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The Layers function is an exciting and powerful tool the artist can use while editing an image. The Layers function is typically found in Photoshop, however, it is not the only package to offer the layers function, it is also available in image editors like PaintShop Pro, Pixelmator and others. I recall when I started working with Photoshop Elements 4 many years ago, how intimidating it was and how challenging it was for me to understand and work with layers. I continued trying working with layers and finally today it is second nature plus an integral part of my photo editing workflow.

I decided not to say much on the how, plus the basics of how layers function. You can find loads of information on the web on layers. What I do like to show in these pages are simple steps to do specific techniques, steps photographers can use to get the most from layers. I therefore like to urge you to find and to study the basics of working with layers before evaluating any of the techniques on these pages. If I could describe layers and the advantages they offer in two or three lines then I will define layers as follows:-

Layers enables the user to create a space with different "image" layers, each separated from the other but when viewed from the top it looks like one integrated image. One can create new image layers by duplicating existing layers or by adding an external image "layer" on top of another layer or by creating a clean new layer. The user can decide how the different layers interact with each other by using unique layer blending modes. What one learn in terms of layers in Photoshop will also work with other software packages like Pixelmator.

It is possible to completely edit an image only using layers, blending modes and layer masks. For example one can add saturation to an image by duplicating the image layer and by selecting "Soft" as Blending Mode for the new layer. The amount of saturation can be controlled adjusting the layer opacity slider. Adding a layer mask one can have the blending mode effecting only those parts of the image the user want to and finally one can really create works of art that can take hours to complete using layers.

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In the above image you see the layers pallet as is seen in Photoshop, top left and bottom right, the final image bottom left and an illustration in space of the three layers in the top right quadrant. Bottom right shows how the three layers look in the Photoshop layers pallet.

In the coming short articles I plan too focus on interesting techniques, the how to use layers, plus how to do specific effects or looks using layers. For example one can use layers and blending modes to simulate in-camera Art Filters. One can use blending modes to remove that typical dead or digital look seen in images directly out the camera. Several sharpening and selective sharpening techniques can be applied using layers. I will show you how to do interesting HDR techniques using layers plus you will learn how to use layers to do non-destructive image editing. Finally one can use layers to create great panoramas, montages and many more interesting projects.

Forum News:- To support the reader to get the most from these short articles I added a special "Photoshop Layers" tab in the forum section. Please feel welcome to discuss the content of these short articles or to ask questions in the forum section.

Basic Layer Techniques or Functions

One of the most basic advantages using layers is the ability to edit parts of the image. Targeting specific areas in the image the user can stop editing commands from effecting those parts masked out in the image. One could for example ask, why use layers and why not only use the basic editor in Photoshop? You will better see the advantage as we discuss more examples. The following are basic functions you should know when working with layers:-

- Basic controls of the Layers Pallet
- How to duplicate a layer (various ways of duplicating a layer)
- How to add another image to an existing image using a new layer or by dragging in the new image
- How to use the Mask function (PSE 9 & 10 has mask build in - pre PSE9 the user can use Mask found in Elements Plus)
- How to use the Opacity slider to vary the blending mode
- See more about blending modes - will be discussed blending modes in future techniques
- "Elements Plus", how to install and how to use
- The Photoshop Curves function in layers.

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Elements Plus

The first step any Photoshop Elements user should do is to add the functions found in the CS versions to Elements. These additional functions can be sourced from the website "Elements Plus" ( The added functions comes in the form of effects and the installation is all automatic. Once installed the Effects Pallet in Elements will look like the image on the left. Each button represents a different editing function or group of functions. I marked 2 of these buttons "A" and a "B". Double clicking (selecting) the button marked "A" you will access a number of editing tools including Curves (see image below). Double clicking button "B" you will see a number of different Masks options or buttons. I mainly use two Masks buttons, the "Hide All" or the "Show All" Masks. As you can see from the other buttons, the Elements Plus package adds many more advanced functions to Photoshop Elements.

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Color and Tone Functions

As said, button "A" in the above image will open the window on the left. This window has a number of color and tone related functions likes curves. I like to highlight only one specific button or function in the curves window that is really valuable to the hobby photographer. See figure (image) "TWO" in the image below for a view of the curves users interface. The "Aufo Option" button in the Curves Window will start a automatic "Curves" adjustment. In most cases you will see significant (see Image "TWO") adjustments made to the individual color curves and to the RGB curve. In most cases no further curves adjustments will be required to the image. If you used the curves function on a separate duplicate layer then you could use the Opacity Slider to reduce the curves effect on the final image. By adding a mask (hide all mask) to the curves layer, the adjustment could be selectively painted back to your final image…..

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Layers Pallet when working with Curves

On the left you can see what the layers pallet looked like while I used the curves function to create the final image (Image 3) in the illustration below. The reason I used a duplicate layer is to protect the original image plus it is easy to just go ahead and delete the curves adjustment layer if I am not happy with the result. As said above one can use the Opacity slider to vary the strength of the curves function to the original image. You can see I did not reduce the curves effect. Image "ONE" was the original image I started with. Often I also use a layer mask on the curves layer if I want to selectively add the curves adjustments. Once done with the curves adjustments, one can flatten the layers. From there onwards one can again duplicate the new background image (layer) to start the next step of the editing process.

One of the basic advantages of using layers is the ability to go back to specific steps in the editing process. One could for example ask, what has layers to do with the basic editor of Photoshop? I think these examples showed the advantage working with layers. The first basic editing technique I used with layers was Curves. In the CS version of Photoshop, curves is an adjustment layer and very simple to use. In Elements it takes a few more steps to get to the same result as with the CS version of Photoshop. Keep in mind the curves option button is not available when used as adjustment layer, to see the option button you need to select the curves function from the image > adjustments > curves menu. In future articles you will see that without layers one are really limited. I can only urge you to take the step and to start using layers, once mastered you will never regret.

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Layer Masks Basics

Layer masks is a wonderful tool that will help you to blend things into an image or to apply changes to only parts of the final image. I added two layer pallet "images" (blue and white) plus the result or effect the mask will have on the final visual picture. From these examples you will be able to build a clear picture in your mind of how layer masks work. I want to extend the invitation again, if you have a difficult time with any of these techniques please mail me or ask in the forum, once mastered your personal enjoyment using Photoshop will be that much higher.

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In this example the color black in the layer mask prevents the blue of the top layer to be a part of the final image. It is as if there was no second blue color layer. We learn from this example that one can control the effect or the "see through" of the top layer by adding the color black to the mask on that layer. To establish a "see through" condition one should paint with the color white on the mask.

Take care when looking at the layer itself. On the left you will see the layer mask has a double line surrounding it which means the mask is selected. If the blue part which represents the image has the double surrounding line then the image is selected. If I want to see the "masking" effect while painting on the actual image, the result will depend on whether the mask or the image are selected. See the example below for more detail.


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The resulting image of the above layers

The image on the left is the result of the above example. As you can see the layer mask filled with black prevented the blue image (layer) to show in the final image. It is therefor two images on top of each other, the blue is above the white image. When masked with the color black the blue image is invisible.


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The layer pallet on the left shows what you need to do when you want to show parts of the blue layer in the final image. As you have seen above example a black filled mask prevents the blue layer (image) to show in the final image. In this example I painted those parts I like to show with the color white on the mask.

Take note when the mask is selected, everything I paint with the color white on the real image, one will really see in the final image. The color black in the mask prevent the info on that layer to show in the final image and the color white on a layer mask is like a see through color. The 2 layers are two images on top of each other, below is a white color image and on top of that is a blue color image. With no mask one will only see the blue image.

The layers on the left will look like the image below it in real life. The blue image is present but only visible on those parts of the mask that was painted over with the color white.


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The resulting image of the above layers

If you have a closer look at the above layer mask you will see how I painted white spots onto the black layer mask. That allowed the mask to let through the blue color of the top blue image onto the final image. If this was an image you selectively edited, the white parts in the above mask could have been selective sharpening you wanted to show in the final image.


Basic Image Editing Techniques using Layers

On this page I will discuss a few of the most basic image editing techniques using layers. These techniques will enable the user to edit an image in a step by step way until the result wanted by the artist is achieved. Although editing with Layers can be quick it often results in a more lengthy image editing process. The reason is that layers enables the artist full freedom plus a great ability to selectively adjust parts of the image. This selective editing process can continue over several layers until the final result is just like the artist envisaged it to be in his or hers mind…..
I believe one should consider an image as a painting and not as a bunch of digital data that will give perfect dynamic range and low noise. I read people say the Panasonic camera's images coming from modern four thirds cameras are technically on a high level and in most cases near perfection but at the same time they are boring. On the other hand Olympus mastered the digital image building process in such a way that its images touch emotions and people reacts positively to Olympus images, also when they technically not always 100% correct.

Many people take good images and it proofs that practice and reading can do wonders. What really makes a good or unique image is when the image becomes art and when it speaks to the emotions.

In this section I like to show you how to master the following aspects of using layers:-

- How to adjust image brightness using layers (One can use this technique to create HDR like images)
- How to add more color or saturation or punch to an image
- How to selectively add these adjustments
- How to sharpen an image selectively or completely
- How to reduce noise in a image

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Adjust image brightness with layers

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In the above illustration image "ONE" is the original or starting image. I repeated this technique twice, first to increase the overall brightness of the image and a second time to selectively adjust the brightness of only the duck house only. As seen in the final image (Image "THREE*), the little house is more exposed than the rest of the image . The basic technique is as follows:-

- Open the image
- Go to the layers menu and select "Duplicate Layer" - You could also right click on the background layer and select "Duplicate layer"
- I renamed the background layer, "RAW File", and the duplicate layer, "Contrast Layer".
- Next step is to ensure the "Contrast Layer" is selected and to the then click on the Layer Blending mode, drop down menu.
- From the Blending Mode, drop down menu select, "Screen".
- The result is two layers but a brighter image. The first brightening step is now completed. (See Image "TWO")
- Go to the menu bar, select Layers and then "Flatten Layers". (You will see only one layer again, a new background layer)
- If additional or selective brightening is required you can again duplicate the new background layer .
- At this stage I also added a layer mask to the "Contrast Layer" - see image above showing the layers pallet.
- To add the mask, select the "Contrast" Layer" and select the Image Mask button at the bottom of the layers pallet.
- Again select "Screen" from the blending mode drop down menu
- When the mask is filled with black only the original bottom layer is displayed and if the mask is filled with white the top layer is displayed.
- In this case I filled the mask with black - (To fill the mask, select the mask, select color black, select bucket tool in toolbar and click on image)
- Next select the color white, then select a normal brush in toolbar - One can also select a soft brush
- Make sure the mask is selected and start painting those parts needing additional brightness in the image with white - see above image
- The result is Image "THREE"

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To increase color intensity with layers

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The above image was first developed from a RAW image and then further enhanced using this method. Image "ONE is the original image and image "THREE" the final image in the second repeat of the technique. Only the final step consisted of selective editing using a layer mask. For more details about these steps please see the increase exposure description above. The only difference with this technique is the blending mode. Instead of selecting "Screen" one should use "Soft Image" in this technique.

You will see during the selective editing step using layer masks I used the mask to increase the exposure of the area under the walkway plus I used the increased exposure effect to create a better white effect on the wall above the walkway. How does one vary the effect of the brush in the layer mask. I normally use a soft brush plus I reduce the brush opacity in the brush attributes on the top of the editor page. One can also use the opacity slider in the layers pallet. The only disadvantage is then all the brushed areas are effected with the same amount. A final method is to use a grey and not a complete black color to paint in the adjustments.

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Sharpen an image with layers

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With this technique I use well known sharpening techniques together with layers. My personal preference is to start with the High Pass Filter which is then followed by Unsharp Mask Filter and in the final finishing touches I will typically use the Smart Sharpening Filter. Each of the these filters or steps could be applied to the complete image or only parts of the image using layer masks. One could also repeat any one of these steps more than once depending on the type of results you want.

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The High Pass Filter

The high pass filter is great for sharpening edges of buildings or for landscape images. It is fully adjustable with the Radius setting in the high pass filter dialog box or the layer opacity slider or by using a layer mask.

To find the high pass filter go to the menu > filter > option > high pass filter. I always use a radius setting between 0,5 to 1,9 and to finally blend the sharpening layer with the background layer I use the "soft image" layer blending mode to integrate the effect into the final image.


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The Unsharp Mask Filter

The Unsharp Mask is most probably the most used sharpening filter under hobby photographers. We were always told not to use the filter to aggressively because it will create permanent damage to the image. Typical settings used are 40 to 80 in the amount slider and a radius of 1,2 up to 1,7 depending on how much effect one like to have. I also used the above settings for many years until I read more about sharpening. In the USM dialog box on the left you will see a completely different approach to sharpening. Typical settings will be 14 to 25 in the amount slider and 130 to 170 for the radius slider. This second method is more harsh on the image and it should be applied either selectively using a mask or care should be taken with how aggressive the sliders are moved to the extremes. Always keep a close look at the edges of subjects in the image to prevent holo effects. The advantage of the second method is that one can create lovely 3D or space type effects. When using this technique with city scenes it is as if the filter better position separate buildings into space. In the final step I typically use is the smart sharpening filter. Here I only use really small values for the radius and the amount sliders.

Basic Layer "ART" Filters or Effects

On this page I will place "ART" effects one can create using layers. The first filter technique is similar to the "Soft Focus" effect seen with Olympus Camera Art Filters. This effect can be used in many different ways, to soften the skin of people, to create a overall soft look or to create a calm romantic atmosphere…..

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This technique follows the same basic structure the other techniques did. Duplicate the background layer. Next confirm or ensure the duplicated layer is selected , then go to the filter menu and select Filter, then Blur and finally Gaussian Blur. The dialogue box in picture "TWO" will appear. In the Gaussian window select a radius of 18 to 20 and click OK. Finally select "Screen" blending mode and select an opacity of 50 to 80%. This technique works great on female portrait images, especially older ladies. Care must be taken with portraits, in some cases its better to apply the effect selectively. For example with a Gaussian Blur radius of 7 to 12 one can paint in the blur on the skin parts of the face to create a beautiful soft skin effect. Important is to then apply selective sharpening around the eyes and lips of your model. As a final step one can selectively add white to the eyes and teeth. On a later stage I will discuss editing a person face using this technique in more detail…..

In this section I will list interesting short type key strokes or layer techniques. I often see or learn a new key stroke, an interesting technique, or a few steps that helps a lot in larger projects. Well in this section or Tab I will add these unique bits of information. I will do it in a format of helping myself having a reference of new things I learn or see. I tend to forget steps in specific techniques just to later be frustrated. That is why this tab will be very useful to the reader also, I believe. If you have something unique and you think it will fit in here then you welcome to contact me….

High pass Sharpening Technique

The "High pass" sharpening technique is well known amongst photographers and nothing really special. It does have a weakness in that it can result in halos around the edges of the image. A better method are described on the Kelby Training website and is called the FAD technique. The FAD technique will not create the halos. If used with care one can also implement the high pass filter without having halos. In this short article I will explain how to……

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How to:-

When opening the image I first do a few basic steps like curves plus basic sharpening. I will only discuss the different sharpening steps in this article and not general editing of the image.
Unsharp Mask
After opening the image go to (Enhance>Unsharp Mask) and enter 40 to 50 into the amount and 1,3 into the radius. Threshold should be zero. Press OK. This basic sharpening should be enough for almost any kind of image.
High pass Filter
Next you can duplicate the Background layer by pressing "Cntr + J" on your keyboard. Name the new layer "High pass Filter". Next go to (Filter>Other>High pass) and enter a value of 2,5 into the radius of the high pass dialogue box and then press OK. With the High Pass Filter layer highlighted, select the Blending mode to "Overlay". At this point you will see the more sharpened result but one could also see halos. To prevent that add a mask to the High pass layer. Fill the mask with black and paint the parts you like to be sharpened with white on the mask. You can see how I only show facial sharpening plus the sharpening effect of the filter on the person's cloth.

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In this image you see the layers pallet with the different layers.

The final step is to reduce the saturation of the image. Make sure the High pass layer is selected and press Cntr+Shift+E. This will create a new layer that will include all the changes. Next you can go to (Enhance>Adjust Color>Adjust Hue Saturation) menu. In the new dialogue box you can go and move the Saturation Slider to the left until you happy with the look of the image.

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With the un-sharp mask filter you can also create a similar effect by sharpening twice. The first time I typically use 20 for the Amount and 155 for the Radius and then press OK (This creates a type of 3D effect). The second time I use 50 for the Amount and 1,3 for the radius. By experimenting a little up and down with the values you will find the sweet spot for your style plus camera.

Freaky Amazing Details Technique

I first saw this technique in a training course on I always wondered how photographers get that realistic look when having people in an image. The camera on its own cannot create that look and it was therefore clear to me that the look was created in Photoshop. In the past I did tried to adapt the technique for Photoshop Elements but just did not work succeed.

I decided to add this technique to the Layers Section because it very much are a technique that requires a good understanding of layers. In the next days I will build and test the technique with an action. The reason I will do that is when using an action it is possible to "activate" hidden functions in Elements. Doing that will benefit those who use Elements.

From the video you can see that the end result is a yellow cast type view. It really is up to the user to determine what look he or she likes to have for the final image. Even though one use the FAD technique one can still decide to sharpen the image with USM or Smart sharpening. Again it really is up to the user to decide. All that FAD does, it creates a very realistic type look to the image…..

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Image above was taken with my E-M5 and only edited in RAW

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In the Above image I applied the FAD technique plus I reduced the saturation.