A Comprehensive Guide to Photoshop Adjustment Layers

Photoshop adjustment layers are one of the essential features of Photoshop. Adjustments layer applies color and tonal adjustments to your image without permanently changing pixel values. In this tutorial you’ll learn more about adjustments layers, how it works, how you can apply it and how you can use it. Read this tutorial and find out why Adjustments layers are important for every photo manipulation.

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Photoshop Adjustments Layers

Photoshop Adjustments layer used to edit the color, saturation, levels, channel, mix colors, contrast and brightness. With adjustment layer you can adjust any image to your desired scene. Before we proceed let’s a take a look at the new adjustments layer icon.


By pressing the new adjustment layer icon, you can add new adjustment layers into main document. It’s non-destructive that means new adjustment layer will not permanently damage your images. You go back to change the value of every adjustments layers, you can also hide the effect of adjustment layer in certain places using layer mask and moreover you can delete them like a layers.

Since adjustment layers treated like layer in Photoshop you can change the blend mode of each adjustment layer and you can also reduce the opacity of every adjustment layers. That means New Adjustment layers are totally non-destructive and flexible.

But these features are not available for adjustment layer applied through Image > Adjustments. This is also harmful for your image.

Brightness/Contrast Adjustment Layer

Open up any in Photoshop. Let we have this city image.


Add a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to the city image.


As you add Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to city image, you will have a Brightness/contrast adjustment layer with built-in layer mask linked to it. With layer mask you can hide the effect of this adjustment layer wherever you want to.


Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer is very simple and powerful adjustment layer. You can control the brightness and contrast of an image with this adjustment layer.

Let’s make some change to this adjustment layer and I’ve reduced the brightness and increased the contrast of city image. You can easily reduce and increase the brightness/contrast by just dragging the slider. Here are the values.


Here are the results.


As a result, we have increased contrast and decreased brightness for city image. If you want to alter the effect, you simply go back to it by double clicking on the brightness/contrast adjustment layer. You can also hide the effect of this layer in certain places using layer mask.

You’ve noticed that there is Use Legacy Box is unchecked, if you check the Use Legacy Box then Photoshop will only increase/decrease each pixel’s brightness value, that’s why it isn’t recommended.

Photo Filter

Photo Filter adjustment layer is used to warm up or cool down overall colors in a photo. It is widely used in every photo manipulation and you can add it using adjustment layer icon.

To practice this adjustment layers, open up the creek image in Photoshop.”


I added a warming filter to creek image. You can see that I am using warming filter (85) and it’s built-in Photo Filter in Photoshop. You can also choose you own color by clicking on the color icon box. Here are the values.


Here are the results.


As a results we’ve warm yellow tone added to creek layers.

Levels Adjustment Layers

Levels adjustment used to adjust the light and dark areas of an image. You can easily adjust the color and tonal range by dragging three slider. The black slider for dark tones, grey for the midtones and white for highlights.

Open up the creek image again in Photoshop. Add the levels adjustment to creek image to enhance the light and dark areas of creek.

Here we have creek image.


Here are the values for Levels adjustment layer.


You can see that to enhance the dark area, drag the black slider to right. For midtones, drag the grey slider to left to lighten the midtones. Finally , I dragged the white slider to left to lighten the highlight (brighten tones).

Here are the results. As you can we have very decent and creek image does not look dull as it was before.


Curves Adjustment Layers

Next up we’ve Curves Adjustments layer. It’s works same as the Level adjustment layers but it has single line rather than slider. You can also add any point to curves to directly affect the tonal range while you can’t do this in Levels Adjustment layers.

Let’s take look at Curves adjustment layers.


The first thing you’ll see a line, because the tonal range is represented as a straight diagonal baseline as shown in the image above.

In the above image we’ve also the red area for shadows (dark tones), the green one for midtones and the blue for highlight (brighten Tones).

Let’s learn more about the Curves adjustment layer using creek image.


First I added point on a straight line by clicking on it. I added it at the shadow area and this will only affect the darker area. Now drop the line as shown in the above image.


As a result it has only affected the darker area and it has darken it a bit. But it has darken only the shadows areas not the rest of it.
In a same way you can also lighten up the dark area lifting the line up.

Now let’s lighten up the highlight in creek image. To lighten up the creek image add a point on the highlight area and simply lift up the line as shown in the image below.


As you can see that we’ve brighten creek image. It doesn’t over yet you can add many points on the line at shadow, midtones and highlight area. To lighten up the area just lift the line and to darken the area just drop the line.


Similarly you can choose the red, green and blue channel to affect the each color tones. In red channel when you lift the line that means you are adding red tones to image and dropping mean you are adding cyan tone to it. So it’s depend on the opposite colors (You’ll learn more about opposite colors in this tutorial).

Bunty Pundir

Bunty Pundir is the founder of PSD Stack. He loves writing Photoshop tutorials and sharing knowledge with others. Follow him on Behance, Twitter and Google+

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