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Layer Styles Explained

Oct 18th 2005
Layer Styles Explained:

Intro to Layer Styles
Back in the old days, a cool effect like a drop shadow or glow was worthy of a 4 or 5 step tutorial. Then along came Layer Effects, and later Layer Styles. Now a handful of impressive special effects are at your disposal. All it takes is a few clicks and a familiarity with what is possible.

Here I've created a few shapes using the pen tool; filled the background with clouds; filled my shape with a lighter version of the clouds; and finally applied a Layer Style called Bevel and Emboss.

Note: I'm going to be talking about Version 6.0 or higher, but if you have 5.0 or 5.5, don't despair. A lot of what I'll say will be possible with Layer Effects (though some of the effects aren't offered).

Check out my shape's layer over there on the left. (Ignore the layer called Shape 1 for now.) You can see my shape is surrounded by transparency, which defines the edges where the style gets applied. On Shape2's right edge you see an "f" symbol, indicating an effect is present on this layer. That triangle next to the "f" will show or hide the list of effects below the layer. You can turn off (or hide) effects by clicking on the eyeball icon to their left, just like you can for layers. To apply a style to a layer, there's several thins you can do. The Layer Menu has a place to choose one, and so does your Layers Palette. In the image you can see how I clicked on the "f" icon at the bottom of the palette to reveal the drop-down menu. (Notice my current effect is indicated.) But for me the easiest way in 6.0 or higher is to simply double click the layer you want to Style-ize.. This brings up the Layer Style Dialog Box.


The Dialog Box
The majority of this gigantic dialog is by default set to making adjustments to Blend Modes, which doesn't concern us here. (Check out my tutorial Blend Modes Explained if you want to learn more about them.) We care mostly about the left side, on which the Styles are listed.

Here you can check the boxes for whatever styles you'd like to try and get an instant preview in your image.
The default setting for each of the styles are good enough in most cases to give you an idea of what is possible. But each of the Styles has a set of controls whereby you can make adjustments to the effect.
To access these you must click on the name of the effect you want to edit. Once that is done, that style will be highlighted in blue and the right 3/4 of the Layer Style Dialog Box will change to show you the options for that style. We'll examine each one and talk about some of the highlights.

Drop Shadow
In each of these examples we'll use a shape I made using the vector shape tools. It's against the same background as above and you saw it as Shape1 in my Layers Palette.
You can see the name of the style delivers and gives us a shadow which falls down and to the right of the shape we applied it to.
Before Layer Styles & Effects, this would require another layer, containing the shadow, placed beneath the shape. But Layer Styles are vector based, meaning the information is stored as mathematical positions, not pixels. This means you can make any adjustments you like to your shape and the style will automatically adapt.
Let's see some of the options you can mess around with to change the shadow:
-Blend Mode: affects the way the style's colors interact with whatever colors are beneath it.
-Opacity: is simple enough, slide it right for a darker shadow; left for a more transparent one.
-Angle: lets you decide the direction the shadow is falling. Just spin the circle or enter a degree.
-Use Global Light This is the default angle(120) You can change it in the Layer Menu
-Distance: affects how far away the shadow will be. This can make your background seem close, or very far away.
-Spread: affects how hard the edges of the shadow will be. Slide it to the right if you're working with tiny elements whose shadow is too blurred.
-Size: Goes the other way from the Spread control. It affects how big & blurry the shadow will be.
-Contour: affects the shape of your shadow, rather than sharp corners, in my example, I can change it to have curved edges.
-Noise: can add random-valued pixels to the shadow, which may add to its realism depending on the smoothness of your background.

Inner Shadow
This one has a negative shape effect, making the background appear as if it's standing out and your shape looks inset. Very Cool.

The option controls are mostly the same as Drop Shadow above, but let's see what's different here:

-Choke: performs basically the same job as its counterpart, Spread as explained above (affects the hardness of the edge of the shadow.) I'm confident Adobe had a good reason for changing the name.

At the bottom left there, I couldn't help showing you what a little playing around with the controls (mostly Distance) can do to change the default appearance. Amazing three-dimensional illusions can be created with just a slide of a control!

Since we've got space here, I want to tell you about a button on the right side of the Layer Style Dialog Box that says . This can be great, because after spending hours debating over some of these options that the styles have, you can save your settings. Just hit this button, and give your custom style a name and it's yours forever, to re-use anytime.

Outer Glow
Here's another one I enjoyed showing students how to do before these darn Layer Effects came along, because it was so simple and yet impressive to load a selection of a layer, expand it, feather it, and fill with a color on a lower layer to achieve a glow. I have mixed feeling about Layer Styles because they take away some of that pride or sense of achievement. But Adobe's got to compete and have some appeal to those non-artists out there (I know none of you are included in this group.)
The name of this one says it all so let's see what the controls can do:

-Blend Mode: see step 3 above
-Opacity: see step 3 above
-Noise: see step 3 above
-Angle: lets you decide the direction the shadow is falling. Just spin the circle or enter a degree.
-The Color Box Click on this to select a color other than the default yellow.
-The Gradient Box Click on this to select a gradient for effects such as a rainbow glow! You'll most likely need to increase the size to see much of a multi-hued gradient.
-Technique: Softer is the default choice. On mine the other choice, Precise, just makes the glow larger. But what it's supposedly best for is a more precise glow on larger or more complicated non-vector based shapes.
-Spread: see step 3 above.
-Size: see step 3 above
-Contour: see step 3 above
-Range: is a control for the range of the contour. It behaves much like the size control, unless you're using a gradient.
-Jitter: Controls how smooth or pixelated your gradient (if you have one) will appear. You can vary from a smooth transition between colors, or (at high numbers) a mosaic appearance.


Inner Glow
Like Inner Shadow, once you understand its counterpart, you can figure out what this one's going to do.

Inner Glow just makes the effect come from the other direction, the inside of the shape. I had to adjust the Choke and Size in my example to the left to make it exciting.

The controls are identical to Outer Glow, with one, glowing exception. Underneath Technique: is an option called Source:. This one makes a world of difference by making the glow come from either the edge of your shape (default); or from the center. I've included the example on the bottom left to show you what it looks like from the center.

Any time you want to revise your Layer Style, just double-click on the word Effects you should see right below your layer (you may need to click the triangle next to the "f" icon if you can't see your effects listed.) Or you could double-click on the name of the effect, in this case, Inner Glow. In either case you'll be taken right to the option controls for the effect in question, and you'll see them exactly as you left them when you last clicked OK.

Bevel and Emboss
This style is one of my favorites. Before Layer Styles it was not that simple to do, but now I whip it out on text and simple shapes when I want it to look pretty cool but don't feel like spending any time on it.
Plus it's got a ton of options. Let's examine them:
-Style: (Pop-Up Menu)
Inner Bevel (default) creates a bevel on the inside edges of the layer contents, making it look like something with raised rounded edges (see image, left)
Outer Bevel makes a bevel on the outside edges, which makes your shape look raised up from the background, but very flat.
Emboss has the same look as Inner Bevel, but the highlight and shadow fall on the underlying layers.
Pillow Emboss makes it look like the edges of your shape have been stamped into the underlying layers.
Stroke Emboss applies the emboss effect to a Stroke (another Style we haven't got to yet.)
-Technique: (Pop-Up Menu)
Smooth is the default and is self explanatory.
Chisel Hard as its name suggests looks more like your object was chiseled out of stone. It might be useful on very complex shapes, whereas Smooth might not show enough detail.
Chisel Soft, unlike its name suggests, looks like your object was chilled out of stone, albeit badly. It's a much more rough, crude, primitive type of embossing.
-Depth: This one's pretty self-explanatory. Cranking the slider up makes your embossing stand out more.
-Direction flips the lighting angle to its opposite.
-Size: does what you think; see step 3 above; some really interesting effects can be achieved by cranking this way up. I'm not sure they're good, just cool.
-Angle: see step 3 above.
-Gloss Contour: Makes a high-contrast, metallic appearance on the effect
-Highlight Mode: & Shadow Mode: Here you can choose the Blend Mode and Opacity of these effect features.

Example (left) : Style: Inner Bevel; Technique: Chisel Soft; Depth 100%; Direction: Up; Size: 5px

-Contour: affects the shapes of your bevel of emboss; you can make if more sculpted, doubled.
-Texture: lets you overlay a texture on the effect area

Example (bottom left) : Style: Outer Bevel; Technique: Chisel Hard; Depth 211%; Direction: Down; Size: 2px

(Photoshop 6.0 and up only)
This one examines the shape being affected and shades the interior with black. The blend mode is multiply and the opacity is 50% so it just darkens your colors in the affected area. We've seen all the controls previously, so I won't go over them, but be sure to mess around with Size: and Distance:. You could create some really cool animation by sliding the Distance: control between it's extremes of 1 and 250 pixels. It kind of looks like a double spotlight sweeping over your shape. Affects how hard or soft the edges of the satin effect will be.

Color Overlay
(called Color Fill prior to Photoshop 6.0)
A real no-brainer. It does what it says. You pick a color (default is red) and slide the opacity slider to "tint" your shape. I picked a dark blue and changed the Blend Mode to Multiply (default is Normal) to make it more interesting. The Color Overlay style may not seem like much on its own, but this and the next two can be used in combination with other styles and saved (as I discussed in Step 4 above) to give you some remarkably quick ways of applying colors and styles (see Step 13 below.)

If you're using Version 6.0 or higher like me, and you want to give a file using Layer Styles to someone using an earlier version, you'll want to convert your style to a rasterized layer first. To do this choose Layer: Layer Style: Create Layer(s). Doing this with a Drop Shadow, for instance would put the shadow on its own layer beneath your shape. In the case of Color Overlay here, you'll get a Color Fill Layer over your shape. If you fail to do this, the earlier version will display the image differently than you intended.

Gradient Overlay
(Photoshop 6.0 amd up only)
With Gradient Overlay, you get to apply a gradient to your shape without having to load a selection of it and use the gradient tools. All the controls they have are here, plus more. I still had my Color Overlay visible here, and for my Gradient Overlay I changed my blend mode to Multiply again, lowered the opacity to 81%, and changed the style to Reflected (Linear is default. You can also choose from Radial, Angled, and Diamond for your Gradient).

Pattern Overlay
(Photoshop 6.0 amd up only)
This one combines the options for a Pattern Fill Layer and the Pattern Stamp Tool. You can pick from Adobe's default Patterns or any you've saved. In my first image I chose the Op Art Pattern, and lowered the opacity to 50%. Scale: controls the size of the pattern's shapes.

Hey, let's not forget to use some of these effects in combination. Frankly, the last few look kind of lack-luster on there own, but throw in and emboss and they really grab you. In my image in the bottom left, I turned back on my Bevel and Emboss and Color Overlay styles by clicking the eyeball icons in the layers palette next to their names.

(Photoshop 6.0 amd up only)
This style applies the Stroke... command (found in the Edit menu) to your shape. All the controls you need are here plus one option not found in the normal command. You can fill the stroked area with a Gradient or Pattern, rather than a color by choosing on the Fill Type: pop-up menu.

Here I simply applied a large stroke to the last image you saw above, changed the fill color to blue, and the blend mode to Overlay.

If ever want to duplicate an effect you've got on one layer to another, there are two things you can do to save time. One involves going to the Layer Menu. Choose Layer: Layer Style: Copy Layer Style. Then select the destination layer and choose Layer: Layer Style: Paste Layer Style. OR an easier way is to simply drag & drop it. Just click on the word Effects (or the name of an individual style) where you should see it below your layer, and drag your cursor onto your destination layer.

Styles Palette
(Photoshop 6.0 and up only)
Your Styles palette is home to a few "stock" styles and any custom ones you save (see Step 4). My style I used at the bottom of Step 11 is seen there on the bottom left of the palette. Pause with your cursor over style icons and you'll see their name. The colorful preview icons are thanks to the use of Color or Gradient Overlays in combination with other effects. To apply one of these, just select the layer you want and click on the style.

To the left I applied the Chiseled Sky style. It's made with a Blue-White Gradient Overlay and a Chisel Hard large Inner Bevel.