Easy-to-follow video tutorials help you learn software, creative, and business skills.Become a member
One of Photoshop's most versatile features are Adjustment layers. If you take a look over on the right, you'll see an Adjustments panel. In the Adjustments panel is a whole collection of different types of adjustments you can make to an image, typically things like adjusting color and tone, or contrast. If you don't know what any of these icons are, you just simply mouse over them, and you'll see the name up here in the upper left-hand corner. You'll also get a little tool tip, if you pause for a second, telling you a little bit more about each adjustment, so things like Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, converting to Black & White and so forth.
Now Adjustment layers are so wonderful because they are nondestructive. They are layers which can be turned on or off, can be masked and so forth. They are not to be confused with some of the legacy adjustments that have been in Photoshop for years, which are located under the Image menu. If I go to Image > Adjustments, you'll see a lot of the same words here: Levels, Curves, Black & White and so forth. The difference between these adjustments under the Image > Adjustments menu is that these are destructive. They actually permanently change pixels in the image if you then save the file.
I'll give you an example of that. If I choose Levels, which can be used to do tonal adjustments on the image. Let's go ahead and open up the midtones by taking that middle slider and dragging it to the left a little bit. I'll just do something radical, not that we would actually do this in the real image. We'll go ahead and click OK. Because I was in the Background layer, I've actually permanently changed those pixels if I were to close this file and save it. In fact, if I go back to Image > Adjustments > Levels, you'll see I'm not starting from my original start point. I've actually damaged those pixels there, and I'm getting a much different histogram, or graph of the tonal levels inside this document.
I'm going to go ahead and hit Cancel. I'm going to Undo that original Levels command that we just did to get back to where we started. In contrast, let's take a look at the difference of how an Adjustment layer works instead. We'll click on the Levels adjustment. And instead of a modal dialog box that covers most of your screen here, all those same adjustments that you just saw in the Levels dialog are available directly in the Adjustments panel, which means it's a lot easier to get in front of your work here without having this dialog box covering up your screen. So, I'm going to go ahead and do that same Levels adjustment, that radical shift.
We took the middle triangle to 1.9 in the dialog. We'll do the same thing in the panel, or roughly. We get pretty much the same result, but notice that the histogram is not changing because it's not destructive. You've just shifted the pixels momentarily. If we take a look at the Layers panel, you can see when we added the Levels adjustment layer, it actually shows up in the Layers panel as the separate row, which means you can turn its visibility off. That's just to prove that, again, it's nondestructive. You can turn it on or off and hide or display that particular effect.
The other cool thing is if I go back and click on any particular layer, you'll see the Adjustments panel lights back up with all the options that you can choose from again. But if I actually click on an adjustment layer itself, that's already been added to this layer stack, you'll see I'm taken right back to that interface. It's remembering the last things I used for that particular adjustment. At the bottom of the Adjustments panel, you'll actually see there is a button here where I can reset that adjustment back to its default setting. So, if I click that button, you'll see it as if I haven't done anything to the file at all.
So, I can always get back to the beginning for each individual adjustment that I might use. Let's go ahead and do some interesting adjustment. We'll just open up those midtones a little bit and maybe darken the image just a touch. The other thing that's interesting about Adjustment layers is that you can use multiple adjustment layers on the same file. You're not just limited to one. If I want to go back to the full set of the Adjustment layer options that I had in my disposal, there is a little Back button at the bottom of the Adjustments panel. We'll go ahead and click that to be taken back to the list of adjustments that we can choose from.
I'm going to go ahead and click on the Black & White adjustment. You see now I've got two different adjustments stacked on top of each other. Each one can be turned on or off. So, the Levels adjustment is what we used to increase contrast, and then this Black & White adjustment was something we could use to convert to black and white without losing the color information down below. You can see it's just a layer, so I can turn it on and off. I can go ahead and delete an adjustment. I'm going to go ahead and click on the Levels adjustment layer in the Layers panel, and there is a little Trash Can, in the Adjustments panel, to get rid of it. It says, "Do you really want to do that?" Yes. You can click the Don't show again check box, so you don't get that error message anymore.
I'll go ahead and click Yes, and I'm back to just this single Black & White adjustment layer. Let's go ahead and click on that adjustment layer again to select it. You can see I have my individual controls for changing how each color converts to black and white. So, I can go ahead and make some adjustments here. I'll change the Cyan and Blues sliders to change how they are being converted to black and white. There are several other advantages of adjustment layers as well. Because they're just like any other layer, one of the first things you might want to try playing with is their opacity. If you take a look at the Layers panel itself, you'll see the Opacity value is set to 100%.
That's the default. If I have my Move tool active - which I do, and if you don't, you just press the letter V on your keyboard to switch to the Move tool - I can just type a number to blend this black and white adjustment layer, or any adjustment layer, back down with the layers underneath it. I'm going to press the number 8 to just make this 80% opaque. You can see I'm getting mostly black and white with just a hint of color back into the image, because I'm getting a blend now between the black and white conversion in that original color layer, again, just reinforcing that these adjustment layers are nondestructive.
The other thing you can do with adjustment layers is actually change their blending mode. Again, every layer has Blend modes available to them. The default Blend mode is Normal here in the layers list. I can actually change that Blend mode to a variety of ones. I'm going to go ahead and choose Overlay, which is a way to really dramatically increase contrast. So, what I've done is taken this Black & White adjustment layer, changed it's Blend mode to Overlay with 80% to make this really punchy high contrast, very saturated color effect. I'm going to go back and change the Blend mode back to Normal.
Then the last kind of big picture benefit of adjustment layers is that every adjustment layer has a built-in layer mask already attached to it, which means if I only want the adjustment to happen in a particular area of an image, all I have to do is grab my Brush tool and start painting where I want that adjustment to be masked. I'm going to press the B key on my keyboard to switch to the Brush tool. You can see my circular cursor there. My Foreground Color is set to Black right now, which means anywhere I paint on this layer - only the layer mask is active here - anywhere I paint with black, I'm going to hide the adjustment of this Black & White conversion.
So, what I want is I want these red shoes to come back in full color. So, I'm going to start painting with black right where those red shoes are. You can see as I paint over that area with the black paint, I'm getting the full version of that color red shoe. I can see I painted too far into the pants. So, I'm just going to press the X key to exchange my Foreground and Background colors. Now that my Foreground Color is white, I can remove from the mask by painting with white over that area. I'll press X again to switch colors. I'm just going to very quickly paint over where I don't want a Black & White conversion with the muted color effect.
I want the full red shoe effect to come back. So, I'll just go paint over this red shoe, and this red shoe, and then that one here, and this other one in the background. So, you can see adjustment layers are very flexible. They are nondestructive. You can turn them on and off. You can change their Opacity. You can click on the word Opacity and adjust the slider there. You can change their Blend mode. We'll change that back to Overlay. Change it back to Normal. And then every adjustment layer has a built-in layer mask that you can actually start painting on directly to hide where that adjustment is taking place.
If you've never played with adjustment layers, I highly encourage you to start adding them to your workflow. They are very flexible. They are all available here in the Adjustments panel. If you want to get back to the list on any given adjustment layer, just click that Back button to go back to the main list in the Adjustments panel, and then you can keep grabbing other adjustments and stacking them on top to get the desired effect you're looking for.
Get unlimited access to all courses for just $25/month.Become a member
Access exercise files from a button right under the course name.
Search within course videos and transcripts, and jump right to the results.
Remove icons showing you already watched videos if you want to start over.
Make the video wide, narrow, full-screen, or pop the player out of the page into its own window.
Click on text in the transcript to jump to that spot in the video. As the video plays, the relevant spot in the transcript will be highlighted.