Why adjustment layers are preferable to directly editing an image in Photoshop

This content is 15 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

I’ve been trying to improve my Photoshop skills recently including signing up for Digital Photography evening classes at a local college (which, 4 weeks in, are very disappointing) but I’ve also been picking up some tips at my local camera club.

At last night’s club meeting, John Winchcomb gave a very technical talk on tone and colour correction which I’m still trying to get my head around but that talk included a very useful tip: instead of reaching for the various adjustment options on Photoshop’s Image menu (including common options like levels and curves), consider creating a new adjustment layer instead. That way it is possible to go back and edit the adjustments as they are applied as a non-destructive edit rather than being directly applied to the image. Normally the adjustment layer will apply to all layers below but it can be created as a clipping layer to only affect the layer immediately below.

Other advantages to adjustment layers include the ability to selectively edit using an image mask and also to copy and paste adjustment layers in order to apply the same changes to multiple images.

Whilst on the subject of layers, it’s probably worth highlighting another tip I picked up recently: before doing anything in Photoshop, create a new layer by copy (Ctrl+J on a PC or command+J on a Mac) and work on that. Using this method, the original image will remain on the background unaffected, should you ever want to revert, or to compare the manipulated image with the original.

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