This is an article by guest author Federico Rubio in which he tells us a very easy trick to edit your photos without losing information along the way: adjustment layers.

Many times we have looked at a photo taken by us without having taken the precaution or the possibility of capturing it in RAW format and we need or want to retouch it and experiment with it. Either for artistic purposes or to recover part of the information in images that have come out very underexposed (very dark). Or for any other reason.

It is time to open the photo editor and see with frustration that with each improvement made we are spoiling the photo more and, what is worse, when we finally believe that we have found the appropriate adjustments (once we have already tried all the available tools of the program…) we see that nothing is recognizable anymore or that we have to start over from the beginning and lose all the hours of work dedicated.

In this article I will explain to you what is the trick that I use (like many other people) to work on a JPEG image without destroying its pixels. It is a way almost comparable to editing a file in RAW format (saving the distances between both formats) that keeps open the possibility of adding, subtracting and readjusting everything you want at any time.


All of us who like photography and the world of digital post-processing have had to face this dilemma at some time, especially in the beginning, when we have already paid off our first camera that, in general, does not have a built-in RAW shooting mode; and we feel the need to retouch all our images to give them an extra nuance of our personal touch.

However, as I mentioned, not all cameras have RAW shooting mode included and we can only get photos in JPEG, which is inconvenient, or you just realize when you get home that all the photos were captured as JPEG and tears fall to your feet.

Well, all of us who have worked with RAW know that doing it directly on a JPEG can be like taking 10 steps backwards in achieving quality images for certain types of jobs. But if you still don't know RAW, you decided not to shoot in RAW for whatever reasons , you don't have the possibility to shoot in this format or you have an old photo taken in JPEG (I recommend you read the post entitled "All About The RAW Format: Advantages and Disadvantages " ), you should know that all is not lost. There is a small beam of light that can bring some hope to that beloved photo and bring it back to life. For this I will tell you about working with adjustment layers in Adobe Photoshop.


Well, in case you still don't know, a JPEG image is a compression of the color information that our camera captures in the sensor to finally leave the essential data that we can distinguish a priori with our eyes, thus discarding all the information (pixels) that we are not supposed to be able to distinguish easily. Which translates into more compact, lightweight files that are easy to exchange/read with other programs (explanation could be improved and very very summarized).

We can see that, when editing a JPEG with our favorite photo retouching program , the image loses quality/sharpness with each editing operation, that is, each modification we make to the image deteriorates its pixels (it could be seen as a process of cumulative or inherited transformation in which we can only undo the last of the changes made, but no change in between without losing all subsequent work). This is what is known as destructive editing . This work system forces you to be very clear about the values to adjust for the touch-ups you want to do. Which is very difficult to know in advance and usually results in images with very little definition.

With the following example we will see it more clearly:

On the left you can see the original image and on the right the same image with a series of adjustments that have been destroying the information. You can see this in the histogram of each of the images.

In the one on the left you can see a graph that shows an uninterrupted range of tones, going through all colors from pure black (left) to pure white (right). While the histogram of the retouched image on the right shows an interrupted graph (barcode aspect) with the absence of various tones. They are the ones that have been lost along the way with each transformation, which justifies the appearance of pixelation, since we have eliminated/lost the true color of several pixels and the program now has to assign the hue of the closest pixel to them. stray pixels. Ultimately, image quality/information is lost.

You may wonder how can I retouch a JPEG image without destroying it? Is it possible to achieve good results without RAW? Well, the answer is yes, using non-destructive editing methods through the use of adjustment layers, in this case, I will talk about how to use them in Photoshop since it is probably the most widespread program among amateurs and professionals and the one I use to these situations.

It should be noted that, although it is possible to achieve good results using this method, we cannot achieve miracles either. RAW is undoubtedly the best option to develop quality work from the beginning. However, when there is no choice but to start from a JPEG, I also definitely believe that the adjustment layers method is best. In short, it is about, as much as possible, using JPEG files as if they were RAW files without forgetting that the final quality will always be subject to the quality of the original image information.


With all of the above, what remains for me to specify is what the adjustment layers in Photoshop are for and how they work.

Adjustment layers apply color and tone adjustments without permanently changing pixel values. A layer is created with the setting you want, and it is applied to the layers you've already created below. They can also be applied by zones. You can modify them at any time, or change the intensity of the setting. You can add or remove layers in between. And whenever you want you can restore the original image.

The advantage of using this type of Layers is that all the changes you make will be reversible and editable at any time and throughout the digital retouching process. Which opens up a huge range to try different settings and rectify without fear of losing the original image information.

The only rule that must be met is that the Layer that contains the source image is the Layer that is below all the adjustment layers that you create, otherwise you will not be able to appreciate the changes.


They belong to the environment of the Layers palette. You can find them by displaying the button that I point out in red in the following image:

You will also find this option available in the Layer⇒New Adjustment Layer menu bar . You will see that there are several options, among the best known: Brightness/Contrast, Levels, Curves, Exposure, Hue/Saturation... You can create as many adjustment layers as you want and reorder them as you see fit.

These images are examples of the results that can be achieved by working with these layers, creating as many variations as you like, and working with isolated tones and parameters to emphasize an area or create artistic effects. I invite you to try using them and you will see that they will become your best ally when working in JPEG.

I hope this advice is useful to you and you get the most out of it. Without more to add for the moment, I say goodbye and I wish you good photos! Greetings and practice ?

You can follow Federico Rubio on Instagramand on his website.

If you also want to participate as a guest author, click here.

Did you like this article? Or did you find it useful? Then share it on your favorite social network, it would be a nice way to thank Federico for his work. Thanks and see you soon!

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