Steve's Photography Tips: Using Layers in Photoshop

Tips to help you improve your photos!

One of the main advantages that Photoshop has over Lightroom is Photoshop’s ability to work with layers. While Lightroom just allows you to manipulate a single photo, with Photoshop you can stack different photos on top of each other as separate layers, and even have only parts of each layer visible, allowing you to create all sorts of interesting photos.

Today’s post will look at one use of layers in Photoshop, although this is by far the only way to use layers. However, hopefully this will also give a basic overview of layers and some of what you can do with them.

For this example, we will use two different “exposures” from the same Raw file to bring out some color detail that isn’t present in just one edit of the file. We will then blend the two layers together to get one final photo that joins the best of the two layers. By the way, if you want to see the final photo right now, it was the photo featured in yesterday’s post from the Disney Dream at Sea. Read on to see how it was accomplished!

For starters, I will open the base photo from the original Raw file.

Learn how to use layers in Photoshop to make your photos even better in the latest from Steve’s Photography Tips at Burnsland!

As you can see from the screenshot above (click on it to see it a little larger, by the way), I used my basic method of opening Raw files by turning down the highlights and turning up the shadows to even things out. You don’t necessarily have to do this, but it is the type of look that I like.

Once that photo is open in Photoshop, I open the same Raw file again, but this time I use some different settings:


In the earlier photo, I wasn’t happy with how the sky and the water looked rather bland. So for this version of the photo, I adjusted the temperature, exposure, whites, and blacks until the sky and water were a nice, bright blue and the clouds were still mostly white.

At this point, there are two photos open in Photoshop, accessible by the tabs at the upper left. Because the first photo is the “base” photo, I want to put the blue sky photo on top of it. To do so, after I click on the tab of that photo, I choose “Select > All” from the menu at the top, and then “Edit > Copy,” to copy the entire photo. Next, I click on the tab of the base photo, and choose “Edit > Paste” from the menu. This pastes the second photo on top of the first photo as a separate layer:


Right now, it just looks like the second photo, because the first one is underneath it. Here is a closer look at the layer control area at the lower right of the screen:


You can click the “eye” icon on the top photo to turn it on and off to see the different layers. Because both of these layers came from the same original photo, they should be lined up perfectly. If you are using different photos as your layers, you may have to move them to align them better, and Photoshop has some built-in tools to help with that, too.

The next step is to add a layer mask to the top layer. In Photoshop, there are several different layer masks. You can create a layer mask to show the entire layer or to hide the entire layer. For this, I will add a mask that hides the entire layer and then go in and let through what I want to be seen. To do this, from the menu select “Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All.”


Again, a closer look at the Layers section at the lower right:


Here, you can see the black layer mask on the top layer. Black means that the entire layer is masked, or not visible. If the mask is white, the entire layer is visible. So now, we will edit the mask to let through the parts that we want to be seen.

To edit the mask, I will paint over it with white. Make sure you click on the black square of the mask so that you are painting on the mask and not on the actual layer, and then select a brush. I use a brush with a fuzzy edge instead of a hard edge, which works better when I get close to what I don’t want to brush over, and I set the color to white. And I use a nice, large brush. For this photo, I had the size set to 800 for most of what I did. I also set the opacity to somewhere around 35%. That allows you to gradually brush in what you want, although you do have to go over the area a few times to get all of it. You can set the opacity higher to go over it fewer times if you want.

I then brush over the parts that I want to include, which in this case is the blue sky and blue water. For the fine edges near the ship, I use a smaller brush and zoom in closer, so that I don’t get anything in the mask that I don’t want to include. Here is a look at the masked layer with the base layer turned off, just so that you can see what the layer mask actually does:


As you can see, the blue sky and water are there, but the parts of the ship that we didn’t want to include aren’t there, as indicated by the checkerboard area. Once the base layer is turned on, those parts of the original image show through, while the unmasked parts of the top layer are visible. Also, you can see that the parts that I did paint aren’t all the way visible, because of my use of the soft brush. This way, some of the layer below will still show through. But in this case, because the two layers are actually the same photo, that won’t be a problem. If you were masking in something from a different photo, you would want to increase the opacity of your brush so that the mask is entirely white and not actually a very light gray.

And the layer control area shows the masked areas, too:


That lets you quickly see what is white and what is black, or which parts of the layer show and which parts don’t show.

Turning on both of the layers gives the finished view:


And if you want to see it without all the surrounding screen, here is the photo by itself:


It turned out pretty good, I think. And if you weren’t looking for it, you probably wouldn’t know that anything had been done. To me, that’s always the best compliment - making a somewhat unnatural photo that actually looks rather natural.

And just for fun, here is a before and after comparison showing the difference between the two:


While the first version was good, the new version is definitely better. The blue of the sky looks much more inviting this way, don’t you think?

By the way, if you saw the finished version in yesterday’s post, it still looks a little different than where I stopped here. I also did some noise reduction and some further color work to get the ultimate look that I was going for, but by far the layering of the two exposures was the biggest part of the work. And once you know the basics of doing that, you can use it for all sorts of effects, making good photos look even better than they did before.

Watch for more soon from Steve’s Photography Tips!

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.