LESSON 4 – Basic Layers

CIOS F255 - University of Alaska Fairbanks


Composite images are a trademark use of Photoshop.   Layers make these composite images possible. By placing artwork on separate layers in Photoshop, you can edit each layer as a distinct object. Through the use of blending modes, layers allow you to create almost limitless variations.

Your challenge for this lesson is to place objects on separate layers and then arrange them and blend them together into an attractive single image that conveys a message.

At the end of this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Create, delete, group,  rearrange and switch between multiple  layers
  • Combine two or more images into a multi-layered document
  • Implement a blending mode on a single layer or multiple layers
  • Select and refine the selected portion of an image
  • Use composition and layering of  multiple images and effects to communicate a message





Background  Layer
When you create a new image in Photoshop, it has a single layer, called the background layer. You cannot change the position of the background layer in the stacking order (it is always at the bottom of the stacking order), nor can you apply a blending mode or opacity to a background layer. You  can  convert a background layer to a regular layer by double-clicking on its name in the layers panel and giving it a new name, or by choosing Layer > New > Layer From Background. Once it’s converted, you can reorder it in the stacking order, apply blending modes and opacity, etc.

Layer Effects
Double click on a layer to bring up the layer effects interface. You can do all kinds of effects   – outlines, drop shadow, etc. Check it out. Choose the effect on the left and play with the settings. If you ever need to go back and edit the effect, just double click on the layer again.

Panel Menu
The small triangle next to the horizonal lines at the top right corner of a panel contains the panel menu. Click on the triangle to reveal the menu choices for that panel.

Active Layer
When you create a multi-layered document in Photoshop, changes made to the image are applied to the active layer—not to any of the other layers. When you view the layers panel, the active layer is highlighted. It is important to be aware of which layer is active before selecting or editing. For example, if you try to make a selection in a layer, but a layer other than the one you intended is active, you will select pixels from that layer, not the one you wanted to select from.

Shortcut for Selecting a Layer
At some point (when you have a document with dozens of layers) you may find it frustrating to try to find a specific layer in the layers panel. With the move tool, you can Command+click on an area of the image, and the corresponding layer will be selected. (PC = Control+click).

Shortcut to Select Pixels
Command+click on a layer’s thumbnail image in the layers panel to select all  pixels  on the layer (PC = Control+click). This is different than Select All, because it ignores any transparent areas on the layer and only selects pixels.

Shortcut to Hide Layers
To view just one layer, Option+click on the eye icon beside the layer you want to remain visible—all other layers will be hidden.

Staying in Control of Lots of Layers
Name your layers! It will streamline your work!


Composite images can be used for a variety of purposes. Here are some examples of collages made with Photoshop.

collage + blending mode

This is a good example of a collage that takes advantage of blending modes. (credit)

This complex collage combines many effects including selective color replacement (green dress, lipstick), black & white images with color adjustments (soldier), layered blending modes (backgrounds – flowers, tanks, clouds), and more. the composition is interesting and artistic and would be a good illustration potentially for a magazine article. Creating an awesome retro collage tutorial.  See more here:  https://designwebkit.com/tutorials/collage-photoshop-tutorials-bundle/


This is an example of a Photoshop document with many layers including: shapes, adjustment layers, gradient fills, text with effects, masks.  This is what your documents should start to look like as the semester moves on. There can be many many layers in each document!



The new Select and Mask interface will help you refine selections and output the result to the selection, to new layers, or to a layer with a mask. It is an amazing addition to Photoshop CC that we should be using every time we select items.    Play with this interface and output your selections to layers or layers with masks for this week.


Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 5.58.08 PM


When layering images, blending modes is a great way to get a special look and there is a lot more to play with beyond layer opacity. While at first they seem somewhat random, blending modes are actually arranged by category:

blend mode groups

Read a full explanation of blending modes and how they work on this site: https://photoblogstop.com/photoshop/photoshop-blend-modes-explained



international bills






international coins



(click on image link above, then drag to your desktop to download)

1. Start with a blank Photoshop document of at least 1200px x 1200px (doesn’t have to be square). Use  at least three of these images  to create a composite image that illustrates the phrase  “It’s a Global Economy”  OR  “Time is Money”  – choose one theme but don’t use the phrase in your composition.  You can use text if you want (different text, like in the example linked below in step 5) but your illustration should stand on it’s own. Use at least one layer blending mode.
Note: If you would rather use your own images or Public Domain images instead and/or a different theme, you may do so, just tell us where you got your images and what your theme is in your notes.   Check out this resource for places to find great Public Domain Images.
Experiment with blending modes, opacity, and layer effects. Note that blending effects are also available in the options menu (top of window) for the painting tools. Try deleting portions of the images, resizing them, rotating them, or coloring them with a gradient layer. Remember that you have multiple selection tools available and can use a variety of selection tools in making a single selection – also, use Select and Mask (Refined Selections) every time!  Try using only portions of an image. Reorder your layers to achieve different effects. Use layer blending modes. You will not be graded on the  number  of effects you use, but on the overall quality of the image you produce and how effectively it communicates a message.
2. Take detailed notes on what steps you take to achieve your design. What aspects did you find most challenging or wish you knew how to do?
3. When you’re happy with your project, save the file as a .psd file.  Keep the layers intact. Don’t flatten your image.  
4. Make sure your layers are visible and use Jing or other selective screen shot software to make a selection of your screen including the layers panel. Try to get all layers in the image, you may need to take a few screenshots.
5. Save your file for web and upload  your screenshots showing all layers visible and your detailed notes to the blog.  Here is an example of a  finished image.


Log into Blackboard and take QUIZ #4 – Basic Layers  located in the Quizzes section.


Comments on other student’s work is encouraged.