How To Edit Only One Layer In Photoshop

by Brendan Williams

As you work in Photoshop, you’ll end up with a long list of layers, but what if you want to edit only one of them? It’s not surprising that you’re wondering this exact question since it’s by no means “obvious” to solve this problem. Luckily, however, it’s extremely easy with the help of a clipping mask. Let me show you how.

You can edit only one layer in Photoshop using a clipping mask. With an adjustment layer placed above another layer in the Layers Panel, right-click on the adjustment and press Create Clipping Mask to clip it to the underlying layer. Now this adjustment will only edit the one layer it’s clipped to.

Clipping masks are simple to use and highly effective for applying adjustments to individual layers. To help you better understand how they work, let’s walk through some different examples of using them in Photoshop. From adjustment layers, fill layers, text layers, and more, there are many different ways to edit individual layers with ease!

Video Tutorial

How To Edit Only One Layer In Photoshop

Let’s say you are working on a project where you have a cut out of a person against a new background. To better blend the two images, you will want to edit the layers individually according to their needs.

In this example, I want to adjust the contrast of one of the layers while leaving the other layer untouched.

First, you need to create an adjustment layer depending on the edit you want to make. Since I want to edit the contrast, I’ll use the curves adjustment layer. You can access this tool via the Adjustments Panel or select it from the options found at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

With the curve adjustment created, I will lift the highlights and bring down the shadows to add contrast to the image. The only problem is that both the cutout and the background have been edited.

By right-clicking on the curves adjustment and selecting “Create Clipping Mask,” the contrast adjustments are now applied to the single layer directly below it.

It is important to remember that clipping masks will make the clipped layer affect the layer beneath it in the layers stack. Therefore, before creating a clipping mask, make sure your adjustment layer is placed above the correct layer in your Layers Panel.

Let’s go through some other ways to edit a single layer in Photoshop, as there are more options than just clipping masks!

How To Change The Brightness Of A Single Layer In Photoshop

To change the brightness of a single layer in Photoshop, select your desired layer in the Layers Panel, right-click and choose Convert To Smart Object. Now go to Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast to apply a brightening adjustment directly to your selected layer.

Although you could also use a clipping mask in this scenario, applying your adjustments directly to the layer non-destructively can help reduce the number of layers you have.

Let’s break this process down more in-depth.

First, you need to convert your layer into a smart object so that the adjustment you apply can be edited later on. Then, by right-clicking on the layer you want to brighten, select “Convert To Smart Object.”

Once converted, a little icon will appear beside your layer thumbnail, indicating it as a smart object.

Now it’s time to apply your brightening adjustment. Going up to Image > Adjustments > Brightness/Contrast, the brightness and contrast sliders will appear in a new panel.

You can also use other adjustments such as exposure, curves, or levels for your brightening effects.

From the provided sliders, adjust the brightness and contrast to your liking, then click OK to save your changes.

Now you’ll notice the adjustment listed as a smart filter beneath your layer. If you want to go back and edit this adjustment later on, simply double click on the words reading “Brightness/Contrast.”

If you didn’t convert your layer into a smart object, the brightening adjustment would be applied directly to the layer. The issue with this is that it’s no longer editable, so you cannot go back and adjust it later on. With a smart object, your adjustments are listed as smart filters making it easy to go back and change things afterward.

How To Change The Color Of A Single Layer In Photoshop

To change the color of a single layer, create a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and place it above your image layer in the Layers Panel. Right-click on your adjustment layer and select “Create Clipping Mask.” Now your color-changing adjustments will only edit the single layer beneath it.

In the example below, I have three different logos, but I only want to change the color of one.

First, I’ll create a new hue/saturation adjustment layer and place it above the logo layer I want to edit. You will need to do the same, placing the hue/saturation layer above the one layer you want to change the color of.

To ensure the color adjustments only edit the one layer, press Command + Option + G (Mac) or Control + Alt + G (PC) with the adjustment layer selected to create a new clipping mask.

Opening the hue/saturation adjustment layer, I can edit the master slider to change the colors of the layer it is clipped to.

For more fine-tuned color-changing adjustments, check out this tutorial for even better results!

Now the color adjustments are only applied to the underlying layer; therefore, you have successfully changed the color of a single layer. With the handy keyboard shortcut mentioned above, adding clipping masks can be done with zero clicks!

How To Paint On Only One Layer In Photoshop

To paint on only one layer in Photoshop, select your brush tool, set the foreground color to your desired brush color, and set the brush opacity to 100%. Next, create a new layer in the Layers Panel. With the new layer selected, begin painting to only paint on the selected layer.

In a nutshell, whichever layer you have selected in the layers panel is the one you will paint on with the brush tool. If you want to paint on a layer mask, simply click on the layer mask to apply your brush strokes onto the mask instead.

Now to make life a little easier, let’s walk through this process together with screenshots!

First, select the Brush Tool by pressing B and set your foreground color to the color you wish to paint with.

Then double-check your brush mode is set to Normal, and the opacity and flow settings are at 100% in the upper settings bar.

With your brush settings in order, create a new layer and place it at the top of your layers stack in the Layers Panel.

Make sure your new layer is selected, and begin to paint on your canvas to apply your brush strokes to the selected layer. You can easily edit this brushstroke by itself or move it around without affecting any other layers.

If you’re having issues with painting with the Brush Tool, here are 8 easy ways to fix it.

So now you know how to edit only one layer at a time in Photoshop using clipping masks or smart objects. These techniques are luckily very simple to remember and quick to apply to the layers you’re working with. Without making complicated masks, you can ensure any adjustment only edits the layer below it with a couple of clicks.

To help you better understand how clipping masks work in Photoshop, I wrote another tutorial covering the ins and outs of clipping masks here!

Happy Editing,

Brendan 🙂

Hey there, I'm Brendan! Around here my mission is to help you improve your photography, photo editing, and graphic design through easy-to-understand tutorials that maximize your creativity.

You can learn more about me and this website here.