Adjustment Layers in Photoshop: Everything You Should Know

Adjustment Layers in Photoshop

Back then, editing in Photoshop was destructive, which means, any tweak you apply to images would be permanent. If you wanted to return to the unedited version, you had to start over from scratch. But time has changed and technology has advanced.

Now, it’s no longer the case! Thanks to the layers due to which the modifications can be adjusted or deleted now. One of the types of layers available in Photoshop within the sphere of Layers is adjustment layers. This is a group of layers that lets you edit images easily and non-destructively.

By leveraging Photoshop’s adjustment layers, you can make alterations to your image, save it as a Photoshop file, and undo it later at any time. As no pixels are destroyed or altered in adjustment layers, the original image stays intact.

Right from the overview to the ins and outs, we will cover everything concerned with the adjustment layers of Photoshop.

Suggested Article– How to Resize a Layer in Photoshop.

An Overview of Adjustment Layers

Overview of Adjustment Layers

Adjustment layers are specific types of layers that primarily deal with things like colors, contrast, brightness, saturation, etc. of an image, text, shape, etc. They differ from standard layers in the point that standard layers contain different content types like photographs, text, shapes, and so on.

For example, suppose that you have an image of a dark blue sky with an underexposed subject. Now, you want the image to look brighter to spice up the image. That means you naturally have to enhance the brightness of the subject.

Now, if you start increasing the brightness of the image straight away, it will go through a destructive effect as you will lose the original image as soon as you tweak the brightness.

This is where adjustment layers will come to the rescue as with it, you can brighten the image on a particular layer, leaving the original image stay untouched. Not only enhancing the brightness, but you can also apply other changes related to color and contrast on the image layer too.

How to Leverage Adjustment Layers

How to Leverage Adjustment Layers

Basically, adjustment layers can be deployed in 2 different ways. You can apply it directly to an image to make uniform modifications to the entire image. Alternatively, you can create it as a layer mask and select only a portion of the photo to work on.

Let’s take a look at an example for a better understanding. Imagine you are working on a photo that incorporates a bright blue sky with the subjects looking dark. Now, you want to illuminate the subjects in the photo without making tweaks to the blue sky.

This is where creating a layer mask will do the tricks with that, you can separate only the part of the photo you want to work on, without applying any of the changes to the remaining part.

Once you are done masking the part of the photo that you don’t want to work on, you can kick off adding adjustment layers to repair the various parts of the photo that are not in sync with you. These adjustments can embody making changes to the hue, saturation, color balance, curves, or levels.

After that, if you want to work on another part of the photo, you can create another layer mask and deploy another adjustment layer to make it look just the way you it.

Types of Adjustment Layers

Adjustment layers don’t mean one specific type of layer, rather it encompasses a whole lot of effects and elements of photography. Let’s try to understand the different types of adjustment layers underneath—



Brightness/contrast is a type of adjustment layer that makes adjustments to the tonal range of your image. The brightness slider is meant for adjusting the highlights in your image and the Contrast slider is intended for adjusting the shadows in your image.

Brightness and Contrast let you make simple adjustments to the brightness and contrast levels within your photo. When you adjust brightness, the overall lightness or darkness of each pixel in your frame is altered.

Contrast, however, adjusts the distinction between the brightness of the elements in your image.  Thus, if you turn up the brightness, you make every pixel lighter, whereas if your turn up contrast, you make the light areas lighter and the dark areas darker.



Unlike brightness and contrast, levels are meant for altering the tonal values in an image by adjusting the levels of the shadows, midtones, and highlights. It’s one of the highly used tools in the adjustment layer panel, and tapping into just a speck of levels will go a long way in fixing your images.

Besides, the levels tool adjusts the color balance of your image. Even for color balance, it adjusts the intensity levels of the shadows, mid-tones, and highlights in your image. Levels Presets can be saved and then applied to further images effortlessly.

Notably, if you use the Image menu to open the levels tool (Image->Adjustments->Levels), a separate layer will not show up and the changes will be applied directly and destructively to your image layer. Hence, we recommend using the Adjustment Layers menu to access this very conducive tool.



Curves allow you to adjust as many points as you want throughout the entire tonal range of your image. It is the most robust and accurate tool for editing the tones in an image. When you click on the curves adjustment, a diagonal line on a graph shows up which represents your image’s tonal range.

The x-axis represents the original values in the image and the y-axis represents the new adjusted values. Along each axis, you can spot that there’s strip that’s a gradient from black to white, representing the tonal range of the image.

To enhance the overall quality and contrast of your image, click to add points on the line of your graph. After you’ve added a point, you can drag the point up or down with your mouse. Pulling the point down will darken your image, while pulling the point up will brighten it.

The Levels Adjustment functions well if you need to apply a global adjustment to your tone. In order to apply more selective adjustments, it’s better to use Curves. This incorporates adjustments to just a tiny section of the tonal range or if you only want to adjust light or dark tones.



The function of Exposure is to let you adjust exposure levels with three sliders: Exposure, Offset and Gamma. Exposure will adjust only the highlights of the image, Offset will adjust the mid tones and Gamma will adjust the dark tones only.

When you aim to expose an image crisply, you should focus on capturing the ideal brightness, which will provide you with details in both the highlights and shadows. In Photoshop Adjustment Layers, the Exposure Adjustment has 3 sliders that adjust Exposure, Offset, and Gamma.

Use the Exposure slider to adjust the highlights of the image, the Offset slider for the mid-tones, and the Gamma to target the dark tones only.


Vibrance-adjustment layer

This adjustment layer alters the vibrance of an image in two ways. The Saturation slider evenly scales up the saturation of all the colors in the image. The Vibrance slider tweaks the level of saturation of all the colors too but more selectively, focusing on the least saturated colors and avoiding over saturation of skin tones.

Make use of the Vibrance Adjustment Layer to the duller colors in your image. The cool aspect of raising vibrance is that it focuses on the less-saturated areas and does not impact colors that are already saturated.



When it comes to adjusting the hue, saturation, and lightness of your entire image or in a specific range of colors in your image, hue/saturation come into play.

The better would be not to impact saturation on an entire image — doing this declines the overall tonal range. Instead, try affecting the saturation of specific colors in your image to have greater grip over your image editing. This tool is also perfect for colorizing grayscale images.

On top of adjusting the obvious hue and color saturation of your image, this Photoshop Adjustment Layer lets you adjust the lightness of your entire image as well as work with specified colors. Bear in mind that tinkering around the overall saturation of an image impacts your tonal range.



The Color Balance adjustment modifies the mixture of colors in an image. For example, suppose you have a photo of a butterfly. Now, you can make a selection of the butterfly’s wings only and adjust the color balance sliders to yield the reds and magentas in its wings.

Don’t forget to check the “Preserve Luminosity” box to preserve your luminosity values (brightness or darkness) and maintain the tonal balance as you alter the color in your image. Additionally, move your slider toward the color you want to put up and away from the color you wish to put down.

Suggested Article- Color Theory.

Black and White

Black and White

The Black and White adjustment allows you to make grayscale versions of your images. Slew of ways is there to notch up black and white image processing. The Black and White Photoshop Adjustment Layer is one of the outstanding ones. It lets you lighten or darken specific color ranges to boost your black and white conversion.

For example, if you want the blues of your color image to stand out more when converted to black and white, just simply toggle that slider. You can add more or less contrast by making particular colors lighter or darker.

Photo Filter

Photo Filter

The specialty of Photo Filter is that it adds various color filters on top of your image. You can customize each color filter by double-clicking the color swatch in the properties panel as well and adjusting it in the Color Picket window that pops up.

Channel Mixer

Channel Mixer

Channel Mixer tweaks the colors in your image to make tinted or grayscale images. For example, you can use the red channel to bring out a red tint in the image. You can also check out the “Monochrome” box and adjust the sliders to make sure a better color conversion to grayscale. For optimum results with this tool, make sure that your channels add up to 100%.

Color Lookup

Color Lookup

This adjustment comes with a dozen of pre-packaged “looks” for you to apply to your image. In total, 3 options — 3DLUT File, Abstract, and Device Link are used to load these different looks. Each of the “looks” remaps the colors in your image by leveraging a lookup table (LUT).

These effects are stellar and mind-blowing, you can even create your own LUTs in Adobe Speedgrade and load into Photoshop to stylize your images.

Gradient Map

Gradient Map

This tool transforms the grayscale range of an image into a custom gradient fill. The Gradient Map tool comes with stacks of different gradients, all of which you can adjust to your preference in the gradient editor window. Checking the “Reverse” box inverts the colors of your gradient too.

Selective Color

Selective Color

The Selective Color adjustment layer, as the name reflects, selectively alters the amount of a primary color without altering the other primary colors in your image. If there are loads of reds in your photo, maybe of a flower photo, you can select red from the “Color” drop down menu to select and change the color.

By default, the “Absolute” box is checked in CS6, adjusting the color in absolute values. The “Relative” option tunes up the existing amount of cyan, magenta, yellow, or black by its percentage of the total. After that, drag the sliders around in the properties panel to scale up and scale down the components in the reds in the image.

In this case, change selectively the reds in the photo without changing the greens in the photo. It’s a more accurate tool for modifying specific colors than Hue/Saturation and it’s often deployed for fixing skin tones in photos.

Go Try Them Out…

By now, you must have discerned that adjustment layers can serve immense benefits to applying changes in photos. No matter whether it’s portrait, product, landscape, model, architecture, or any other type of photography, adjustment layers can work on all of them.

When you shoot any type of photography, your photography is likely to have flaws related to color and exposure. In most cases, only a selected portion of the photography will contain errors. To edit that portion color-wise as well as exposure-wise and keep the remaining part intact, working with adjustment layers is the best solution.

So, are you ready to try adjustment layers to apply smashing effects and spice up your raw and dull photography?