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Quick Tips for Photoshop Adjustment Layers

Three secrets to improving adjustment layer workflow

Adjustment layers bring an immense amount of control to the Photoshop workflow. Not only do they make it easy to make big changes to color, contrast, brightness and more, but they do it easily and non-destructively—without harming the actual image-forming pixels. You see, an adjustment layer is like a filter laid over an image, increasing the contrast or warming the color balance or even converting an image to black and white. But because the adjustment is isolated to a layer unto itself, it can be toggled off and on to reveal the unaltered original image on the layers below. It’s because of this that adjustment layers have become so popular: They make it incredibly easy to change an image, incredibly easy to later modify that change and easier still to undo it down the road.

As straightforward as adjustment layers may be, there are a few simple tricks that can make them even better. Here’s a look at three quick and easy ways to get more out of Photoshop adjustment layers.

Clip To Layer Below

By default, adjustment layers act as a sort of filter through which to view the layers below. But what if you want the adjustment layer to apply to only one layer—in particular, the one immediately beneath the adjustment layer? There’s a tool for that, and it’s called Clip to Layer Below. Found on the bottom left of the adjustment layer palette, you’ll see a little box icon with an arrow pointing down. This is the Clip to Layer Below function, and it does what it says: It applies the adjustment to the layer below and only to the layer below. In this way, if you had, say, a masked layer containing just the subject, just the background or some other isolated element, the adjustment layer can be applied with one click to only impact that element. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s intuitive. After clicking it, you’ll see that same arrow icon adjacent to the adjustment layer in the layers palette, indicating that the adjustment is in fact only applied to the layer below.

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Icons Make It Easy

To apply adjustment layers, many photographers may choose to access them from the dropdown menu at the top of the application window—looking under the Layers menu to find the New Adjustment Layer heading and then choosing an effect from the list. But the real beauty of adjustment layers is how seamlessly they integrate into a visual workflow. By setting your default workspace to include panels you access regularly—say, layers, actions and history, for instance—a photographer’s workflow becomes more streamlined. That’s doubly true for the many options available in adjustment layers because the Adjustments palette includes 16 visual icons—one each for accessing the different adjustments available. This means you can begin to learn which icon represents which action and more quickly apply your oft-used adjustments. In my case, I’m regularly working with Levels, Photo Filters and Black & White adjustment layers, so I can almost instantly access and apply those adjustments by clicking on their icons in the Adjustments palette.

As you’re learning which icons go with which adjustments, hover your mouse over the icon to reveal its name in the top of the Adjustments palette. Soon enough, you won’t need to read the name and your workflow will be that much faster. To add the Adjustments palette to your default view, go to the Window menu and click to put a check by the Adjustments heading. You can even go a step further and establish your workspace with your favorite palettes visible and then create a new workspace to save them as the default.

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Modify Adjustment Layers With Modes And Masks

Adjustment layers, while unique, still retain many of the benefits of Photoshop layers. Namely, they can be edited and modified and masked just like any other layer. You can modify the adjustment layer’s opacity as you would with any other layer, and you can even change the blending mode as with other layers. Plus, the power of the adjustment layer is that the adjustment itself can be revised during later stages of the edit. Instead of undoing and redoing an entire adjustment layer, simply double-click on the adjustment’s icon in the layers palette to bring up the Properties palette and you’ll see the adjustment’s settings as you previously established them.

From here, you can increase or decrease the amount of change or make any modifications to the adjustment just as you would have when you initially applied the adjustment layer. You can further tweak the adjustment by clicking on the layer mask icon in the layer’s palette—not the adjustment icon, but the layer mask icon (which is a white rectangle by default). This empty layer mask is generated when the adjustment layer is created. Because it’s empty, the adjustment applies across the entirety of the frame. But by clicking on the layer mask to make it active, you can use a paintbrush with any amount of opacity to subtly or significantly paint a mask onto the layer. This will block the adjustment from showing through in these portions of the frame. You can freehand this to make subtle, general changes or apply a selection if you’d like a cut and dried differentiation between image elements that should have the adjustment applied and those that should not.

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