Photoshop Layer Styles and Effects
Layer Styles and Effects are one of the most powerful tools that you have in your arsenal with Photoshop. They are how you add strokes, outlines, glows, shadows, color effects, patterns, and much, much more. Learning how to use them will immediately grant you enough XP to level up; possibly for multiple levels.
There are many layer effects. Not all of them will be useful to you (I’ve never in my life used the Satin effect, for instance) but some of them are so prevalent in my workflow I don’t know what I’d do if they went away.
Individually, the basic options of a given layer effect are easy to understand. Each one tends to have some more advanced features (such as contouring) but for the most part they are straight-forward.
Every layer effect has its own blend mode. Whichever blend mode you choose will change how the overall style behaves. Please be sure to read Photoshop Blend Modes for more information about blend modes when you’re done here; I’ll save discussing blend modes for that page.
Every effect also has an opacity slider. This obviously changes how opaque the it is and allows you to independently target them.
Some effects (like strokes) may be added multiple times. Other effects (like patterns or bevels) can only be applied once. If an effect can be applied multiple times there will be a “plus” icon next to it. There is a limit to the number of times you can add a specific effect. This will be most often used with strokes, glows, and shadows.
You can also use the layer styles panel to edit the blending options for the whole layer or to apply pre-defined styles from a library.
Layer Effects 101
Styles vs. Effects
The terms “style” and “effect” are often used interchangeably but they actually mean different things. An effect is a single instance (a stroke or an inner shadow). A style is the combination of several effects (the stroke and the shadow together).
A Note on CPU
Layer effects are heavy when it comes to Photoshop’s memory and CPU usage. The more layer effects and styles that exist, the slower and more difficult it will become to work with a document. This is compounded by a document’s size: the larger the size, the more work the system has to do to keep up.
Every time you move a layer with effects, the computer has to recalculate all the effects. If you move an anchor point, it has to recalculate all the other points. Drop shadows, glows (outer glows especially), bevels, and patterns are all “heavy” to calculate. Combine that with the math that blending modes require and you can find yourself burning battery pretty quickly.
Keep this in mind as you work and try to be economical (use groups over individual styles, etc.). You can also use a technique of Temporary Rasterization (see “Tip: Temporary Rasterizing” below).
Accessing Layer Styles
You open the Layer Styles panel for an individual layer by double-clicking on the right side of its entry in the Layers panel. Double-clicking the layer’s name will edit the name layer. If a layer already has had styles applied to it, a little “fx” icon will appear in the corner with a collapse/expand control.
Expanding the control will reveal all the effects currently assigned as well as their individual visibilities. You can turn on or off individual effects here by clicking on the “eye” icon (it disappears if the effect is turned off) or all effects by turning off the “Effects”.
You may find that the list of effects is short or incomplete. That’s because Photoshop will hide effects that aren’t being used from time to time. You can get them all back by clicking the “FX” icon in the lower left corner and selecting “Show All Effects”. You can also delete non-displayed effects from the same menu with “Delete Hidden Effects”.
Turning Off Layer Styles
By default, Layer Styles are turned on and display as you work. Many times, however, you’ll want to turn them off and work “naked” (usually for performance reasons).
Turning on or off layer styles is terribly easy:
- Go Layer -> Layer Style -> Hide All Effects
- There is no step 2.
Viola! The styles are gone! If you’ve been working in style mode for a long time, it can be a trip to see the changes. You may find errors in your maps that your styles are hiding as well (glows, strokes, and shadows can easily hide small gaps, for instance).
You turn them back on the same way:
- Go Layer -> Layer Style -> Show All Effects
Copying, Pasting, and Clearing Layer Styles
You will find that you often need to bulk apply a style you’ve designed, or you want to erase all of the effects from a layer. This is done by copying, pasting, and clearing layer styles.
Right clicking on a layer entry will open up a menu. In the middle are three options:
- Copy Layer Style. Copies the style into memory.
- Paste Layer Style. Applies the copied layer style to the layer.
- Clear Layer Style. Resets the layer and removes all styles from it.
Styling Layer Groups
Layer groups can be styled as well. The process to do so is exactly the same (double-click on the right side of the layer group). There are two major caveats to applying effects to groups.
The first thing to know is that the group’s style will apply to all visible layers it contains. This is often exactly what you want (say, you want to apply a color overlay to everything to create a sepia tone effect), but other times does weird things you don’t expect (like giving shadows to a layer’s already existing shadows).
Using group-level styles is a quick and easy way to change the style of all items. For instance, I like to group all of my labels for “water” areas together (the names of seas, lakes, rivers, etc) and then apply a single style to the group (a color overlay, a texture, a glow), which is then applied to everything.
You can achieve the same effect by doing a bulk style paste, but that’s ill-advised for two reasons.
The first is that each layer style present and visible in a document increases the CPU requirements of Photoshop. When styles are rendered, they’re rendered in order, then a group style is applied. If you have a folder with 20 items in it, all of which are supposed to get the same style, you’ll have 20 styles applied if you do them individually. However, if you apply the style to the group, there’s only one style applied (it is laid down after the group has been “merged” and becomes a single unit as far as Photoshop is concerned when displaying it).
The second is that you will have to maintain these styles. If you want to change the stroke color, you have to do that to every layer.
Now, there are times when you may want to do this (for instance, you want a white stroke around every text layer in the group except the ones on white backgrounds, in which case you want a dark grey stroke). I would normally put the exceptions into their own group, but if you want to be sloppy feel free, ’tis a free country.
Styling Smart Objects
Layers within a smart object can have their own styles applied. These styles are effectively “free” as they are pre-rendered by the Smart Object’s system. You can access the layers of a Smart Object by double-clicking its icon in the Layers panel.
You can style Smart Object entries themselves as well through the Layers panel as normal. These styles are applied on top of any styles that the Smart Object already has (this is useful for color overlays).
A Note on Light Sources
Many effects (such as bevels or shadows) depend on a light source. This is the direction that the light is casting from and affects how the effect is applied. Shadows, for instance, appear on the opposite side of the layer from the light source.
You can set the light source for each effect independently or you can use the “Global Light” (there’s a checkbox). If you have the “Global Light” checkbox turned on, there’s two things that happen:
- The effect’s light source will be the same as all other effects that have “Global Light” turned on, and
- Changing the angle or altitude of the light source will also change the “Global Light” value, which may not be what you want.
I nearly always set my Global Light values to 90 degrees with an altitude of 30 degrees.
Most of the time you will want to use Global Light except if you need two shadows coming from different directions.
When working with battlemaps, it is important to set your Global Light with a high altitude: 90 degrees. The reason why is that you want a top-down view and you’ll often be rotating rasterized objects and will need their shadows to be maintained.
Let’s talk about the individual effects and their types. I’ll go in order the order they are listed in the panel, top-to-bottom. This order is important to know: it is the order in which the effects are applied to the layer. The order is immutable, I’m afraid.
For each example, I’m going to show you what it looks like when applied to a red (
The first entry in the list is a “pseudo” style called Styles. This allows you to quickly apply existing or saved styles to layers without having to recreate them. Simply select the style you want from the library present.
You can add a style you’ve created to your library. Apply your various styles as normal and then click the “New Style…” button on the right-hand side of the dialog. You’ll be asked for a name for the style; give it one and it will then appear in your library.
The second entry in the list, Blending Options is also a “pseudo” style. It allows you to control the layer’s overall blend mode (see Photoshop Blend Modes), the opacity of both the layer itself and the opacity of its fill.
Let’s take a moment to talk about Fill Opacity versus Layer Opacity. Both options affect how the pixels of the layer are displayed. However, the Fill Opacity affects the layer before styles are applied, while Layer Opacity affects the layer afterwards.
This is really useful when you just want to use a layer’s shape, but don’t want to show the layer. For instance, say you end up making a lot of screenshots of an interface and want to highlight certain areas. You’ll create a square or circle shape around the area you want to highlight, set the layer’s fill opacity to 0%, and give it a Stroke effect. Bam! Now you’ve got a border around your area and it isn’t blocked by the shape’s own pixels.
Bevel & Emboss
The Bevel & Emboss is a complex tool that can be used to create easy three-dimensional effects. You can control the type of bevel or emboss, the direction it goes (up or down), it’s depth, size, and in some cases how sharp the edges are. You will nearly always use inner bevels.
You will be tempted to use this effect to create pseudo-mountains. It can work fine, but there are gotchas and you’ll discover them as you go: they have to do with the way anchor points behave (it’s impossible to explain this; you’ll have to learn by trial and error). This is discussed in greater detail in Drawing Mountains.
Always use Screen and Multiply modes for your highlights and shadows here. If you apply them as “normal” details will fail.
A Stroke is one of the most useful effects when it comes to cartography and Photoshop. You’ll find yourself applying strokes everywhere with varying degrees of opacity and blending. Shorelines are made with several strokes stacked on top of each other, for instance. Doors can become more easily discernible, walls more pronounced.
Use thin widths for creating definition; use thicker strokes to indicate interactivity (like with doors).
You can apply strokes in three places: Inside, Outside, and Centered. Only inside strokes maintain perfect corner fidelity: fat strokes on the outside and inside end up rounding in the corners.
The “overprint” checkbox is important. Flipping it on or off can do weird things to the opacity of the layer underneath the stroke. You will almost always want “overprint” to be on.
You can also use gradients or patterns as the fill for a stroke. I do this often when I want to create something like a pool. In the example shown, there are a total of seven stroke effects applied to it: three with a pattern overlay (the gold strokes and the thick marble stroke) and four of just a color (
When adding multiple strokes, each successive stroke must be larger than the one before it to appear (making this pool is described in the water technique for battlemaps tutorial so take a look there for it’s stroke layout).
The Inner Shadow effect uses a light source to cast a shadow in the inside of the layer’s content. Shadows are basically specialized gradients that are drawn by the light source. As such, they have start, middle, and end points, but they aren’t called that:
- Distance affects how far from the edge the shadow’s gradient will start.
- Choke affects the mid-point of the shadow’s gradient
- Size affects how far the shadow’s gradient goes from where it starts to where it ends.
“True” shadows should usually be a dark color set to Multiply but you may have your own ideas. Go with god.
You can adjust the shadow’s countour as well for interesting effects. Most of the time you’ll want the incline plane, however.
An Inner Glow is similar to an Inner Shadow except that it is always drawn from the edges inward (instead of being directed by a light source). Like Inner Shadows, these are gradients, except you can’t control the gradient start point (just the Choke and Size).
If you set the Source to “Center” you’ll get the inverse of your glow (it will spread from the layer’s center).
For the forest example, the following settings were used:
- Contour: Reverse of default (double-click to edit the contour)
- Choke: 25
- Size: 10
- Noise: 20
- Blend Mode Overlay
The Satin style is similar to Inner Glow or Inner Shadow except that it applies the changes towards the center of the layer (unless you mess with the contour).
I honestly don’t find a lot of use for this one. I normally achieve its effects by using multiple Inner Shadows.
A Color Overlay does exactly what it says on the tin: it takes a color and applies it to every pixel in the layer. You will most often use this with the Color blend mode, which changes the color value of the pixels beneath.
It’s terribly useful. When applied to a layer with a bunch of other details, the color will subtly affect things. A great trick is to apply a color overlay with
For two of the examples, I have applied a Color Overlay to a parchment texture in both yellow (
The Gradient Overlay effect does just that: overlays a gradient. This is useful for subtly changing the colors of water layers, for instance (build yourself a nice gradient that passes through several shades of blue and green and apply it with a blend mode Color and apply it overtop a parchment layer).
The use of the gradient editor is described in more detail in Photoshop Basics.
You can control the angle, style, and scale of the gradients. I don’t recommend that you use dithering.
Gradient overlays can be tricky. You may find that you have to apply them in their own layer if you want to have them work with underlying textures. For the water example, the parchment layer is just set to normal, and a color layer of
My favorite effect – especially with battlemaps is Pattern Overlay. This effect allows you to take a pre-defined image and wall-paper it over the entire layer, giving it visual style. Over time, you will develop a large library of patterns (and many of them pulled from these tutorials; there are several included throughout).
The pattern overlay dialog is fairly straight forward but there are a few things you should know.
The first has to do with Scale. This will change the, uh, scale of the pattern. Large patterns will repeat more with lower scale numbers. You can scale up really high but I don’t recommend it as things start blurring very quickly. Scale down instead.
The second is Link with Layer. If you set this to false, the pattern will be applied starting from the 0,0 pixel of the document. If you set it to true, the pattern is applied from the 0,0 pixel on the layer.
You can see how this works by applying a pattern to a layer, turning off the “link with layer” checkbox, and then moving the layer around. You’ll notice that the layer moves but not the pattern. If you then turn the “link with layer” checkbox back on, it will freeze the pattern at that location, which is a neat trick (you can also click and drag on the inside of the object while the Layer Styles dialog is open).
The third thing is Reset Origin. If you have a pattern that you’ve locked in at a different start point (as described in the paragraph you just read), this will undo that effect and snap the 0,0 of the layer (or document) to the 0,0 of the pattern.
Most of the time you’ll want to apply patterns in “Normal”, “Overlay”, or “Multiply” modes. However, if you have a nice noise texture, applying it in Linear Light mode is probably what you want.
Importing Your Own Patterns
You’ll want to add lots of patterns to your library.
- Open the image you want to make a pattern of in Photoshop.
- Type <command>a to select all pixels in the pattern.
- Go Edit -> Define Pattern and give it an appropriate name.
- Click “Okay”. The pattern is now available in your library.
An Outer Glow behaves similarly to an Inner Glow except that the gradients of the glow are drawn from the outside edges. Again, you can’t set the start point of the gradient, but the Spread value tells you how far from the edges the gradient will start and the Size value describes the gradient’s size after this.
You’ll nearly always use a Spread value of 0. I find other values are just ugly.
Drop shadows are also gradients but they are cast by light, like Inner Shadows. Drop shadows are
great for pulling things up off the page. You’ll use them most often with battlemaps but I like to apply them to things like legends and titles on other maps as well.
Go re-read the Inner Shadow section above, but know that it appears outside of the layer, and that the Spread value behaves the same as the Choke slider on Inner Glows.
Tip: Temporary Rasterizing
As you work on a map, you may find that it gets slower to use and Photoshop starts chunking because you’ve got too many layer styles or you have a lot of anchor points in your shapes
This can really become apparent while you’re dollhousing (see Designing Fantasy Battlemaps). I built an orrey component once that consisted of over 50 shapes, each of which had multiple layer effects and tens of anchor points – for a solid object. Moving it by even 10 pixels could take 30 seconds or more.
The solution here is rasterization. This takes your shape/layer and all of its layer effects and burns them into a pixel layer. Pixel layers are incredibly lightweight (to Photoshop, at least). You can take all your complex objects and rasterize them and then they can be moved around easily. Further, they don’t require the CPU to overtax itself.
- Duplicate the layer (say, Table) for your object and call it Table Pixels.
- Turn off visibility on Table
- Right click on Table Pixels and select Rasterize Layer Style. This will fully rasterize the layer, even if it is a shape (selecting Rasterize Layer on a shape will rasterize the shape without rasterizing the layer effects; this skips a step).
- Duplicate the layer group (say, Table and Chairs) for what you want to rasterize (you are using layer groups to contain your complex objects, right?) and call it Table and Chairs Pixels.
- Turn off visibility on Table and Chairs
- Right click on Table and Chairs Pixels and select Merge Group. This will rasterize the entire group.
Keep all your original shape layers. Maybe name them “XXX Shape” to distinguish them from “XXX Pixels”.