Using Adjustments Layers in Photoshop

When doing editing or any kind of retouching in Adobe Photoshop, you will most likely need to perform an adjustment of one kind or another. A large number of people use permanent adjustments by going to Image > Adjustments on the top Navigation bar and choosing a desired option. However, today I would like to discuss Adjustments layers. These Adjustments are non-destructive, meaning they do not physically change pixels of an image but rather use a Masking to affect other layers below. If you are not too comfortable with layers you can check out Introduction to Layers. Additionally, Adjustment layers can be altered anytime by simply double-clicking on it. They can also be completely removed without destruction to other layers and you can even save the file and edit Adjustments at a later time. Since Adjustments layers automatically use masking, you can also apply or remove effects by brushing over a part of your image. So without further ado let’s get down to implementation, explanation and overview of most useful Adjustments.

As I am writing this, I am using Adobe Photoshop CS6 on PC, but most of these adjustments are available on all older versions of Photoshop and on Mac platform. If you don’t own Photoshop yet, you can get Adobe Photoshop CS6 here.

There are two ways you can create an Adjustments Layer. First option, is to use Adjustments Panel which can be activated through Window > Adjustments on the top Navigation bar. When activated, you should see it on the right hand side. Second option is to click on a black and white circle at the bottom of the Layers panel and a full list of Adjustments will pop up. Either option you choose will lead you to the same Adjustments Layers panel.

Each Adjustment will have its own settings but there are a few options which will be available on every Adjustment. First function has a box with an arrow icon (1). Toggling this will make this specific Adjustment only affect the layer below. Next is an eye with an arrow icon (2). It will not be active if you haven’t performed any Adjustments. If you did, clicking on it will show how your image looked before that Adjustment (you can also press [\] to see that) was made.  Next icon is a circular arrow (3). Clicking on it, will revert the image to its original state prior to the Adjustments. You can also hit [Ctrl/Cmd]+[Alt]+[Z] to achieve the same effect. Next is an eye icon (4), which will just make that Adjustment layer invisible. You can also do that on Layers panel. And finally garbage can icon (5), which will delete selected the Adjustment.

Additionally, since each Adjustment layer automatically creates a mask you can take advantage of the masking options. Properties panel will appear when you create an Adjustment , there you will notice a  Masks button on the top. Clicking on it will bring you to Mask properties. You can also play with Masks by using black or white brushes. Brushing black will erase part of a Mask, while white will paint it back. However, Masks properties will give you additional tools to work with. Density acts similar opacity, if you have anything erased on a mask (painted black) lowering density from 100% will make that erased part less visible. Feather is basically blurring, increasing it will make erased edges softer. Clicking on “Refine Edge” will let you customize Mask’s edges in all kinds of way. Personally, I find “Color Range” button very useful. Selecting it will let you pick a color on an image to be most affected by the Mask while increasing the fuzziness will allow you to have a broader range of that color to be affected. Clicking “Invert” will do just that, invert black and white colors of the Mask.

Adjustments are some of the most important functions to learn if you want to master retouching, so let’s go over some of the most important ones.

Brightness/Contrast Adjustment

Brightness and contrast Adjustments are as simple as they get. To make the image darker or brighter you can just move the brightness scale to the left or the right, respectively. Same thing with the contrast, move the contrast scale left or right to decrease or increase image contrast. Most images look better with slightly increased contrast but this method is rough, if you want a more precise control for delicate changes, use Levels or Curves Adjustments (described below).

You will also notice a “Use Legacy” checkmark box on that same panel. Prior to Adobe Photoshop CS3, all brightness and contrast changes were using legacy. This essentially means that when you make changes the program makes equal modifications to all pixels of the image uniformly. And since very few images are completely uniform, these changes are typically hideous. However, in the newer versions of Photoshop “Use Legacy” box is unchecked by default, allowing the algorithm to better influence areas that need it most. Whether it is shadows, highlights or midtones, if used moderately the program usually does a good job of spreading the changes proportionally. Leave “Use Legacy” box unchecked for best results. Finally clicking on “Auto” button will let the program figure out optimal brightness and contrast configuration for that particular image. While this does not always produce best results beginners might find this automatic adjustment useful.


Since Levels and Histogram are elaborate subjects, for the purpose of this topic I will only discuss them briefly. Levels Adjustments are directly associated with image histogram. A histogram is a graph representing a map of complete blacks, whites and midtones in an image. Typically a histogram will look like a mountain range or just one mountain, depending on brightness of an image. Left side of a histogram is responsible for black range, right side is responsible for white range and midtones are obviously in the middle. If histogram’s “hills” fall to the left or right and flat line for some distance to the left or right, it means no true black or white is present. To correct for that, you can shift black or white pointers closer to the middle of the graph. If you hold [Alt] key while shifting these pointers, the image will turn black or white (depending on which pointer you move) and show where solid backs or whites will be present. You can also manipulate a histogram of Red, Green or Blue channels individually by selecting it from a drop down menu or pressing [Alt]+[3], [Alt]+[4] or [Alt]+[5], respectively. Be sure to play with Levels moderately, since abuse can lead to posterization.

Additionally, notice a bar below Histogram gradually changing from black to white. Pointers on each side are responsible for adding more white or black to the entire image. Reversing positions of these two pointers will invert all colors in your image and will have the same effect as Invert Adjustment.

Furthermore, there are three eye droplets available in Levels panel. Using these eye droplets you can tell the program which color should be sampled as black, grey or white. And it will adjust Levels accordingly. When using these eye droplets, you can hold [Alt] key to clearly see blacks or whites in your photo.

Moreover, Levels panel also has several presets available. Using presets drop down menu you can increase contrast, lighten shadows or change midtones. And finally, available “Auto” button will tell the program to automatically adjust Levels for best visual representation.


Curves Adjustment is a very powerful tool that lets you manipulate tones and contrast with great detail, giving you more creative control. Curves Adjustment takes Levels Adjustment and amplifies it with additional tonal control by using numerous anchor points. You can actually see image Histogram over imposed inside of Curves grid. The best way to modify curves is to select points tool (which looks like a curvy line with dots) and place several points on the sloped line. The most common curves is called “S curve” simply because it looks like a letter S. To create it, place a point dead center on the grid. This will allow you to arch around this pivot point. Then mentally divide that Curve grid into four equal squares. Choose cross point of the top right square and place a point there. Now drag that point slightly higher and to the left. Then place another point on a cross point of the bottom left square and drag that point to the bottom right.

You can also draw a custom curve by selecting a pencil tool in Curves panel. Curves pallet is very sensitive to subtle changes, so if your drawn curve turns out to be too jagged, try smoothing it by clicking icon with curved line and two arrows. You can hit it several times for optimal curve.

Just like with Levels, you can also clip black and whites with Curves by moving black or white pointers (remember: pointers will only be visible if points tool is selected). Moving these pointers to the opposite sides will create Inverse effect. Just like Levels, Curves Adjustment has various presets available, as well as different color channels adjustments and eye dropper selections for solid black, grey and white.

If all else fails, hit “Auto” button and Photoshop will calculate the most optimal curve for your image and it usually does a good job, or at least creates a decent starting point.


Virbance Adjustment is very straightforward. You only have to deal with two scales, Vibrance and Saturation. Vibrance scale was introduced in Photoshop CS4 and only saturation scale is available in prior versions. Many people have a hard time understanding the difference between these two adjustments since both of them seem to enhance or eliminate color in images. But there is actually a substantial fundamental difference between these two scales. Saturation equally affects all the pixels of the image. If you have a pixel with some yellow color, sliding Saturation scale all the way to +100 will make that pixel very vibrantly yellow, while sliding the scale down to -100 will turn the image into black and white. Vibrance scale, on the other hand, uses more advanced algorithm to determine which pixels in your image need more or less color most. The reason I have chosen yellow color in Saturation example is not accidental since Vibrance scale can automatically determine skin tones (which might be slightly yellow from sunlight) and take extra care not to enhance those tones when Vibrance is boosted. Therefore, if you boost a Vibrance of a portrait all the way up the photo should still look more or less presentable. But if you boost Saturation all the way up on that same portrait, it will most likely look horrendous and over processed. Also notice that while dropping Saturation all the way down makes the image black and white, doing the same with Vibrance might keep some key colors intact.

Hue and Saturation

With Hue and Saturation Adjustments you can shift and change colors in your photo. Notice two rainbow strips on the bottom of Hue panel. The top one shows original colors and it is stationary. The bottom one will shift once you move the Hue pointer. As it shifts it will represent which color is responsible for original. So if the top strip shows blues and directly underneath it the bottom one shows reds, then all the blues in your image will now look red.

You can also shift individual colors by choosing separate colors from a drop down menu. Notice where it says Master on Hue panel, click on it and you will see a drop down list of the numerous colors you can change. Once a specific color is selected a bracket will appear in between two rainbow strips outlining that color. You can change the size of that bracket to suit your needs. Just move the Hue pointer to shift the colors of the range you have selected with the bracket . You can also manually select a specific color from your photo. To do this, select a “hand with arrows” icon on the Hue panel, move the cursor to your desired color, hold [Ctrl] (or [Cmd on Mac) key and press left mouse button. While holding these two buttons you can just slide the cursor and the Hue will shift, changing colors in the process. If the changing range of colors is too great, try narrowing the bracket between two rainbow strips.

I will not go into detail on Saturation option in Hue Adjustments because it’s identical to Saturation in Vibrance Adjustments. I also feel there is no need to describe Lightness scale since it’s self-explanatory and quite frankly doesn’t provide good results.

Selecting Colorize box will apply a single color tone to your image. The active color will be represented on the lower bar at the bottom of Hue panel. You can change this color by shifting Hue, Saturation and Lightness scales. Fnally, as with most Adjustments there are several general present available for you to choose from.

Color Balance

With Color Balance Adjustments you can change shadows, midtones and highlights color balance. It is somewhat similar to Hue Adjustment but it’s often used to influence overall composition and give you more color combination control. This Adjustment is sometimes used to manually correct white balance or achieve a more artistic color effect.

Remember to switch tones (Shadows, Midtones and Highlights) from the drop down menu on the top of that panel. There are many interesting effects that can be achieved by using these Adjustments. However, the exact settings will be different on case by case basis , so rely on your creative imagination.

Black & White

Not all black and white images are created equal. Simply desaturating your image is one of the worst things you can do to ruin a true black and white feel. When using Black & White Adjustments, Photoshop is giving you more control over contrast range of each color. By arranging individual color contrasts to most suited positions you can make your b&w image pop and stand out from the crowd. However, this is often a very tedious task and that’s why Black & White panel also offers presets and “Auto” button to help you with your corrections.  You can also add a tint of color to your photo by selecting tint and choosing a desired color.Although I personally recommend practicing and learning how each color behaves in b&w conversion so you can get a better understanding and improve your images.

Photo Filter

Photo Filter Adjustment provides a convenient way to add mode, warm up, cool down or do anything in between to your images. It works similar to a physical photo filter but in this case Photoshop creates a digital alternative that mimics a filter effect, adding a tint to a photo. You can select a specific filter from a drop down menu or select a custom color.

Density is responsible for how strong the filter appears. But even at 100% density your image will still be recognizable. If Preserve Luminosity box is checked, Photoshop will retain highlights and midtones, creating a more subtle result.

Color Lookup

Color Lookup Adjustment is used to lookup tables (LUT) which basically create different looks by remapping colors. This technology comes to us from the film industry where it was mainly used as a guide for color correction for different programs to maintain consistency throughout the entire footage. Color lookup is a new addition to Photoshop CS6 and has not yet been fully adopted by photographers but it includes several interesting default effects and you can also load additional lookup tables and ICC profiles through Color Lookup panel. Try out some of these looks and see if any of them work for you.

I hope you find this tutorial useful and ask you to please comment if you have questions, additions or have noticed inaccuracies. It will improve the quality of this posting and help more people in the future.

This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *