Layers: The Complete Guide to Photoshop

Making Selective Adjustments with Layers in Photoshop

Adapted from Layers: The Complete Guide to Photoshop's Most Powerful Feature, 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press)

By Matt Kloskowski


Always having the ability to go and edit your adjustments at a later date in Photoshop is very powerful stuff. However, let’s face it, the all or nothing factor of an adjustment can be limiting. Let’s say that you have a photo where the sky looks great but the foreground is just too dark. You can always add a Levels adjustment layer to brighten the foreground but it’s going to brighten the sky, too. Probably to the point where it’s too bright, right? However, with adjustment layers you can selectively make adjustments to certain areas in your photos without affecting the whole thing.

Step 1 : Open a photo where only one area needs to be fixed

Open a photo where one part of the photo looks fine but another area needs some work. In this case, I have a landscape photo, and I think the barn is too dark compared to the rest of the photo.

Step 2: Add a levels adjustment layer to brighten the foreground

Go to the Adjustments panel and click on the Levels icon (the second one from the left in the top row). Now drag the white Input Levels slider under the histogram toward the left. Notice how everything in the photo gets brighter. In fact, we lose a lot of the detail in the clouds when we do this. We can fix this, though. Go ahead and click the Trash icon at the bottom right of the Adjustments panel to cancel that change, and let’s start over.

Step 3: First, make a selection of the area you want to brighten

Grab the Quick Selection tool (W) and click-and-drag over the barn to make a selection of the area you want to modify.

Note: I recorded a video that goes over selections (since this book is about layers). You can find it here.

Step 4: Add the levels adjustment layer again to change just the selcted area

Go back and click the Levels icon in the Adjustments panel again. Drag the white Input Levels slider over toward the left just like you did before. I’ve dragged mine until the white point reads 148. Notice how only the area you selected in Step 3 gets brighter (the barn in this example)? The sky doesn’t change.

Step 5: Look at the little thumbnail next to the adjustment layer thumbnail

So, how did this happen? What’s the deal? Well, take a look at that little white-and-black thumbnail next to the Levels adjustment layer thumbnail in the Layers panel. This is a layer mask (it’s circled in red here). See how it shows white only in the area we made a selection on?

Step 6: Black hides the adjustment and shows the layer that is directly underneath it

The main thing to remember here is that the color (black or white) that you see on the little thumbnail actually matters. When it’s all white, we see the effects of the adjustment layer over the entire photo. Wherever it’s black, though, the effects of the adjustmen t layer get hidden and the original photo underneath the adjustment layer will show through. So, here the white is our selection of the barn and shows us our Levels adjustment, while the black is over the sky and grass areas and shows us the sky and grass from the Background layer.

Step 7: Toggle the adjustment layer on and off to see a before/after

You can click the little Eye icon to the left of the Levels adjustment layer to hide the adjustment effects and look at the before image. Then click where the Eye icon was to show the adjustment again.

Don‘t miss the next Photoshop article on Get the free newsletter in your mailbox each week. Click here to subscribe.

Adapted from Layers: The Complete Guide to Photoshop's Most Powerful Feature, 2nd Edition by Matt Kloskowski. Copyright © 2011. Used with permission of Peachpit Press.