Layers: The Complete Guide to Photoshop’s Most Powerful Feature

While I do most of my photo processing in Lightroom these days, and the new features in Lightroom 2.0 will probably make that even more true, there are times when only Photoshop will do. The trouble with Photoshop is that it does so much that it can be quite hard to find out how to do what you want in the most effective and efficient way. There are loads of books and tutorials around, but for me they all suffer from either going too far, or not far enough.

I’ve become something of a fan of Matt Kloskowski since discovering his excellent Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Killer Tips, in which he presents tips, presets, and really nice tutorial videos. The videos are great – short enough to keep your attention, but detailed enough to be useful. I’ve recently added his Photoshop Killer Tips to my RSS reader, and I’m getting some Good Stuff from those videos, too.

So when Matt started mentioning his new book on the use of layers in Photoshop, I thought it would be worth a look. Amazon’s price was quite reasonable, so I bought it, and I’m glad I did. For a start, it’s much shorter than a lot of Photoshop books. I wouldn’t normally describe that as a plus point, but so many Photoshop books go into so much detail of features that I’ll most likely never use that they’re too much trouble to slog through. This one has around 250 pages, and most of those contain large, clear screenshots and easily followed instructions. It’s as near to a print version of Matt’s excellent video tutorials as you’ll get, and being in book form, slightly easier to follow if you want to work through the examples. It’s probably worth mentioning that there are no abstruse secrets or amazing new techniques here – what you’re paying for is some good instruction in a convenient format.

Matt starts by explaining what layers are, and why you should be using them – this is very basic stuff, but in that first chapter, he goes from how not to destroy pictures to creating nifty composite images. Then he goes on to explaining Blending Modes – this was great for me, as I’d never quite got my head round how those worked, and why you’d use particular modes for particular effects. He also makes clear which of the many modes available are the most useful, which could save you a lot of time.

From then on, it all gets more interesting, with good tutorials on Adjustment Layers, Layer Masks and doing good stuff with Type and Shape Layers. Then come some sections aimed more directly at photographers, with some lovely examples and suggestions for enhancing photographs. I like his “dodging and burning done right” tutorial (hint: don’t use the Dodge and Burn tools), and I’ll be giving that a try. You can learn about retouching, Layer Styles (woo hoo, reusable effects!) and have some fun with Smart Objects.

You can either work with your own images, or download the examples from the book’s website. It’s probably worth getting the examples so you can compare your efforts to Matt’s, but you can then go on to try your new techniques on your own pictures.

Matt writes with a light, jokey style that’s close to how he talks on his videos. I like this approach, and found the book very easy and enjoyable to read. Now I just need to get some practice…

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