Whether you are doing colour adjustments, or a full on composite; it’s super important that you stay organized. No matter how many times you tell yourself you will remember what each layer is for, it will never work. Take it from the guy who actually used to say that…

I recently worked on a client project that required me to composite 3 people into a scene in Italy(Unfortunately I can’t share the image on here). On the surface it sounds simple enough, right? I quickly found myself well over 100 layers deep in adjustments and when it came time for revisions, I needed to make sure I knew exactly what every layer was for, and how I could find them in a timely manner. Everything had their groups, sub groups, customized named, you name it! Looking back, without that level of specificity on the organization, this project would have been a nightmare.

To prevent a Photoshop layer nightmare unfolding in your life, use these tips to keep your projects streamlined and poised for revisions at any time!

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Name Your Layers!

“Okay, I get it. Layers schmayers, who cares”, you say. This seemingly obvious thing is a very simple technique that TONS of people skip out on. What makes it so important?

You never truly know how large your project is going to become. With that in mind, it’s always important to make the habit of renaming your layers right after you make them. Add a layer for a shadow? Name it “shadow”. Add an image of a cloud? Name it “Cloud”. This seemingly boring task will help you be more efficient when the layers begin to pile up.

To rename a layer just double click on the words portion in your layer panel and type in whatever you’d like! Just like renaming a file on your computer.

Imagine a project like this if I just didn’t name any layers:

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Clipping Masks

Although clipping masks are a pretty integral part of everyday Photoshop usage, they are even more important when you are doing a multi image composite.

A clipping mask “clips” one layer to another so it only effects the layer below it. They are used particularly often with adjustment layers, so you can adjust the colour and/or exposure of 1 layer specifically; without effecting any of the layers below.

To create a clipping mask, simply right click on the layer you’d like to clip, and go to “create clipping mask”. A small arrow will be pointing down to the layer below, meaning it is clipped to that layer. See below:

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All layers with the arrow are clipped to the “Mark MERGED” Layer

Clipping masks will help keep you all kinds of organized by helping you to clearly decipher which layers are meant to effect which. I often just clip my adjustment layers to whatever they are effecting, just in case I end up having to moving them around or have to put another layer below. It will save you a ton of time as your project grows.

Grouping Layers

Grouping your layers essentially merges a group of select layers into a folder; that can be opened or closed within you layer panel. Groups are an incredible way to keep your layer panel clean, as well as, keep all related layers together in one place.

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To group layers, just select the layers you wish to group(CMD + CLICK on Mac | CNTRL + CLICK on PC) then press the folder icon at the bottom of the layers panel. A keyboard shortcut for this would also be CMD + G on Mac or CNTRL + G on a PC.

Adding A Layer Mask To A Group

Yes, layer masks can be applied to not only individual layers, but groups as well! How does that help me stay organized you ask? When you have a series of related layers all effecting 1 thing (lets say a person) it can be a real pain in the butt to have to go through and mask out specific layers one by one.

By adding a layer mask to your group, everything inside the group falls under 1 mask and can be masked in or out through that single group layer mask. To apply a layer mask to a group, simply select you group and click on the “Layer Mask” icon. See below for example of what it looks like:

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This is particularly helpful when you have made some broad adjustments with several layers but want to fine tune them all. Instead of going through and masking individually, just group those layers and add a layer mask to your group! Keeps things streamlined, and in turn, organized.

Do Your General Adjustments Last

I have seen a lot of people who jump the gun and start to edit the overall look of their images as they go. This ends up being catastrophic to your organization. If you are adding random adjustment layers mixed throughout as your project develops, you will quickly lose track of why that blue is such a weird hue or why that rock is so underexposed.

Here’s how I like to go about creating my projects and encourage you to try the same:

Step 1: Bring in all your assets and put them into position: Don’t fine tune anything, just place everything where you want it to be. Build your composition!

Step 2: Fine tune the assets: When I talk about assets I mean things you are bringing into your photo. People, birds, rocks, buildings, whatever. Since you have found them a home with step 1, it’s time to make them comfortable by getting rid of fringing and ensuring their basic colouring matches its surroundings.

Step 3: Do your general adjustments: Now that your layers are mostly blended together and you’re happy with their positioning, begin to apply general adjustments. This entails colour and exposure adjustments to the image as a whole. It is in this stage that everything starts to come to life!

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RED: General Adjustments | GREEN: People and smaller assets | PINK: Background and large assets

Now your layer panel is set up like a delicious multi layered dip. At the bottom you know you have the main bits, the sky, background, that type in thing. In the middle you know you have the people and the smaller assets. Then finally at the top, you have the general adjustments that tie everything together. Now you can quickly know where to find something within your layers panel!


Final Thoughts

Organization in Photoshop is one of those things that you likely won’t really care about until you have to. Don’t be like me; get in the habit of good organization from the very beginning of your Photoshop journey.

If you know someone that could use these tips, or you found this helpful, please SHARE this post as it really does make a difference 🙂

How do you like to stay organized? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy editing!

-Brendan