Using Layers in Photoshop Elements 2 (and later)

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For some people, layers are the most important thing in Photoshop but, for a long time, I managed to do most of what I wanted without using them at all!

One point that is often made in their favour is that they allow changes to be made without altering the original image. Since I start from a RAW image and keep that as my basic reference, this aspect has never seemed very important to me, as I can always re-create a new JPEG, if I go seriously wrong while editing.

If, however, you create a duplicate layer ('Background copy' in the 'Layers' menu) and then do editing on that, it is possible to 'rub out' mistakes with the eraser tool. This means that, when using the paint brush or clone tools, for example, you can erase any over-run without having to start again. Once you have finished editing on the duplicate layer, flatten the image (using the command in the 'Layers' menu) and save in the normal way. I discuss this further, when describing the use of cloned images, below.

Text Tool

Some uses of layers occur automatically. For example, the text tool always creates a new layer, which allows the text to be moved, re-sized, or changed to a different font, without damaging the original image. Only when all the details of the text are satisfactory is it necessary to 'flatten' the layers and 'fix' the text into the image.

Cut and Paste

The same applies when part of an image is copied and then pasted to a new location. The pasted image appears as a new layer, which allows the 'paste' to be adjusted independently of the original image. This is the aspect of layers that I first discovered to be very powerful, when manipulating an image.

There are often imperfections in a part of an image that can be removed by copying and pasting sections from another part of the same image or from a different image. Because the pasted section is on a separate layer, it can be rotated and re-sized independently of the background image. In addition, the transparency of the layer can be adjusted so that it is possible to see through the pasted section to the underlying original image.

This ability to work with semi-transparent layers is very powerful as it means that a pasted section can be adjusted to fit exactly over the original image, by viewing through the partially transparent layer. This removes the need for a lot of trial and error when aligning images.

This method of editing an image has many uses, for example:

cloning a clean image over an obscured area
cloning differently exposed parts of an image to overcome dynamic range limitations
cloning differently focussed parts of an image to overcome depth of field limitations

Cloning a Clean Image over an Obscured Area

The basic procedure is the same in all cases and I show in detail the case of a butterfly with one obscured wing. Of course, when possible, you should take another better picture and I have not used cloned images of this type in the natural history collection on this website. The steps in the procedure are:

Step 1 Open the original image. This butterfly's left wing is partially obscured by grass, so the opposite wing will be cloned over it.

Step 2 Use a Selection tool to define the area to be copied. I have used the rectangle tool but the lasso could be used for an irregular area.

Step 3 Copy the selected area and then paste it over the image, when it will create a new layer.

Step 4 In this example it is necessary to make a mirror image to match the opposite wing. Select 'Flip layer horizontal' from the ‘Image | Rotate’ menu.

Step 5 Use the ‘Layers Palette’ to reduce the opacity of the pasted area to about 50% and then use the ‘Move’ tool to place the layer in its correct position over the opposite wing. The layer can be rotated and/or re-sized as necessary. Then restore the opacity to 100% and check the appearance of the image.

Step 6 Use the ‘Eraser’ tool to remove parts of the selection outside the butterfly wing, where they obscure the original image.

Step 7 Once the image is clean, use the ‘Flatten Image’ command on the Layer menu to incorporate the layer into the main image. The ‘Clone’ tool can be used for any final 'tidying up'.

The final result would probably not deceive a butterfly expert but makes a more acceptable image for the album!

Cloning Differently Exposed Parts of an Image

Sometimes it is impossible to capture all elements of a composition with a single exposure. If the exposure is made for the main subject, the sky may be grossly over-exposed and ‘white out’. The example below shows a flower in the foreground with a bright sky behind. Of course, fill-in flash could be used but care is needed to prevent an unnatural appearance.

In the butterfly example detailed previously, the pasted section was taken from a different area of the same image. It is, of course, possible to copy a section from one image and paste it into another. The following example combines two differently exposed photos of the same subject. I have simplified the description of the steps, as the details are the same as for the butterfly example above.



Image exposed for the sky

STEP 1 Open both images in Photoshop.
  Image exposed for the flowers

STEP 2 Copy this image and paste it over the image exposed for the sky, so that it makes a new top layer.
  Final image

STEP 3 Select the white sky area in the top layer with the ‘Magic wand’ tool and then use either the 'Edit | Clear' command or the ‘Eraser’ tool on this selection, to let the sky image show through..

The ‘sky’ image need not be similar to the image to be modified and it is possible to keep a library of suitable sky images for use with this technique.

Cloning Differently Focussed Parts of an Image

Similarly, depth of field limitations may make it impossible to capture all aspects of a subject in sharp focus within a single image. Exactly the same technique can be used to overcome this limitation as shown below.



Focussed on the foreground

STEP 1 Open both images in Photoshop.


Focussed inside the flower

STEP 2 Use the 'Lasso' tool to select the in-focus area. Paste over the other image and align as described previously.


Final image

STEP 3 Flatten the image and do any necessary clean-up of the joins with the ‘Clone’ tool

Click to continue

İMike Flemming, May 2011

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