Photoshop Tutorial: Adjustment Layers

In this tutorial, you will use nondestructive Adjustment Layers to change any image in a way that is easy to add and remove effects. “Nondestructive” means the original image is not permanently changed or destroyed.

1. If you haven’t already, download the Photoshop Tutorial Files .zip folder and “unzip” it so you can access the files.

2. In Photoshop, go to File > Open and locate the image called “cougarcubs.jpg” from the tutorial files. Once the file opens, go to File > Save As to save a .psd version in your tutorials folder.

This is a photo from Flickr, posted by user Belen Bilgic Schneider under a Creative Commons license. It cannot be used for commercial purposes, but modifications are allowed.

This photo is from Flickr, where you can see information about the photographer and the Creative Commons license.

3. Next, change the image size by going to Image > Image Size and typing in “1200” for the width. The height should adjust automatically to keep the image proportional. (Make sure the unit is pixels, not inches, or Photoshop will crash trying to make such a large photo!)

4. There are multiple ways to zoom in and out in Photoshop. One particularly useful option is “Fit to Screen,” which will make your artwork perfectly fit your editing window. Go to View > Fit On Screen or use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + 0 (zero) for Windows, or Command + 0 for Macs.

A black-and-white cookie, mmmm. Find one if you’re ever in New York.

5. Beneath the layers panel in the bottom right, click on the half-filled-in circle icon that looks like a black-and-white cookie. This is the icon for Adjustment Layers, which are a nondestructive way of changing the colors of a photo. Because they are effects applied on top of a photo, they can be easily added and undone without affecting the original photo.

From the adjustment layers menu, choose Color Balance. This will add a layer on top of the photo in the layers panel, and automatically bring up a Properties panel to make adjustments. Drag the Yellow-Blue slider slightly to the left, so the number is somewhere between -20 and -30.

6. Click on the adjustment layers icon and choose Levels. This will add a layer on top of the photo in the layers panel, and automatically bring up a histogram showing the distribution of pixels in the image from dark to light. Drag the light and dark sliders a bit toward the center so the cougar cubs’ faces have greater contrast. The background will now look washed out and too bright, but we’ll fix that in the next step.

Adjust the histogram to make the whites lighter after creating an adjustment layer for Levels.

7. To make the levels adjustment apply to the cougar cubs, but not the background, we’ll turn the levels adjustment layer into a mask.

  • With the Levels layer selected in the layers panel, choose the paint bucket tool and use a black swatch to fill in the entire photo.
  • This is filling in the Adjustment Layer rather than the photo, so it covers up that adjustment effect.
  • Switch the color swatches in the left sidebar so the white square is in front, then select the paintbrush tool and change the size to about 80px and blurred around the edges.
  • Use the paintbrush to paint the cougar cubs, especially their faces, so the contrast applies in those areas only.
Choosing a brush size and hardness in Step 7.

8. Click on the adjustment layers icon and choose “Hue/Saturation” to create a new adjustment layer.

  • Note that if you drag the Saturation slider all the way to the left, the photo becomes grayscale. Drag it to the right, and it becomes very brightly colored. Set the slider back in the middle once you see how that works.
  • Click on the “Master” dropdown in the Properties panel and change it to Greens. Drag the saturation slider to the left, and the Lightness slider to the right. This will only affect the green patch in the photo.
  • Repeat this step for Yellows. Now the background will look mostly muted with no bright colors.

9. Click on the adjustment layers icon and choose Brightness/Contrast. Drag the brightness slider a little toward the right, to between 20 and 30.

10. To make the brightness adjustment layer apply to the background but not to the cougar cubs, select the black swatch and then use the paintbrush tool to paint over the cubs again. You can see the black and white areas in the layers panel, with the effect only applying to the white areas.

11. To finish this image, we’re going to add a vignette effect that darkens the corners so the faces in the center stand out.

  • Create a new blank layer at the top of the layers panel by clicking the square icon with a folded corner, and label this layer “Vignette effect.”
  • Select the Elliptical Marquee tool, and draw a rectangle starting from the top left corner of the photo so the oval selection just touches all the edge.
  • Go to Select > Modify > Expand and set the effect to 20px.
  • Go to Select > Modify > Feather and set the effect to 70px.
  • Go to Select > Inverse so the corners of the photo are selected instead of the center.
  • With the black fill selected, use the Paint Bucket tool to click in one of the selected corners.
  • In the layers panel, change the opacity of the vignette layer to 60%.
Using the elliptical marquee tool that exactly fills the image in Step 11.

12. Make sure to save your work!

This image is now complete, with adjustment layers that change the color tone of the image. You can click the eyeball icons to the left of each layer in the layers panel to see how the image looked without any of the effects, or to see what each effect contributes.

A comparison of the original image (left) and the image with adjustment layers applied (right).