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Stopping an Adjustment Layer from Affecting Everything Underneath

If you've ever been frustrated when adding an adjustment layer in Photoshop only to find that everything underneath gets affected rather than just the layer you thought you were adjusting, this tip is for you.

First, as a refresher, adjustment layers are a good thing since they allow you to optimize your images in Photoshop without directly changing, and thus damaging, the actual image pixels. And if you change your mind later, you can modify that adjustment layer, still without inflicting any added damage to your precious image. Levels, Curves, and many other common photographic edits can be done as adjustment layers. As with the Hippocratic Oath of the doctor, the first rule of image editing should be "do no harm," and the adjustment layer is a key part of making that possible.

But adjustment layers don't work exactly the same as do the equivalent edits made directly to an image layer. One of the most noticeable differences is the affect they have on other layers in a document, specifically those other layers that happen to be underneath the layer you are working on. When changing Levels or Curves directly on a layer, the affect of your changes are naturally constrained to just that layer. But if you instead add a Levels or Curves adjustment layer to make sure your changes remain nondestructive, you will find that whatever you do affects not just the intended target, it affects everything from that point on down to the background layer. If you are in fact working on the background layer, or indeed any layer with no transparency, you won't really care since there either are no layers underneath, or if there are, nothing of them shows through and any possible affect on them can be ignored.

A regular adjustment layer
A regular adjustment layer

An adjustment layer with a clipping mask
An adjustment layer with a clipping mask

This is often the case when working on photographic images since the camera delivers nothing but a background layer. On the other hand, if you're a graphic artist, you probably work often with documents made up of many layers. And this is where the element of frustration comes in for photographers. The first time you want to save a somewhat flawed image enough to do something more complicated than usual you may well run up against the problem being addressed in this article. It might almost seem as if Photoshop isn't working correctly. But there is a solution. Two of them in fact.

If you have just a single layer that needs work, you can limit the actions of an adjustment layer to just that layer with the push of a button. But many photographers don't yet know where that button is. Assuming you are using Photoshop CS4 or CS5, you'll find it at the bottom of the adjustment panel looking like a small black circle atop a white one. It's been there all along but you likely were never tempted to click on it. Pressing it changes its appearance to look more like two overlapping white circles with only their intersection now black. But more importantly, pressing it creates what's known as a "clipping mask" for your new adjustment layer. Technically, a clipping mask uses the content of one layer to mask what lies above it. Thus, adding a clipping mask to your adjustment layer constrains its effects to just those areas that are not transparent in the layer you added it to. Which is exactly what you want for the problem at hand.

If you are still using Photoshop CS3 or earlier, the needed button is less obvious still. Since the adjustment panel was new to CS4, there is no black-circle-atop-a-white-one button. But you can still create a clipping mask the old fashioned way. To do so, first create the adjustment layer as normal, then hold down the Alt key (Option key on OS X) and click on the horizontal dividing line between the new adjustment layer and the layer you added it to directly underneath. Both the new way and the old fashioned give you the same result. You should see your new adjustment layer indent slightly to the right in the layers panel with a small downward arrow sliding in to space thus created to the left. The arrow points to the layer that serves as your new clipping mask. But more importantly, when you make changes to the settings in your new adjustment layer, their affect will be limited to just that one single layer.

A Layer Group
A Layer Group

So what if you want your adjustment layer to affect more than one layer, but still not all the layers underneath? This is where the concept of a Layer Group comes in handy. To create one, click on the icon button that looks like a file folder at the bottom of the layers panel. You'll see a new Layer Group added to your layers panel directly above the layer you had selected at the time. You can then drag the layers with your mouse you want to be included into the group.

If you look at the blending mode for your group, you'll notice that it uses a mode called "Pass Through" not normally available. If you add an adjustment layer to a layer in your group, its affects will "pass through" and modify all the layers in your document underneath this group in much the same way as the default behavior of a regular adjustment layer without a clipping mask. While you can click on the clipping mask button on an adjustment layer you add within your group, this will limit its affect to just that single layer, just as it does outside a group. To get your new adjustment layer to affect everything underneath it within the group, but not those layers underneath the group, the secret is to change the blending mode for the group from the default "Pass Through" to "Normal." Oddly, "Normal" isn't normal for layer groups.

Regardless of whether you use a clipping mask or create a layer group and change the default blending mode back to "Normal," the result is basically the same. It's just that one method limits you to a single targeted layer while the other lets you control multiple levels with a single adjustment layer. In both cases though, frustration of having your adjustment modify everything is solved.

Date posted: February 19, 2012


Copyright © 2012 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Previous tip: The Confusion of Unsynchronized Adobe Color Settings Return to archives menu Next tip: Bicubic Smoother versus Bicubic Sharper, and Which You Should Really Use

Related articles:
Photoshop Adjustment Layers 101
Adjustment Layer Plus Layer Mask Equals Ultimate Flexibility
How Big is Your Adjustment Window?
The Ins and Outs of Photoshop Layer Groups

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