Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1)

02 Dec

The post Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Nisha Ramroop.

Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1)

If you use Photoshop, you probably already know that layers are a great non-destructive way to edit. Within the realm of layers, there exists a group of very useful editing tools called Adjustment Layers that allows for easy editing of your images. As with most Photoshop tools, there are several ways to achieve the same result. When you use Photoshop adjustment layers (as with other layer types), you can make changes, save it as a Photoshop file (PSD) and undo/change it many years later. Since no pixels are destroyed or changed, your original image stays intact. Let’s take a look at the basics of using Photoshop Adjustment Layers.

Accessing Photoshop Adjustment Layers

There are two ways to access Photoshop Adjustment Layers.

1. To access via the Layers Menu; choose Layer->New Adjustment Layer, and choose one of the many adjustment types (which are expanded upon below).


2. To access via the Layers Panel; click on the half black/half white circle at the bottom of the Layers Panel, and choose the adjustment type you want to work with.

Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1)

Adjustment Layer Types

1. Brightness and Contrast

Brightness and Contrast allow you to make simple adjustments to the brightness and contrast levels within your photo. When you adjust brightness, the overall lightness (or darkness) of each pixel in your frame is changed. To increase a photo’s tonal values and increase the highlights, slide the Brightness to the right. To decrease a photo’s tonal values and increase the shadows, slide the Brightness to the left.

Contrast, however, adjusts the difference between the brightness of the elements in your image.  Thus, if you increase brightness you make every pixel lighter, whereas if you increase contrast you make the light areas lighter and the dark areas darker.


2. Levels

The levels tool adjusts the tonal range and color balance of your image. It does this by adjusting the intensity levels of the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights in your image. Levels Presets can be saved and then easily applied to further images.

Of note, if you use the Image menu to open the levels tool (Image->Adjustments->Levels) a separate layer will not be created and the changes will be committed directly (destructively) to your image layer. Thus, I recommend using the Adjustment Layers menu (as shown above)  to access this very useful tool.

Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1)

3. Curves

While the Levels adjustment allows you to adjust all the tones proportionally in your image, the Curves adjustment lets you choose the section of the tonal scale you want to change. On the Levels graph, the upper-right area represents the highlights, while the lower-left area represents the shadows.

Use either of these adjustments (levels or curves) to correct your tone when your image’s contrast is off (either too low or high).

The Levels Adjustment works well if you need to apply a global adjustment to your tone. To apply more selective adjustments, you are better off using Curves. This includes adjustments to just a small section of the tonal range or if you only want to adjust light or dark tones.


4. Exposure

When you think of exposing an image properly, you are concerned with capturing the ideal brightness, which will give you details in both the highlights and shadows. In Photoshop Adjustment Layers, the Exposure Adjustment has three sliders that adjust Exposure, Offset and Gamma.

Use the Exposure slider to adjust the highlights of the image, the Offset slider for the mid-tones and the Gamma to target the dark tones only.

Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1)

5. Vibrance

Use the Vibrance Adjustment Layer to boost the duller colors in your image. The great thing about increasing vibrance is that it focuses on the less-saturated areas and does not affect colors that are already saturated.

Image: Vibrance adjusts only the duller colors in an image

Vibrance adjusts only the duller colors in an image


Look at the difference in the greens between this image and the one above. Saturation adjusts all the colors (and tonal range) in an image.

6. Hue/Saturation

Hue and Saturation, allows you to change the overall color hue of your image, as well as how saturated the color is.

You can change the hue (color) of your entire image by keeping “Master” selected in the dropdown (this is set by default). Alternatively, you can pinpoint the color you would like to change the hue of. You can choose from Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyan, Blues or Magentas.

In addition to adjusting the obvious hue and color saturation of your image, this Photoshop Adjustment Layer allows you to adjust the lightness of your entire image as well as work with specified colors. Keep in mind that changing the overall saturation of an image affects your tonal range.

Image: Use the Hue Adjustment to get creative

Use the Hue Adjustment to get creative

Color Balance

The Color Balance Adjustment layer is used to change the overall mixture of colors in an image and works well for color correction.


Color Balance adjusted for the mid-tones to include more red

You first need to select either Shadows, Midtones or Highlights, to choose the tonal range you want to change.

Check the Preserve Luminosity box to preserve your luminosity values (brightness or darkness) and maintain the tonal balance as you change the color in your image. Move your slider toward the color you want to increase and away from the color you wish to decrease.

Black and White

As the name implies, the Black and White adjustment layer allows you to easily take your images to a grayscale version or apply a color tint entirely.

There are many ways to achieve black and white image processing. The Black and White Photoshop Adjustment Layer is one of the better ones. It allows you to lighten or darken specific color ranges to enhance your black and white conversion. Example: If you want the blues of your color image to stand out more when converted to black and white, simply toggle that slider. You can add more or less contrast by making particular colors lighter or darker.


1. When you choose the Black & White Adjustment Layer, you get a default black & white conversion 2. You can tweak the image based on selective colors. In this example, the blues and yellows were adjusted 3. You can apply a tint (of any color) over the entire image by ticking the Tint box and selecting the color you wish to overlay.

Important Note: While most of these adjustments are available under the Image menu (Image->Adjustments), using them from there does not work the same. The main difference is that these are applied directly to the image (destructively) as opposed to when done under Adjustment Layers. When done under Adjustment Layers, you can turn the adjustment on and off by selecting and deselecting the “eye” in the layers panel.


Photoshop Adjustment Layers are a great group of tools that allow you to smartly edit your image in a non-destructive way. Your original pixels are preserved, so you are able to come back and change your edits years later. Thus, they give you the power to undo easier and work more efficiently.

Photoshop Adjustment Layers group together the most common editing tasks, along with a few others to help you bring your images to life.

In Part 2, we will explore some other tools in the Adjustment suite.

Share with us in the comments your favorite adjustment tool and how you use them.

The post Photoshop Adjustment Layers Explained and How to Use Them (Part 1) appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Nisha Ramroop.

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