Layers In Photoshop Elements

by Kelley

Q: I am a "newbie" to Photoshop Elements.  I just purchased Photoshop Elements 8.   I have used your  website numerous times and it has been very helpful.   I do have one question for you.  What is the difference between a "background layer" and a regular "new layer"?   When would I use a "background layer" to make adjustments and when do I use a "new layer"?   I am confused on the difference between them.

A: Hi Kelley. Don't feel alone in your confusion about Layers. They are one of the more difficult aspects of Photoshop Elements but definitely worth learning.

Background Layers

The Background Layer is the only Layer you see in the Layers panel the first time you open a photo with Photoshop Elements.

If you make a change to your photo, the change will be reflected on your Background Layer. If you make another change to your photo that change will also be in your Background Layer.

If you make a bunch of different changes and then save and close your photo, those changes are a permanent part of your image and you can never get back to the original state of the photo.

That would be fine if you were sure you would always love the adjustments you made. One of the nice things about Layers is they give you the opportunity to change your mind about the alterations you made and always give you the option of going back to the original state of the image.

That's why most if not all of my tutorials begin with duplicating the Background in the Layers panel. You can do that by dragging the Background icon in your Layers panel to the "Create a new layer" icon. This will put a duplicate copy of your Background over your Background in the Layers panel

Now as you make changes to your photo they are all applied to the

duplicate Layer and the Background remains untouched in it's original state.

If you make various changes to the photo and then decide you don't like what you did, you just drag the duplicate Layer to the trash. Then you can start from the beginning by making another duplicate of the Background Layer.

That's one of the basic reasons for not making changes to your Background. So when you make adjustments to a photo make sure you duplicate the Background and work on that duplicate Layer so that you don't permanently change your original photograph.

New Layers

You also asked about using a New Layer. I create a new Layer when instead of just making an adjustment, I want to add something to my photo.

Let's say I want to add a red square to my photo. The first thing I would do is create a new Layer by clicking on the "Create a new layer…". This is not the same as duplicating the Background. This is like laying a clear sheet of glass over my Background Layer that I can add items to.

I would then change my Foreground color to red and make a square selection with the Rectangular Marquee tool and fill it with my Foreground color.

Now I can use my Move tool to move it anywhere I want on my photo. If I had made the square selection on my Background Layer I wouldn't be able to move it independently because instead of being on a separate independent Layer above the Background it would have actually replaced the pixels of the Background where I made my selection.

  • When do you work on the Background Layer?
    Almost never.
  • When do you create a duplicate of the Background and work on the duplicate?
    When you alter the photo.

  • When do you create a new Layer to work on?
    When you add items to your photograph.

I hope this helps you to begin understanding how Layers work in Photoshop Elements.

Thanks for the great question Kelley and good luck!

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