Quick Photoshop Tip – Layer Order

I am going to start mixing in photoshop quick tips.  If you have a quick photoshop tip (or tutorial) you want to share on my blog, please contact me with your ideas or submission.  I would love to have you.

Layer Order

I often get asked “how do I know if I need to flatten before running another action or doing more editing?” This has to do with the order that your layers are in.

Pixel layers (on a normal blending mode) cover each other up. If the opacity is reduced of a pixel layer – it partially covers what is below it.

Adjustment layers (which RULE) do not cover your photo.  They work like clear plastic wrap, a sheet of glass, etc.  You can stack as many of these as you need without flattening.

If you place a pixel layer (which is like a photo copy of the picture) above the adjustment layers, it is like putting a solid piece of paper above clear plastic or glass.  You can no longer see below it.

As shown in this screen shot – if the background copy or duplicate layer of the image is above the adjustment layers, it WILL COVER IT.  It needs to either be moved below those 3 adjustment layers or you could flatten before doing whatever retouching needed a pixel layer.


In my own editing, I try and avoid pixel layers as much as possible.  But there are certain things in Photoshop that need pixels to work. The tool I use most that needs pixels is the patch tool.  Personally things like Sponging, Dodging and Burning, I prefer use work arounds with adjustment layers, versus using these tools that require pixels.

Let me know if you have any questions about this that I can address in a future quick tips.

Jodi Friedman, MCP Actions

Jodi Friedman is the founder of MCP Actions. She designs popular Photoshop actions and Lightroom presets that make editing faster, easier and more fun.

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  1. 4


    Exactly – TOL and TOD will help you dodge and burn non destructively. Sponge tool – I rarely use, but if I did I would set it to saturate at 10% and work slowly so I had more control.

  2. 6


    One thing I recently learned about Photoshop is that you can add a New Layer (Layer>New Layer) and clone or use the healing or spot healing brushes if the option “all layers” or “current and below” is selected in the tool bar, depending on which you need. That way you can avoid increasing the file size significantly by duplicating a whole layer and only change the pixels you need to. Unfortunately, the patch tool will not work on a blank layer.

  3. 7


    Cindi – great tip – that is exactly how I do cloning and healing too. I still wish that option was available for the patch tool. But it is not. I may post this one sometime.


  4. 11

    Penny says

    Excellent. Layer order is one of my weakest knowledge points in PS. I’m always trying to decide when to use a specific kind of layer (duplicate, new, adjustment) for certain effects.


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