Layers Palette Basics in Photoshop Elements

The Layers Palette in Photoshop Elements may seem a bit overwhelming in the beginning.  In this tutorial, we’ll explore it and break down some basics.  First of all, there are several types of layers as demonstrated in the graphic below.  Each layer is like a slide that stacks on top of the next to create a scrapbook page. Image layers include such things as background papers, fill layers which may be a solid color, gradient, or a pattern, photos, and elements.  An Adjustment layer is a special type of layer used to make nondestructive modifications to a layer.  Shapes drawn using the shape tool are on Shape layers.  Type layers are for adding words to your layout.  That’s a lot of information already.  Next, we’ll look at each type of layer and how they’re used.


Image Layers (AKA Layer)

Image layers, also known simply as layers, are essentially digital forms of an acetate sheet (think of an overhead projector). So you start with a background paper or color fill and build upon it.   Remember a fill layer can be a solid color, gradient or pattern.  You can build upon the first layer with more background papers, fill layers, photos, or elements stacking one upon another.  Each layer can be edited without affecting the others.  You can resize, move, apply a filter or style, etcetera without bothering any other layer.  You can have as many layers as your computer memory allows.

The Layers Palette may be visible on the right-hand side of your workspace or floating depending on how you’ve set your preferences.  You can get more information about setting preferences here.  If you cannot see your Layers Palette go to Windows> Layers or use the F11 key.  You can rearrange layers by right-clicking & holding the layer you want to move then dragging it up or down.

In addition, you can group layers by selecting the layers you’d like to group then right-click> Group from Layers.  To select contiguous (touching) layers: select the bottom layer> hold the Shift key> select the top layer> right-click> Group from Layers.  The New Group from Layers box opens.  Name the group, set the color you’d like, Mode is Pass Through; Opacity 100%.  Note: This works whether you start at the bottom or top.  If the layers are not contiguous, use the Ctrl key then click each layer you want to select.






Group in any way that makes sense to you.  In the example below, I’ve set up several groups and color coded them.

  1. Blue groups all the graffiti.
  2. Yellow groups the frame, the paper bits in the frame, the photo, and the word strips.
  3. Orange groups the scatter flowers.
  4. Red is all the elements included in the cluster except the one leaf element I left out to use as an example here.


To the left side of each layer or group, the eyeball toggles layer visibility on and off.  The right-arrow opens and closes the group.  When the group is open you can add to, delete, rearrange each layer within the group individually.  The fx on the paperleaves layer means that styles have been applied to the group.






Adjustment Layer

An adjustment layer is a special type of layer used for modifying the layer below it.  This kind of layer is nondestructive so no changes are applied directly to your image. And, because the correction is on a separate layer, you can edit, or even delete, the adjustment at any time. Adjustment layers apply the correction only to the layers below them, without affecting any of the layers above them.

In the example below I added an adjustment layer with solid red.  Notice it’s on a separate layer.  Next, I selected the thumbnail below the adjustment layer by holding the Ctrl key and clicking on the thumbnail.  Then, I clicked on the white mask on the adjustment layer & used a black brush to reveal the layer below.  If I change my mind later I can simply delete the adjustment layer.  This is a simple example but I hope it illustrates how an adjustment layer can be used.


adjustment layer



Shape Layer

The Shape layer is created when you choose the Shape Tool to draw a shape.  The available shapes are nested together and the last shape used is the one shown in the Toolbox. When you click on Shape Tool the options open at the bottom of the workspace.  Use this area to choose the desired shape, color, and any other options then click on the layout to begin to draw the shape.  Hold the Shift key if you want to draw a perfect square or circle.

A new vector layer is created when you draw the shape.  A vector layer is based on mathematical equations using points and paths instead of pixels, therefore, it can be resized without causing degradation and they’re always printed with smooth edges.  You can edit, move, transform, apply blend modes, and change the opacity on shapes. However, if you want to apply filters the layer needs to be simplified (rasterized) first.  Right-click> Simplify Layer.





Type Layer

The Type Tool adds titles, text, and journaling to your layout.  When you click on the Type Tool the available tools and options open at the bottom of the workspace.  Select the tool you want to use, select the font, size, etc then click on the layout and start typing or create a text box first.  To create a text box left-click on the layout, then hold & drag.  Type the text and check commit.   The Type layer is created and shows a T icon thumbnail.



type tool


In Conclusion

We have looked at each type of layer in Photoshop Elements and covered some basics.  It is a lot of information and there is so much more.  I don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed so I’m trying to break it down into bite sized pieces. Next month, I want to dive deeper with blend modes, masks, layer styles, and more.  Please ask if you have any questions.  If you’d like something covered in more detail, please let me know.  If you are a Photoshop user instead of Photoshop Elements, there is a sister article for Photoshop CS6 here that may be helpful.

Credits: Kit used in this tutorial is Back to School by Kimeric Kreations.




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  • Annette September 12, 2017   Reply →

    Grouping of layers does not work in earlier versions of Photoshop Elements. Which version do you work with?

    • Yobeth Puckett September 16, 2017   Reply →

      I use PSE15 but I think grouping started in version 12, at least that is what I’ve been told. I’m not sure though because I jumped from v9 to v14 then v15. I know it’s available in 14 & 15.

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