Introduction to Photoshop Adjustment Layers

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Introduction to Photoshop Adjustment Layers

This article is part of our series Photo Editing 101 by Ian Pullen. This series will cover all of the basics of using Photoshop for editing photos. If you’re just getting started with Photoshop or photo editing, or if you’re looking to improve your skills in this area, this series will provide an excellent foundation. If you want to make sure that you don’t miss future articles you can subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook. You can also find the articles that have already been published by visiting the Photo Editing 101 course page.

Adjustment Layers in Photoshop allow you to make non-destructive edits to photos. What this means is that your adjustments are not applied to the base photo, so that you can delete or tweak an adjustment at any time without adversely affecting any other adjustments that you have made.

In early versions of Photoshop, adjustments were applied directly to the base photo and you can still find these controls listed in the Image menu under Adjustments. If you apply two of these adjustments to a photo and then decide that you no longer want to apply the first adjustment, your only option is to use the Edit > Undo or History palette to remove the second adjustment and then the first adjustment. You now need to reapply the second adjustment.

With Adjustment Layers, however, you can just turn off or delete the first adjustment, while leaving the second in place. You could even choose to reduce the strength of the first adjustment, rather than removing it completely, by reducing the opacity of the layer in the Layers palette. And you can also edit the specifics of the Adjustment Layer at any time.

Where are the Adjustment Layers Found?

Adjustments Palette

As with many aspects of Photoshop, there’s more than one way to get access to the Adjustment Layers. The first is to go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer and there you’ll find a list that includes most, but not all, of the options available under the Image > Adjustments menu. My advice to you is that if a feature is available in the New Adjustment Layer menu, use that rather than the option in the Image menu.

The second, and my preferred way to access Adjustment Layers, is through the Adjustments palette. If it’s not already open, go to Window > Adjustments to make it visible.

What Can Adjustment Layers Do?

Adjustments Palette

The clue is really in the name – they allow you to make adjustments to your photos. There are 15 different types of Adjustment Layer in total and you will probably find that you use some of these on almost every image, while you may never touch some of the others.

They’re placed into three groups, with the first group being those tools that allow you to tweak and adjust the basic exposure of the photo. You’ll likely use one or more of these on every photo that you work on.

The next group focuses on adjusting the colors of the image, including converting a photo to black and white. The last group are more suited to applying creative effects. These are probably the ones that you will use least or possibly, even, never.

How Do You Add Adjustment Layers?


The general usage of Adjustment Layers is pretty straight forward – select the type of adjustment from either the Layer menu or palette and you’ll see a new layer added to the Layers palette, directly above the currently active layer. I’ve added a Curves Adjustment Layer in the screen shot above and have applied a gentle S curve to it.

I’m not going to focus on the different types of Adjustment Layers here, that’s a job for future articles in this course, but let’s take an overview of the common features that apply to all of them.

What are the Common Features?

Adjustments Palette

Looking at the Adjustments palette again, you can see that the Curves tool is still open. Most of the controls on display here are specific to the Curves only, but look to the bottom bar of the palette and you’ll see several controls that are common to all of the Adjustment Layers.

Let’s work across from left to right and briefly describe the function of each of them.

  • The Return to Adjustment List simply reopens the main palette view, allowing you to select and apply other layers once you’ve finished working with your current layer.
  • The Switch Panel to Expanded View will just open a larger version of the palette and will be useful for users with large screens and plenty of space.
  • The Clip button allows you to apply an adjustment to all layers below or just the layer immediately below.
  • The visibility button allows you to show or hide the current layer and this has the exact same effect as using the layer visibility option in the Layers palette.
  • The next button will initially be grayed out and only becomes active when you return to an Adjustment Layer after focusing on another layer. In this case, you can use it to compare new edits to a layer with the previous state. So, if I returned to the Curves layer and made a new edit, I can click this button to compare the two edits and if I prefer the original, I can go to Edit > Undo to remove the later edits.
  • The Reset button will set a layer back to its default settings, so you can start from a blank sheet if you decide you’ve got a bit out of control.
  • Finally, the Delete button will permanently remove the layer.

What are the Presets?


One last thing to look at are the range of Presets that you’ll see listed on the main view of the Adjustments palette. Click on any of the items in the list and you’ll then be presented with a range of options that allow you to make quick, one click adjustments.

Above you can see the result after I applied the Cross Process preset to my image. This can be a great way to get an understanding of how different Adjustment Layers settings can affect an image.

How Do You Save Your Own Presets?


A handy tip with Presets is the fact that you can also save your own. You can see in the screen shot that I’ve sabotaged the Cross Process Preset and then clicked on the little icon in the top right of the Adjustments palette to display a list of options relevant to the palette. From these, I just selected the Save Curves Preset and then gave the new Preset a name. Next time I view the list of Presets, my new version will be displayed too, making it easy to apply the exact same effect to other photos.


This is a general overview of the Adjustment Layers rather than taking a detailed look at any of the specific layer types. However, without an overall understanding of this palette, you’re not going to be able to make the most of the different adjustments that are available. We’ll cover several of the most important types of Adjustment Layers in upcoming articles.