Today’s Question: Is there any preferred order for layers in Photoshop? For example, is it better keep pixel layers together? Should a sharpening layer go near the bottom or, if it is done last, on top?
Tim’s Quick Answer: The order of layers on the Layers panel in Photoshop can be important depending on context. As a general rule, image layers will need to be at the bottom of the stack of layers, and adjustment layers will need to be above the image layers. However, there are variations depending on the specific effect you are trying to achieve.
More Detail: I think there are two key things to keep in mind when it comes to the order of layers in Photoshop. First, the order of layers determines the visibility of layers below. An image layer will block the visibility of layers below, and an adjustment layer only affect the layers below it.
Second, changing the order of layers can alter the overall appearance of a photo. For example, let’s assume a composite image with two image layers. If an adjustment layer is placed above both of those image layers, the adjustment will affect both of the layers. If the adjustment layer is moved down so it is in between the two image layers, that adjustment layer will only change the appearance of the layer below it, not the layer above it.
So, the order of layers on the Layers panel in Photoshop can most certainly have a significant impact on the overall appearance of an image. In some situations it is simply necessary for certain types of layers to be above others. In other cases the bigger issue is to be sure not to change the order of layers after you’ve created a particular effect for a photo.
As a very general rule, you’ll want to have image layers at the bottom of the stack on the Layers panel, and adjustment layers at the top of the stack. But the specific order depends on the task you’re trying to perform and the effect you want to achieve. However, it is important to keep in mind that the order of layers can be important.
For example, image cleanup layers must be above the layers that contain the blemishes you are removing. Similarly, a layer created to sharpen the image must be above all other image layers. But typically the order of layers is not so much something you need to think about directly, so much as it is a byproduct of the order in which you perform specific tasks within Photoshop. That said, in some cases you will need to be sure that you create layers in the correct order on the Layers panel. For example, let’s assume you have added a variety of adjustment layers above your Background image layer. If you then want to perform image cleanup on a separate layer, you need to add the empty layer for that image cleanup above the image layers and below the adjustment layers.
As for sharpening, I would actually tend to leave output sharpening as a separate process within the context of a workflow for preparing a photo for output, rather than as part of your “normal” workflow. At that point, layers would no longer be a factor.
Ultimately, what this all means is that the order of layers does matter in Photoshop. And there are some general rules about layer order. But more important is to understand the basic impact of the order of layers, and to ensure the layers you create are in an appropriate order based on the goal you’re trying to achieve for a given image.