Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers – A Complete Guide

Using adjustment layers in Photoshop is a non-destructive way of enhancing or changing images.

By either turning off the visibility or deleting the adjustment layer, your original image will be exactly as it started.

In this guide I will be displaying the effects of all of the adjustment layers, with the settings I used to achieve the result.

Photoshop's Adjustment Layers - A Complete Guide

Creating Adjustment Layers

The easiest way to create an adjustment layer is by clicking the icon at the bottom of the layers palette.

The Adjustment Layers

These are the available adjustment layers:

  • Solid Color
  • Gradient
  • Pattern
  • Brightness/Contrast
  • Levels
  • Curves
  • Exposure
  • Vibrance
  • Hue/Saturation
  • Color Balance
  • Black & White
  • Photo Filter
  • Channel Mixer
  • Invert
  • Posterize
  • Threshold
  • Gradient Map
  • Selective Color

If you wish to work through the examples I have given here, please play with the settings to see the effects of the different adjustment layers. If you go too far and can’t correct it, simply delete the adjustment layer and start again.

All stock images are linked to – click on any before image to visit the page of origin.

It should be noted that we are not correcting photographs in this guide – that is a whole different technique – so the images need to be of good quality to start with.

Using Adjustment Layers

Solid Color & Color Balance

Here are the before and after images using Solid Color and Color Balance adjustment layers:

Solid Color and Color Balance Before

Solid Color and Color Balance After

These are the steps and settings I used to achieve the differences you see above:

Step 1

Open the image and duplicate the background layer

Create a Solid Color adjustment layer using the method described above

Apply the following settings:

Solid Color Settings

Set the Solid Color adjustment layer mode to Overlay and reduce the opacity to 50%

Step 2

Create a Color Balance adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Color Balance Settings

Step 3

Create a new layer

Select white as the foreground colour

Select the Brush tool and a soft, round brush

Paint over all of the waterfall and the splash at the bottom – your image should look like this:

Painted Waterfall

Set the layer mode to Soft Light

Step 4

Create a new layer and set the foreground colour to blue #B2B2F6

Again using a soft, round brush, paint over the top area of water and the orangy parts of the waterfall.

Your image should look like this:

Painted Water

Set the layer mode to Color and reduce the opacity to 35%

Photo Filter & Channel Mixer

Here are the before and after images using Photo Filter and Channel Mixer adjustment layers:

Photo Filter and Channel Mixer Before

Photo Filter and Channel Mixer After

These are the steps and settings I used to achieve the differences:

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background

Create a Photo Filter adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Photo Filter Settings

Step 2

Create a new layer

Set black as the foreground colour

Select the Brush tool and a soft, round brush.

Paint over the stairs where the sunlight is very strong, and the wall to the right of the stairs.

Your image should look like this:

Painted Stairs

Set the layer mode to Soft Light.

Step 3

Create a Channel Mixer adjustment layer and apply the following settings to the Red, Green and Blue channels:

Channel Mixer Settings

Levels and Gradient Fill

Here are the before and after images using Levels and Gradient Fill adjustment layers – I cropped the image so the boy fills much more of it:

Levels and Gradient Fill Before

Levels and Gradient Fill After

These are the steps and settings:

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background

Create a Levels adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Levels Settings

Step 2

Make sure the mask on the levels layer is selected – select it simply by clicking on it.

Select the Brush tool and a soft, round, large brush

With black as the foreground colour, mask out the sky and the football.

Go quite closely around the boy’s hair, then reduce the opacity of the brush to around 35% and go over his hair a little.

To make sure you have masked out everything, you can bring up the layer mask by holding down the Alt key and clicking on the mask in the layers palette.

Your mask should look like this:

Levels Mask

To revert back to your image hold down the Alt key and click on the mask in the layers palette again.

Step 3

Create a Gradient Fill adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Gradient Fill Settings

Set the layer mode to Soft Light.

Brightness/Contrast and Invert

Here are the before and after images using Brightness/Contrast and Invert adjustment layers:

Brightness/Contrast and Invert Before

Brightness/Contrast and Invert After

For this effect I have used a Photoshop Action, created by me and available for download here

If you are not sure how to install Photoshop actions, there is a tutorial here

Step 1

Open your image

Duplicate the image:

Select the Move tool

Image>Duplicate

Make sure there is only one layer and it is named ‘Background’ – if not, right click on any layer and click on Flatten Image.

Run the Skin Enhance Action, accepting all the suggested settings.

Flatten the image once more

Select>All

Edit>Copy

Make the original image active

Edit>Paste

Now reduce the opacity of this new layer to 42%

Step 2

Create a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Brightness/Contrast Settings

Step 3

Create an Invert adjustment layer – there are no settings for Invert.

Reduce the opacity of the Invert layer to 26%

Posterize and Gradient Map

For this effect we will also be using the Channel Mixer adjustment layer again.

Here are the before and after images using Posterize and Gradient Map adjustment layers:

Posterize and Gradient Map Before

Posterize and Gradient Map After

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background layer

I have purposely chosen an image that is quite easy to extract the model. My chosen method is the Pen tool, but there are very many methods and many tutorials available for extraction.

If you have created a layer mask for your extraction, right click on the mask in the layers palette and click Apply Mask.

Turn off the visibility of the original image

Step 2

Create a new layer above the original image and fill with black

Step 3

Create a Channel Mixer adjustment layer above the extracted model layer and apply the following settings:

Channel Mixer Settings-2

Right click on the layer in the layers palette and click Create Clipping Mask – this will make the adjustment layer only effect the cut out model layer.

Step 4

Create a Posterize adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Posterize Settings

Create a clipping mask for this layer also.

Step 5

Create a Gradient Map adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Gradient Map Settings

Reduce the layer opacity to 72%

Create a clipping mask for this layer

Note: When using Posterize with a Gradient Map, you should use the same amount of settings on the gradient that you have set for Posterize – here I set Posterize at 6 and have used 6 stops on the gradient.

Step 6

Make the cut out model layer active and create a new layer – it should automatically be clipped to the layer below.

Select the Brush tool and a soft, round brush, foreground colour black, opacity around 35%

If you now paint areas of the model with black on this layer, some of the posterizing effects will reduce or be totally removed. I painted out some of the heavy effects on the model’s face.

Step 7

Create a new layer above the black filled layer

Select the Custom Shape tool, Registration Target 2 shape, foreground colour orange #F6BF48

Hold down the shift key to maintain the proportions and drag out a circle behind the model. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t fit the whole width of the image, you can enlarge it later.

Select the Elliptical Marquee tool and drag out a selection smaller than the shape you just created. You can use the directional arrow buttons to move this selection into place – you are aiming to get rid of the solid edges, so you want the selection to be inside that outer ring.

Select>Inverse

Hit the delete key

Ctrl + T to transform the object

Hold down the shift key to maintain the proportions and drag the shape out to your required size.

Filter>Noise>Add Noise

Apply the following settings:

Add Noise Settings

Set the layer mode to Dissolve and the opacity to 65%

Pattern Fill and Selective Color

Here are the before and after images using Pattern Fill and Selective Color adjustment layers:

Pattern Fill and Selective Color Before

Pattern Fill and Selective Color After

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background layer

Create a Pattern Fill adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Pattern Fill Settings

Set the layer mode to Overlay and reduce the layer opacity to 22%

Step 2

Create a Selective Color adjustment layer and apply the following settings for each of the 9 colour channels:

Selective Color Settings

Threshold

Here are the before and after images using Threshold adjustment layer:

Threshold Before

Threshold After

For this we will also be using a Gradient Fill adjustment layer again.

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background layer

Create a Threshold adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Threshold Settings

Reduce the layer opacity to 75%

Step 2

Create a Gradient Fill adjustment layer and apply the following colours at the specified locations:

Gradient Fill Settings 2

Change the layer mode to Pin Light

Black & White, Curves and Vibrance

Here are the before and after images using Black & White, Curves and Vibrance adjustment layers:

Black & White, Curves and Vibrance Before

Black & White, Curves and Vibrance After

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background layer

For this image you will need to extract the red flower. Select the red flower using your preferred method. Once selected, Ctrl+J – this will create a new layer containing just the flower in exactly the right place on the canvas.

Step 2

Make sure the original image duplicate layer is active (should be the second layer down from the top)

Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur – apply the following settings:

Gaussian Blur Settings

Step 3

Create a Black & White adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Black & White Settings

Reduce the layer opacity to 85%

Step 4

Create a Curves adjustment layer and try to get as close as possible to the following settings – if you are working on CS5, choose the Curves Preset Increase Contrast:

Curves Settings

Step 5

Make the red flower layer active

Create a Vibrance adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Vibrance Settings

Exposure and Hue/Saturation

Here are the before and after images using Exposure and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers:

Exposure and Hue/Saturation Before

Exposure and Hue/Saturation After

Step 1

Open your image and duplicate the background layer

Create an Exposure adjustment layer and apply the following settings:

Exposure Settings

Step 2

Create a new layer

Select the Brush tool, a soft, round brush, foreground colour blue #1177CE

Paint all of the sky, painting around the rock and down to the horizon where the sky meets the sea

Set the layer mode to Soft Light

Step 3

Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and apply a clipping mask (right click on the adjustment layer and select Create Clipping Mask)

Apply the following settings:

Hue/Saturation Settings

Step 4

Create a new layer

Select the Brush tool, a soft, round brush, foreground colour green #66DDB4

Paint over all of the sea

Set the layer mode to Soft Light

Step 5

Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and apply a clipping mask. Apply the following settings:

Hue/Saturation Settings 2

I hope you have both enjoyed working through these mini-tutorials, and learnt something from them. Adjustment layers are so versatile and non-destructive, and also very effective – a lot of image alterations can be done with adjustment layers whilst keeping the original image exactly as it started.

Please leave any comments below.

 

Carol

I love using and learning Photoshop, and I also enjoy creating resources to share with the world. I am at my happiest when I have free time to further explore all that Photoshop has to offer and learn more about its powerful built-in tools. I hope people enjoy either using or learning from my free resources, and welcome any hints and tips - and of course, if you would like to offer a free resource on this site, please don't hesitate to contact me (top right of the page).

2 Comments

kitiekat4u

about 5 years ago

very nice Carol. this tutorial is very informative.

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