Home How-To Tip Of The Week Retouching Multi-Layered Files
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Monday, July 14, 2014

Retouching Multi-Layered Files

Three techniques to make spotting and retouching easier when working with layers in Photoshop

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The thing that really makes Photoshop an invaluable editing tool, in my opinion, is its ability to process images with layers. Layers allow you to make edits without ever changing the original image-forming pixels. They sit there undisturbed on the background below. By the time I'm ready to do the final retouching—like spotting and blemish removal—it's not uncommon for me to have an image file comprised of several layers. Rather than trying to figure out which layer contains what element I'm trying to retouch, here are three great options for easily retouching layered files.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Merge all layers into a new top layer.
With a single key combination (Command + Option + Shift + E on Mac, Ctrl +Alt + Shift + E on Windows), you can turn all of your layers into one new merged layer atop the stack while preserving all of the individual layers underneath. Retouching on this top layer, then, is easy to modify with masks, opacity changes or even by deleting this modified layer and starting over with another merged layer. Since you've maintained the integrity of your layers and created a single retouching layer on top, it's the best of both worlds.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Create a blank layer on which to edit.
Since my typical retouching includes liberal use of the spot healing brush and cloning stamp, I can also utilize a blank layer for editing. Each of those tools offers the option to "sample all layers" by ticking a checkbox in the tool options. Working on the blank layer (which, remember, must be on the top of the stack), any stamping, painting or healing will in fact sample all the visible layers beneath, but the change itself will be manifested on the blank layer, leaving the layers below untouched. Much like the previous approach, the individual layers are maintained, but the edits occur on the top layer. The only difference is the blank layer doesn't offer quite the same versatility as some tools—like dodging and burning—don't work on blank layers.

Digital Photo Tip Of The Week
Flatten and Save As.
Maintaining a layered file is important, especially if you want the option to go back and make changes efficiently at a later date. That's part of the reason we don't just flatten the image and start retouching away. But that shortcut is a viable option, as long as you use Save As rather than a plain old Save. Save As will allow you to duplicate the file, which you can rename "FileName_Flattened_Retouched" or something along those lines, so that any edits you make later won't require starting over with the flattened image as the original. This option may be the least graceful, but I know it's also technically perfectly useful. As long as you're good at keeping your image files organized and you won't eventually get confused between which image is the layered file and which one has been retouched, then I say use whatever technique you're most comfortable with. That's one of the greatest things about Photoshop: There are usually multiple paths to reach the same destination.

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