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In Love with Layer Comps

Valentine’s Day has just passed and I am once again reminded what a great tool Adobe Photoshop is and how much better it continues to get. Take one subtle feature found Photoshop CSLayer Comps. This new tool extends the functionality of Photoshop’s layers, letting you create multiple versions of your artwork without making multiple documents. This month, I’ll show you how you can use Layer Comps to get even more power from Photoshop. Unfortunately, this feature in not in Photoshop Elements, but if it seems like something you need you can add it to the list of reasons to invest in the professional version of the program. Layer Comps are also supported in Photoshop’s sister program ImageReady.

I sat down to make my Valentine cards. I created my design in Photoshop, with each element on it’s own layer. I added effects and ran a couple of filters until I was satisfied with the results. I then added the text “For Ruth, My One True Love”, sized it and added an outer glow Layer Style (Fig. 1). This is all well and good, but I am fortunate enough to be blessed with more than one true love. So I turned to the Layer Comp feature to help out.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

A Layer Comp saves the state of all of your Photoshop document’s layers: layer visibility – whether they are on or off and what their opacity is, layer position, and layer appearance – whether a Layer Style has been applied and what compositing mode it is in. When you create a new Layer Comp (comp in this case is short for composition) you save the current state of the layers in your Photoshop document.

Once I had the first design the way I wanted it, I opened the Layer Comps palette (Window > Layer Comps) and clicked the Create New Layer Comp button at the bottom (it looks like a document) (Fig. 2). This brings up the New Layer Comp dialog box (Fig. 3). Here you need to fill out the name of the Layer Comp, what of the three options you want it to control and any comments you may have. Comments appear in the palette by clicking a dropdown triangle next to the Layer Comp’s name.

Fig. 3

This first Layer Comp, which I labeled ‘Ruth’, records the document as it now stands. If I make any changes to the document, I’ll need to note that by clicking the Update Layer Comp button. At this point, I needed to start on my next design. I copied the text layer I had created, turned off the original one and changed the name in the text. I wanted the card to look a little different so I swapped the design elements on left for the ones on the right and changed the opacity settings of the heart layers. Once again, I created a new Layer Comp, naming this one ‘Alaina’ (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

You can toggle back and forth between the Layer Comps by clicking in the open square to the left of the Comp’s name in the Layer Comps palette. Satisfied with the results, I pressed on to make my third card. Wanting it to look more like the first one, this time I selected the ‘Ruth’ Layer Comp and dragged it to the Create New Layer Comp button to make a duplicate. Double-click the new comp to change the properties as needed; I renamed mine ‘Heather’.

On this new comp, I changed the Layer Styles on the heart (Layer > Layer Style), adding an Outer Glow and increasing the black Inner Glow. I finished by clicking the Update Layer Comp button.

You can cycle through the Layer Comps by clicking the arrow buttons at the bottom of the Layer Comps palette. If you want to only cycle through some of your Layer Comps, you can select them and then the arrow buttons will only cycle through the ones that are highlighted. You can delete a Layer Comp by dragging it to the Trash icon.

Fig. 5

Note that at the top of the Layer Comps palette is a comp called Last Document State. Clicking the box next to this will return the document to the most recent version regardless of what Layer Comp you have selected.

There are times when you may see a caution icon next to one or more of your Layer Comps (Fig. 5). This happens when you delete a layer, convert a layer to the background or change the color mode of the document. When this occurs, you can either update the Layer Comp or right-click (control-click for one-button Macs) to clear the warning flag without changing the Layer Comp.

Fig. 6

Now that all the Layer Comps are completed, I can export individual flattened files of each design for output. This is easily accomplished by selecting File > Scripts > Layer Comps to Files (Fig. 6). This script lets you select the file type and output options you want and then proceeds to duplicate and flatten your various compositions without altering your original Photoshop file. You can also find scripts here that will convert your Layer Comps to a multi-page PDF or a Web Photo Gallery. This is a brilliant way to share multiple design concepts with colleagues or clients…just email them a PDF file or a link to a web gallery.

As Adobe Photoshop continues to evolve, it is the little touches like the addition of Layer Comps that keep users excited about the program. This is my favorite new feature in Photoshop CS. I think I may be in love.

Paul Vaughn is a freelance graphic artist, writer and web designer. You can see color examples at The more love the better. If you would like to see the Graphics Guy address a specific topic, email Paul Vaughn at


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