that are below them. To move a layer toward the front or toward the back after it is created, click and drag the layer to its desired position.

Whew! Now you are armed with the knowledge you need to flourish in Expert mode. It’s all about layers and adjustment layers from here on out. Enjoy! Next week we’ll talk about layer masks, which you will love. They block out the effects where you don’t want them, but leave them intact everywhere you do!

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About the author

Cecilia Harvey

I'm a technological enthusiast with a completely unrelated degree in English Literature. I've also been known to dabble in photography and DIY furniture refinishing, with occasional stints of fitness sprinkled among all of the above.


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  • I have a picture of my mother and it is horrible. Way to light… by adding brightness and contrast it makes the whole picture to bright. Is there a way I can darken just parts of the picture. I would send the picture but don’t know how to. I am using elements 12