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10 Photoshop Adjustment Layers You Should Be Using: Part 1

FilterGrade March 31, 2021 · 5 min read

When it comes to photo editing or post-processing in Photoshop, the Adjustments Panel is one of the most powerful tools available. Packed into this tiny panel are 19 unique photo editing adjustments. Most of which are extremely useful.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, we had a tutorial to create a crushed film look. Everything used to create that effect comes from the adjustments panel. That’s just the tip of the iceberg though. In this post I’ll run through 10 of the top Photoshop adjustment layers that you should be using to improve your photo editing skills.

1. The Curves Tool

Arguably the most used tool for photo editing is the Curves tool. It can be used to adjust light and darkness, edit colors and tones, and even add a faded or vibrant effect to your photo.
using the photoshop curves tool
The Curves Tool best works for:

  • Subtle or harsh light adjustments
  • Vintage tints and fades
  • Slight color adjustments in Red, Green, and Blue

These are all done by adjusting the curve so to speak in different ways. Here is a quick idea of what you can do in a few seconds with the curves tool.
Photoshop curves adjustment
Photo editing with Photoshop Curves Tool
Edited all in one tool was the light, shade, colors, and contrast. That is why the Curves tool is #1 on the list.

2. Gradient Maps

Coming in at a close second are Photoshop Gradient Maps, not to be confused with the Gradient Tool, which I’ll cover in just a second.
Gradient Maps are colors that map over an image. Similar to how black and white effects work, but with any color combination. The real power in Gradient Maps comes when you adjust the blend mode.
using gradient maps in Photoshop
Upon opening a gradient map, you will see this Editor. To edit the colors, double click the tiny paint icon on the right or left. You can then adjust it to any color you’d like for a smooth, clean gradient.
gradient maps in Photoshop
Without any blend modes, it will look like the image above. After changing the Blend Mode to Soft Light and the Opacity to 80%, this is the result.
Using Photoshop Gradient Maps
The left is the base, and the right is after applying the Gradient Map. As you can see it is a quick soft vintage effect in just a few clicks, which makes it a very useful tool.

3. Photo Filters

Photo filters are the Photoshop equivalent of the Photographic Filter. It’s pretty amazing to have that power with the click of a button.
They are best used in combination with other effects and can be really effective for adding a subtle, colored tint to your photos.
Photoshop Photo Filters
When using the Photo Filter adjustment layer you can choose from a list of colors and then adjust the density of the effect. I typically use the suggested color choices and then adjust the density accordingly.
Here is an image I edited with the settings above.
Using photo filters in Photoshop
In seconds I was able to create a subtle cold look to this photo. If you are going for a warm or cool tone, use this adjustment layer and play with the density.

4. Hue/Saturation

The Hue/Saturation tool is the perfect touch a photo needs to add or detract color from the image. It is great for use in vintage effects, dark and mysterious images, and extremely bright, HDR-like images.
Here is a quick example I whipped up with these settings.
Photoshop Hue/Saturation Tool
Here is the before/after of the image.
using the Hue/Saturation tool in Photoshop
Using this tool you can also quickly take an image from dark/gloomy to a bit brighter and more colorful.
Here are the settings.
Photoshop Hue/Saturation Tutorial
These are applied to the exact same image with this result.
Photoshop Hue/Saturation Edit
The Hue/Saturation adjustment has so much to offer and I think it is severely underused.

5. The Exposure Tool

Exposure, a primary aspect of lighting, is one of the most important parts of photography. It is equally important in Photoshop and can help your photo look much better when used properly.
Here are my top three uses for the exposure tool.

  • Brightening up a dark or dull image
  • Darkening an overexposed image
  • Adding a subtle white light to vintage/retro photo effects

These are the settings I used to edit an image and slightly increase its lighting.
using the Exposure Tool in Photoshop
And here is a before/after of the image.
using the Exposure tool in Photoshop
As you can see the difference is subtle, but the Exposure Tool can be highly effective for just a subtle adjustment to lighting and color. Be wary though, it is very easy to misuse this tool. Only use it in moderation to avoid overexposing your images.
I also mentioned the Exposure Tool having the potential for vintage photo effects. Here are the settings I use for a subtle white glow on my photos.
using the Photoshop exposure tool
This is the before/after with those exposure settings applied.
using the Photoshop Exposure Tool
By adjusting the offset just slightly you can get a beautiful soft white glow on your images giving them an authentic analog look.
This is part one of two in a series on 10 Photoshop Adjustment Layers You Should Be Using. Be sure to check back soon for the continuation of this post.


Mike Moloney is the person behind FilterGrade, a cool little shop offering Photoshop filters and resources to photographers and creatives. He also shares more photo editing and photography tips/resources on the FilterGrade Blog.


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10 Comments
  • Been using Photoshop for over 10 years... never used an adjustment layer before, Thanks Mike for this amazing article! I have learned something new today! 7 years ago
  • @Mike Moloney This is great! My Photoshop workflow would be nonexistent without adjustment layers. Thanks for this useful overview! *Pinned* 7 years ago
  • Never used 'Photo Filters' before. Good to know, thanks @Mike Moloney! 7 years ago
  • Loved this article! Read it all and then read "Mike Moloney is the person behind FilterGrade". Yup, it allllll makes sense now. ;) Great work! Thank you and keep it up! 7 years ago
  • I do love me some Gradient Maps! Great post Mike, looking forward to part 2! 7 years ago
  • Thanks so much @Derek Stevenson, @Beth Rufener, @friskweb, and @Liam McKay. Glad you enjoyed the article, I tried to go in-depth on some of the less explored adjustment layers and share my favorite tips/tricks. :) 7 years ago
  • Haha thanks @A W! :) Appreciate the comment. 7 years ago
  • I love using adjustment layers, they do so much of the work for you! Great choice for #1 with the curves layer. I typically use it the most to create vignettes or crush the blacks in a photo if I'm going for that look. You can also use the curves adjustment to get a similar effect as in the last exposure picture by adjusting the endpoint on the white side of the spectrum. I definitely need to learn how to use the curves adjustment more for what it was actually created to do though. 7 years ago
  • @FilterGrade Thanks for sharing these tips, Mike! Whilst I'm familiar with certain Adjustment Layers, there's many that I rarely use, which says I probably need to take the time to experiment with them a bit more. This rundown of each of their uses will come in really handy for helping me do just that. 7 years ago
  • I'm a huge fan of adjustment layers, but haven't really played much with a couple you cover here. Looking forward to the continuation! And love the 'soft white glow' analog effect you showed off at the end. Can't wait to play with those settings! 7 years ago