Photoshop Image Adjustments vs Adjustment Layers

Photoshop Image Adjustments vs Adjustment Layers

In this tutorial, we compare Photoshop's image adjustment commands with adjustment layers to see why adjustment layers are a better, more flexible and non-destructive way to edit your images.

Written by Steve Patterson.

Photoshop includes lots of great image adjustments that make it easy to improve, or just change, the look of an image. And most of these adjustments come in two flavors. We have standard image adjustment commands, and we have adjustment layers. Both can achieve the exact same results.

But in this tutorial, we’ll compare image adjustments with adjustment layers to see why you should avoid using the image adjustment commands and why adjustment layers are the better, more flexible and non-destructive way to edit your photos.

Which version of Photoshop do I need?

I'm using Photoshop 2023 but this applies to older version as well. You can get the latest version of Photoshop here.

The document setup

You can follow along with your own image. I’ll use this image from Adobe Stock.

The original image open in Photoshop.
The original image.

In the Layers panel, the image appears on the Background layer which is currently the only layer in the document.

Photoshop’s Layers panel.
Photoshop’s Layers panel.

Let's get started!

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Photoshop’s image adjustment commands

We’ll start with a quick look at Photoshop’s standard image adjustments and how they work so we can then compare them to adjustment layers.

Where to find the image adjustments

All of Photoshop’s image adjustments are found under the Image menu in the Menu Bar and then under Adjustments.

Here we find adjustments like Levels and Curves which are mostly used for correcting the tone of an image. We have color adjustments like Vibrance, Hue/Saturation and Color Balance. And there are special effects-type of adjustments like Posterize, Threshold and Gradient Map. Plus lots more.

I’m not going to explain how every image adjustment works because that’s not the focus of this tutorial. Instead, my goal is to show you that there’s a better way to apply these adjustments.

Photoshop's Image Adjustment commands
Photoshop's Image Adjustment commands.

Applying an image adjustment

To see how the image adjustments work, I’ll keep things simple and choose Hue/Saturation which is one of Photoshop’s color adjustments.

Choosing a Hue/Saturation image adjustment in Photoshop
Choosing a Hue/Saturation image adjustment.

Let’s say I want to apply a single color to the image. I’ll click the Colorize option in the dialog box. Then I’ll choose a color by dragging the Hue slider. I’ll set it 200 for a shade of blue.

Colorizing the image with a Hue/Saturation image adjustment.
Colorizing the image with a Hue/Saturation image adjustment.

I’ll click OK to close the dialog box. And now the image is colored in blue. That was easy enough.

The result after applying the Hue/Saturation image adjustment in Photoshop
The result after applying the Hue/Saturation adjustment.

Related tutorial: Create monochromatic color effects in Photoshop

The problem with Photoshop’s image adjustments

But in the Layers panel, there’s a problem. The adjustment was applied directly to my image on the Background layer. Which means that the original colors in the image are now gone.

This is what’s called a destructive edit because it made a permanent change to the image. If I was to save my document at this point and then close it, I would have no way of getting the original colors back.

The image adjustment was applied directly to the image
The image adjustment was applied directly to the image.

And if I don’t like that blue color and want to try a different color, there’s no way to edit the adjustment. I could go up to the Edit menu and choose Undo Hue/Saturation, but that’s only because I haven’t done anything else to the image. As soon as I start making more edits or adding other adjustments, the option to undo this adjustment is going to get buried in a long list of steps that I would need to undo to get back to this point.

The Undo Hue/Saturation command
The Undo Hue/Saturation command.

So applying an image adjustment directly to your image is not a good idea because it makes a permanent and destructive change with no way to edit the result afterwards. I’ll press Ctrl+Z or Command+Z on a Mac to undo the adjustment to return to my original image.

The original image open in Photoshop.
The original image returns.

How to apply an image adjustment non-destructively

There is a way to apply Photoshop’s standard image adjustments non-destructively, and that’s by applying them to a copy of the image.

Making a copy of the original image

I’ll make a copy of my Background layer by pressing Ctrl+J on a Windows PC or Command+J on a Mac.

Photoshop's Layers panel showing the copy of the image
A copy of the image appears above the original.

Then I’ll double-click on the copy’s name and rename it Color.

Renaming the copy of the image to Color
Renaming the copy.

Applying the image adjustment to the copy

With my copy layer active, I’ll go back to the Image menu, back to Adjustments and choose Hue/Saturation.

Choosing a Hue/Saturation image adjustment again
Choosing a Hue/Saturation image adjustment again.

I’ll apply the exact same color adjustment as before by clicking the Colorize option, setting the Hue to 200 for blue, and then clicking OK to close the dialog box.

Applying the same image adjustment
Applying the same adjustment.

The adjustment is separate from the original image

But this time, because the adjustment was applied to a copy of my image, if I turn the copy layer off by clicking its visibility icon:

Turning off the layer with the adjustment applied.
Turning off the layer with the adjustment applied.

The original image is still there on the Background layer with all of its original colors. The adjustment was applied only to the layer above it.

Applying the adjustment to a copy keeps the original image unharmed.
Applying the adjustment to a copy keeps the original image unharmed.

The blend mode and opacity of the image adjustment

Along with keeping the original image safe, another advantage of applying image adjustments to separate layers is that we now have access to the blend mode and opacity of the adjustment.

So for example, if I want my Hue/Saturation adjustment to affect the colors in the original image but not the brightness, I can change the blend mode of the copy layer from Normal to Color.

Changing the blend mode of the image adjustment.
Blend modes change how the adjustment blends with the image.

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And if I want to fade the adjustment so the new color is mixing with the original colors instead of replacing them completely, I can lower the copy layer’s opacity. I’ll lower it to 50 percent.

Fading the layer opacity of the image adjustment.
Fading the adjustment with the Opacity option.

Here’s the result with the color adjustment now blending with the original image.

The result after changing the blend mode and opacity of the image adjustment
The result after adjusting the blend mode and opacity.

The adjustment is still not editable

But what if we want to edit the adjustment? What if I decide I don’t like this blue color and I want to try a different color? We may be working non-destructively, which is great, but we’re still stuck with the problem that the adjustment made a permanent change to the layer.

To try a different color, I would need to either undo the Hue/Saturation adjustment (if that was still an option), or I would need to delete the layer, make another copy, then go back to Image menu, back to Adjustments, choose Hue/Saturation again, and this time reapply it with a different setting. I would also need to change the blend mode and lower the opacity again.

So while applying image adjustments to separate layers is better than applying them to the original image, it’s still not the best way to work because there’s no way to edit the adjustment after we apply it.

The image adjustment is still not editable when applied to a copy of the image.
Working on a copy still makes a permanent change.

The document file size

One more issue we need to look at before moving on to adjustment layers is the document’s file size. In the lower left of the document window is a status area showing information about your document. Click the arrow to see all the different types of information you can display. Then choose Document Sizes at the top to view the current file size.

Setting the status info of the Photoshop document to Document Sizes.
Setting the status info to Document Sizes.

Why are there two different sizes? The smaller number on the left is what the file size would be if we flattened all of our layers. And the larger number on the right is the current size with our layers still intact.

Notice that by making a copy of my image so I could apply my adjustment non-destructively, the file size doubled from 125 MB to 250 MB.

The document’s file size with (right) and without (left) layers.
The document’s file size with (right) and without (left) layers.

If I make several copies of my image, each for a different adjustment:

Making more copies of the original image layer in Photoshop's Layers panel
Making multiple copies of the original image layer.

My file size increases quickly, jumping from 125 MB to roughly 750 MB. Depending on your computer, too many layers can slow Photoshop down. So that’s one more drawback to applying adjustments to copies of a layer. We’ll come back to the file size once we’ve learned how to use adjustment layers, which we’ll do next.

The file size increases with each new layer.
The file size increases with each new layer.

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Photoshop’s Adjustment Layers

So how can we apply Photoshop’s image adjustments in a way that is non-destructive, makes no permanent changes, gives us access to the adjustment’s blend mode and opacity, and lets us edit the adjustment after we apply it? It’s easy! All we need to do is stop using image adjustments and switch to using adjustment layers. Here’s how they work.

Where do we find the adjustment layers?

Unlike standard image adjustments, Photoshop’s adjustment layers are not found under the Image menu. Instead, one place to find them is under the Layer menu and then under New Adjustment Layer.

Photoshop’s adjustment layers in the Layer menu.
Photoshop’s adjustment layers in the Layer menu.

Not every image adjustment is available as an adjustment layer. If we look at the list of image adjustments again, the ones from Brightness/Contrast down to Selective Color are available as an adjustment layer. But below that, the ones from Shadows/Highlights down to Equalize are not. That’s okay, though, because the ones that are available as adjustment layers are the ones we use the most.

The image adjustments available as adjustment layers.
The image adjustments available as adjustment layers.

Along with finding them under the Layer menu, you’ll also find the adjustment layers in the Adjustments panel. You can hover your cursor over the icons to see the name of the adjustment at the top.

The adjustment layer icons in Photoshop's Adjustments panel
The adjustment layer icons in the Adjustments panel.

Or you can click the panel’s menu icon and choose an adjustment from the list.

Viewing the list of adjustment layers in the panel’s menu.
Viewing the list of adjustment layers in the panel’s menu.

And a third place to find the adjustment layers, and the one I use the most, is in the Layers panel by clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom.

Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon in Photoshop's Layers panel
Clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon.

Adding an adjustment layer

The first three options at the top (Solid Color, Gradient and Pattern) are not adjustment layers. They are what’s called Fill layers because they fill the document with either a solid color, a gradient or a pattern. The adjustment layers are found below them. I’ll choose the same adjustment as before which was Hue/Saturation.

Adding a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer from Photoshop's Layers panel.
Adding a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.

Photoshop adds a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer above the image. Unlike standard pixel layers which display a preview thumbnail showing the layer’s contents, adjustment layers display an icon depending on the type of adjustment. In this case, it’s a Hue/Saturation icon.

The Hue/Saturation adjustment layer is added above the image layer
The Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.

The adjustment layer settings in the Properties panel

Instead of a dialog box popping up, the settings for an adjustment layer appear in Photoshop’s Properties panel. So I can apply the same color effect as before by choosing Colorize and then choosing a color by dragging the Hue slider.

The adjustment layer settings in Photoshop's Properties panel.
The adjustment layer settings in the Properties panel.

Turning an adjustment layer on and off

Back in the Layers panel, I can turn the adjustment layer off to see the original image below it, which means the adjustment was applied non-destructively.

Toggling the adjustment layer on and off with the visibility icon.
Toggling the adjustment layer on and off with the visibility icon.

The adjustment layer’s blend mode and opacity

With the adjustment layer back on, we have access to the layer’s blend mode and opacity. So I can change the blend mode to Color just like I did before. And I can fade the adjustment by lowering the opacity.

Changing the blend mode and lowering the opacity of the adjustment layer
Changing the blend mode and lowering the opacity.

I now have the exact same color effect, but this time using an adjustment layer.

The same color effect created with Photoshop's adjustment layers
Same result but with an adjustment layer.

How to edit the adjustment layer settings

The one thing we could not do earlier was edit the adjustment after we applied it. But with adjustment layers, we can. Just make sure the adjustment layer is selected in the Layers panel.

Selecting the adjustment layer.
Selecting the adjustment layer.

Then go back to the Properties panel and make whatever changes you need.

Adjustment layer settings remain editable.
Adjustment layer settings remain editable.

The adjustment layer mask

Notice that adjustment layers also include a built-in layer mask, indicated by the mask thumbnail.

Adjustment layer settings remain editable.
The adjustment layer’s mask in the Layers panel.

If you select your adjustment layer in the Layers panel and the Properties panel is showing options for the mask, not the adjustment, it’s because you have the layer mask selected.

The Properties panel showing the layer mask options.
The Properties panel showing the layer mask options.

To switch from the mask options to the adjustment settings, either click on the adjustment icon on the adjustment layer itself in the Layers panel.

Clicking the adjustment layer’s icon.
Clicking the adjustment layer’s icon.

Or in the Properties panel, you can switch between the adjustment settings and the mask options using the two icons at the top.

The adjustment (left) and layer mask (right) buttons.
The adjustment (left) and layer mask (right) buttons.

How to use the adjustment layer’s mask

The adjustment layer’s mask can be used to control which areas of the image below the adjustment layer are affected by the adjustment. So if I want the background behind the woman to be colorized but not the woman herself, I just need to select her.

Making a selection with Select Subject

In Photoshop 2023 (which is what I’m using), one of the best ways to select the main subject in your image is with the Select Subject command.

So in the toolbar, I’ll choose either the Object Selection Tool, the Quick Selection Tool or the Magic Wand Tool. These are the only tools that give us access to the Select Subject button in the Options Bar.

Selecting the Quick Selection Tool in Photoshop
Selecting the Quick Selection Tool from the toolbar.

Then in the Options Bar, I’ll click the arrow next to the Select Subject button and I’ll choose the new Cloud option which runs Select Subject on the cloud for better results. This option was first added in the August release of Photoshop 2022 and has been carried over into Photoshop 2023.

Choosing the Cloud option for Select Subject.
Choosing the Cloud option for Select Subject.

Then I’ll click Select Subject.

Clicking the Select Subject button in Photoshop
Clicking the Select Subject button.

Running Select Subject on the cloud takes a bit longer, but we now have the woman selected.

The main subject is selected.
The main subject is selected.

Filling the selection with black

With the selection created, I’ll switch to the layer mask on the adjustment layer.

Making the layer mask active.
Making the layer mask active.

Then I’ll go up to the Edit menu and choose Fill.

Choosing the Fill command in Photoshop
Going to Edit > Fill.

In the dialog box, I'll set the Contents to Black and click OK.

Setting the Contents to Black in Photoshop's Fill dialog box
Setting the fill contents to black.

Then I’ll remove the selection outline by going up to the Select menu and choosing Deselect.

Choosing the Deselect command in Photoshop
Going to Select > Deselect.

And now the adjustment layer is bring applied only to the background.

The result after hiding the adjustment from the main subject.
The result after hiding the adjustment from the main subject.

Looking at the layer mask thumbnail, the white part of the mask is where the adjustment is affecting the image below it and the black area is where the adjustment is hidden. Of course you can always add a layer mask to a copy of the image, but adjustment layers include them automatically.

The adjustment layer's mask in the Layers panel.
On a layer mask, white reveals the adjustment and black hides it.

Related tutorial: How to fade an image to any color background.

Adding multiple adjustment layers to the image

Another advantage with adjustment layers is that you can add multiple adjustments to your image and each one remains separate.

In the Layers panel, I’ll click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon again and this time I’ll add a Levels adjustment.

Adding a Levels adjustment layer.
Adding a Levels adjustment layer.

The Levels adjustment layer appears above the Hue/Saturation adjustment, which means I now have two adjustments applied to the image and each one is separate from the other.

Each adjustment gets its own layer.
Each adjustment gets its own layer.

With the Levels adjustment selected, I’ll go up to the Properties panel and I’ll drag the black point and white point sliders in towards the histogram to increase the contrast in the image.

Adjusting the contrasting with the black and white point sliders.
Adjusting the contrasting with the black and white point sliders.

And here’s the result with the Levels adjustment.

The overall contrast is now much stronger.
The overall contrast is now much stronger.

Turning individual adjustment layers on and off

Since each adjustment is on a separate layer, I can turn the Levels adjustment layer on and off to compare the result without affecting the Hue/Saturation adjustment. And I can do the same thing with Hue/Saturation, turning it on and off without affecting the Levels adjustment above it.

Adjustment layers can be toggled on and off separately.
Adjustment layers can be toggled on and off separately.

Adjustment layers and the document file size

Finally, let’s go back to that file size issue we looked at earlier. Remember how, with each copy of the image layer we added, we saw a big jump in the document’s file size? Well notice that even with two adjustment layers added, the size of my document with the layers (on the right) is only slightly larger than the size it would be if we flattened the layers (left).

The file with the adjustment layers is much smaller than before.
The file with the layers is much smaller than before.

In fact, I’ll add a few more random adjustment layers just to see what happens with the file size.

Adding more adjustment layers above the image.
Adding more adjustment layers above the image.

And notice that even with three more adjustment layers added above the original two, the file size with the adjustments has not increased at all. So unlike standard pixel layers, adjustment layers will not slow Photoshop down no matter how many we add.

Adding more adjustment layers did not add to the file size.
Adding more adjustment layers did not add to the file size.

And there we have it! If you’re still using image adjustments, hopefully I’ve convinced you that adjustment layers are the better and more flexible way to work. And to see adjustment layers in action, check out my related tutorials where I show you how to color grade images and how to create a high contrast black and white effect using a Gradient Map adjustment layer.

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