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Quick Tip: Apply Adjustments to a Single Layer

posted by Matt Ward on Jul 12, 2009.

Quick Tip: Learn how to apply an adjustment layer to just a single layer. This is a really simple trick, but it’s not always the most obvious.

So, the other day, a friend of mine who likes to do a bit of work in Photoshop asked me a very simple question. Months ago, I showed him how to use adjustment layers to make non-destructive and completely editable adjustments to his Photoshop images. What he wanted to know, though – and what was driving him crazy as he tried to figure it out – was how to apply an adjustment layer to only a single other layer.

The answer to this question is simple, though not necessarily obvious. In this post I’m going to answer that question for you.

But first, why might we want to apply an adjustment to a single layer? Well take this image for example:

A simple, three layer composition

A simple, three layer composition

Here we have an image of a butterfly peacefully on a nice textured background. I made this quite simply by cutting the butterfly out of this stock photo, placing it over a texture and adding in a bit of shadow. The result is a three layer photoshop file.

Now, suppose that I want to change the colour of the butterfly. I can do this with safely with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. I simply add the adjustment layer and play with the hue and saturation of the red and yellow channels. In this case, I am going to make the butterfly a teal colour. Unfortunately, when I create the adjustment layer, the default behavior is to apply it to everything beneath it. So, we end up with something like this:

Adjustment layer effects the entire document

Adjustment layer effects the entire document

The adjustment layer has changed the colour of the butterfly, which I want. But, it has also changed the colour of the background texture, which I don’t want.

To fix this, make sure that the adjustment layer is directly above the butterfly layer in the Layers pallet. Next, right click (or Control Click) on the adjustment layer and select Create Clipping Mask from the menu.

Select the Create Clipping Mask option

Select the Create Clipping Mask option

Instantly, the adjustment layer becomes applied only to the butterfly, leaving the background it’s natural colour:

Now the adjustment only effects the desired layer

Now the adjustment only effects the desired layer

See – I promised it would be simple. The problem that my friend ran into was that it’s just not obvious. I had the same problem when I was first learning the ropes in Photoshop. It would be much easier if they just called it “Apply to One Layer” or something like that, but the Clipping Mask functionality is much more extensive than that.

Anyhow, I hope this clears helps somebody out there. I know that my friend was certainly glad to learn this simple trick!

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About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Jun 16, 2010

clippingimages says:

Thats a real nice looking piece of work indeed..thanks for sharing

Aug 20, 2010

thomasmburu says:

This has been a huge bother for me. Thegirl post at http://thomasmburu.blogspot.com/ was tiresome for me. I now have the solution and thanks to you.

Nov 12, 2010

Irene says:

You saved my life with this :D Thank you!

Dec 1, 2010

Monkey Monk says:

There is another solution, just push “alt” et click the line between the adjustment layer and our targeted layer…

Or this trick work only on mac ?


Aug 4, 2011

Glow says:

Great! Just what I was looking for :-)

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