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13 Key Elements to Mastering Photoshop – Part 1

posted by Matt Ward on Aug 11, 2009.

In this first of three posts, we look at four layer-related elements of Photoshop that I feel you should know if you want to start mastering Photoshop. Of course, this is just my opinion, but these are some of the features that I use all of time in my own work.

There is no doubt that Photoshop is a BIG program. I’ve been working with the program pretty much every day for more than 3 years now, and I still would not call myself a master. I have, however, learned enough to know that what follows are 13 must-know elements for any serious Photoshopper. In this post – the first of three – we will be looking at four of these elements, all somehow related to the use of Layers.

1. Layers

Layers are absolutely critical. Without them, much of the magic of Photoshop would be vastly more difficult – if not downright impossible – to achieve. In their most basic form, there’s not all that much to say about layers, other than the fact that they are exactly what they sound like. Basically a layer is… well a layer. Or, to put it another way, a transparent canvas on which you can paint. These canvases can be stacked on top of each other (or layered, if you will), with sections of the bottommost visible through the transparent portions of the layers above them.

For me, the real value of layers has always been the ability to maintain different elements separately from each other. If I want to create a background for an object, I can create a separate background layer, which I can then edit and modify independently of the main object.

There are also a number of other layer-specific tools and functions that I would like to cover as their own unique topics.

2. Adjustment Layers

One such tool is the Adjustment Layer. I wrote a bit about Adjustment Layers in my post “Develop Good Photoshop Habits”, where I talked about them as a non-destructive alternative to Photoshop’s standard menu-based adjustments. Each Adjustment Layer is actually a separate layer which applies a single adjustment – such as Hue/Saturation – to all of the layers beneath it (or to a single layer, using a clipping mask).

Because Adjustment Layers are also fully editable, they also offer a great deal more flexibility than standard adjustments. You can apply and Adjustment Layer and then come back to it minutes, hours even days later and edit the adjustment, something which is simply not possible with standard adjustments. As such, learning to use adjustment effectively in your Photoshop documents is a hugely valuable skill which can help save a lot of aggravation later on. Trust me on that one!

3. Layer Masks

The next time you want to select the eraser tool to start getting rid of some unwanted pixels, stop and consider using a Layer Mask instead. Like the Adjustment Layer, this is a non-destructive technique, which can achieve much the same effect as the eraser, but in a much less permanent way. A Layer Mask can be applied to virtually any layer, and uses a greyscale bitmap to mask out certain parts of the layer, giving the illusion of it having been erased.

Layer Masks can be used for more than just simulating erasure, though. You can use them to mask out certain effects, such as adjustment layers and smart filters, shapes and pattern layers. As such, learning to use Layer Masks can give you remarkable control over various effects.

4. Layer Styles

Layer styles are special effects that can be applied directly to a layer. They include such things as drop shadows, bevels, glows and overlays, all of which are incredibley useful tools. They are also non-destructive, in the sense that they are applied to the contents of a layer. As changes are made to the layer, the effects are updated accordingly.

Layer styles also give meaning to the somewhat ambiguous “Fill” slider in the Layers palette. At first glance, this slider may seem to have pretty much the same effect as the “Opiacity” slider. The difference, however, is that while reducing the Opacity effects the entire layer, reducing the Fill only effects the contents of the layer, leaving and Layer Styles completely unchanged. Again, this gives you greater control over your document, and can be used to achieve some very interesting effects.

So there you have the first part of this series. If you can dig your teeth into learning Layers, Adjustment Layers, Layer Masks and Layer Styles, you will be well on your way to mastering some of the key features of Photoshop. In the next post in this series, we will be looking at brushes, selections, channels and blending modes.

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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:

Great tips man…thanks for sharing

Mar 15, 2011

sanju says:

Good knowledge for mastering photo shop but graphic narration with this tutorial are more helpful for learner.

May 11, 2011

Thuỳ Anh says:

I’m Vietnamese.
I like the graphics
Thank you for ảticle.

Sep 12, 2011

Pham Tu says:

Thanks for sharing!

May 27, 2012

D says:

nice tips man. ty

Jun 9, 2012

Sarah says:

I like your writing on Adjustment Layers.

Thanks for sharing

Jul 11, 2012


nice Good knowledge but how i can select 2 Layers one time in photoshop 7.0? can u help me?

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