Photoshop Layers Exercise

Click image to download 31MB PSD and source file ZIP.

I’ve been teaching introductory Photoshop classes for quite a few years now. I really enjoy seeing the mental lightbulbs start flashing for my students as difficult concepts like non-destructive image editing, alpha channels, layer masks, and smart filters all start to come together and make sense.

All this information can be quite daunting for new photoshop users. In this article I will review the various concepts used in one of our classroom exercises involving the manipulation of an iris and a butterfly. In addition, the source files for the project and the final PSD are available for download.


Let’s examine the layers in the final file from the bottom up. Important terms are defined in alphabetical order below.

  • The background layer. It has not been changed in any way.
  • A masked adjustment layer that changes the color of the irises.
  • A pasted butterfly, converted to a smart object, with a mask applied to hide it’s background. Notice that it is linked to the next layer up.
  • A masked adjustment layer to change the color of the butterfly.
  • A second butterfly.
  • Adjustment for the second butterfly.
  • A warped text layer with effects (layer styles) applied.
  • A merged copy of the entire piece with a smart filter applied.

Adjustment Layers. These layers will adjust the color of all content below them in the stack. You can restrict the effect of the layer to a specific area through the use of a layer mask. If you have an active selection when you create an adjustment layer, it will automatically use your selection as a mask. Double-click an adjustment layer to edit it. There are 3 masked hue/saturation adjustment layers in this image.

Layer styles (Effects). Non-destructive special effects that can be applied to most layers. Our warped text layer has a drop shadow effect applied to it.

Linking Layers. Select multiple layers by shift-clicking them, then click the Link Layers button. Linked layers will move and transform as if they were one. You can unlink layers by dragging the link icon to the trash. Each butterfly is linked to its adjustment layer.

Layer Masks. Used to hide unwanted layer content. To create a mask, first choose a layer, then make a selection and click the layer mask button.You can copy a mask from one layer to another by OPTION/ALT dragging it. You can disable a mask by shift-clicking it.

Merged Copy. If you use the Edit: Copy command photoshop will only copy the contents of the currently selected layer. If you’d like to take a “snapshot” of all currently displayed layers within your selection, use the Edit: Copy Merged option. The topmost layer in this image is a merged copy of all the layers below.

Smart Filter. A filter applied to a regular layer is destructive; it permanently changes the pixels of that layer. Converting layers to vector smart objects enables smart filters, allowing us to non-destructively add filters that can be edited or removed at any time. Double-click the smart filter to edit it’s settings.The merged copy layer has a smart filter applied to it to make it look like a painting.

Vector Smart Object. Right-click or click the layer panel menu to convert a layer to a vector smart object. This will preserve the original pixels even when scaled, rotated, or otherwise transformed via the edit menu. It also enables smart filter functionality. Double-click the smart object to edit its contents. Each butterfly, as well as the merged topmost layer are smart objects, as indicated by the small icon in the lower-right corner of the layer thumbnail.

Warped Text. Create a text layer using the type tool. While editing text, click the warped text button in the options bar. This image has one warped text layer.

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2 Responses to Photoshop Layers Exercise

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