In darker, sadder times, when we wanted to apply some effect or filter to something composed of multiple layers, we had to merge those layers into one. Thus, to apply a drop shadow effect or blur filter, for example, we would either sacrifice the compositional freedom layers gives us, or merge those multiple layers into yet another layer, then hide the originals in case we needed to recompose. I still remember the shortcut to create a merged copy of multiple selected layers: ⌘-option-shift-E/Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E. It just rolls off the tongue.
Depending on the task, we now have more elegant nondestructive solutions that are easier to edit later. For filters and transformations that need to be applied to multiple layers, we should use Smart Objects, discussed later in this chapter. For multilayer effects, masks, and adjustments, as well for as organizing, we have groups. After both are discussed, we’ll talk more about deciding when to use each.
The process is easy. You first highlight the layers to be grouped by clicking near the name of the first one, then, to select discontiguous layers, hold down ⌘/Ctrl while clicking near the names of the others. If the layers to be grouped are already contiguous, you may click the topmost or bottommost layer, then shift-click the one at the other end, highlighting the whole range of layers. Then, use ⌘-G/Ctrl-G or Layer > Group Layers.
If you change a blending option of the group such as Opacity, the grouped objects don’t blend with each other, but the group blends with the rest of the document as if the layers had been merged. We discuss how to leverage that in the last two chapters of this Compendium.
To easily select either the group or the layers within it, there are options for the Move tool that you’ll need to adjust. Choose the Move tool and note the Auto-Select options on the left side of the Options Bar. There, you may select Group or Layer.
If Group is selected, clicking on or dragging any layer in the group selects or moves the whole group. This behavior is similar to other programs in which objects can be grouped, thus it is the default. If Layer is selected, clicking on or dragging any layer in a group selects or moves only that layer. With Auto-Select disabled, you must highlight the layer or group you want to move before using the Move tool. This is preferred when there is partial opacity: although it looks like you’re clicking on one layer’s content, Auto-Select moves or selects a translucent layer above it instead. I change this setting frequently!
At first glance, groups appear to be no more than folders into which to stash our layers. They are! Like layers, groups can also have masks. So if you have several layers that need the same mask, you can first group them, then mask the group. Reminder: the process of masking is covered at length in the chapter “4 Selections & Masks” (page 267).
As mentioned above, groups can have blending modes or partial opacity, causing the group to look much like a merged layer. Groups may also have layer styles (effects like drop shadows) and may be used as the base “layer” of a clipping mask. See “Clipping Masks” (page 292) to know more about that feature.
In all those ways, groups act like single layers, but with the flexibility of having editable content. But they also allow us to corral layers with adjustments in an interesting way. As mentioned above, adjustment layers typically affect all the layers below them. This is true even if that adjustment layer is in a group, unless the blend mode of that group is changed.
Here, we have a group of four objects above a Background containing a sky-like gradient. When a group is first made, its blend mode is one unique to groups, called Pass Through. As that name implies, each layer in the group will visually interact with layers below the group as they would had there been no group at all. So if an adjustment layer is inserted somewhere in the group, it will affect the Background as well. That is, its effect will “pass through” the group to other layers.
When a group’s blend mode is set to Normal, you may not notice any change at all—unless the group contains something that affected layers below the group, like this adjustment.
This may seem unnecessarily complicated until you consider that we or someone we work for may want a change to the composition of this document. Had the layers been merged, we’d have to recreate all the pieces again. Groups give us most of the advantages of merging, but none of its adverse consequences.
Finally, let’s not forget the most modest use of groups: neatening and organizing a complex and messy Layers panel. Even seemingly straightforward projects can get messier than anticipated.
I love showing this project to students. Not because it’s any great wonder, but because unlike so many demonstrations that make Photoshop users look like magicians, this one shows that even with the simple objective of putting an elephant in a room, there was real, messy work to be done.
When I dissect the piece for my students, groups help immensely. And, as a further aid, I right-clicked on two of the groups and chose a highlight color for the edges so I could better distinguish the contents of each group.
If you look at the full Layers panel, you may be able to see groups inside groups. I also named nearly every layer and group. I wish I could honestly say I always do so, because I thank myself later when I do.