Did you know that layer groups in Photoshop Elements are a recent addition to the program we all know and love? Layer groups have been a part of full Photoshop for as long as I can remember, but we haven’t had them in Elements until PSE 15. This tutorial will show you how to get the most out of the layer group function in Elements 15 and later.

(How many of you still use something earlier than PSE 15? Would you like me to create a free action that would allow you to use layer groups too? Post in the comments below, and if it will help enough people, I’ll do it!)

If you’re a video person, watch this video to see layer groups in action. If not, keep on scrolling to find the entire tutorial written out below.

What’s a layer group, you ask? Honestly, you’re probably smart enough to figure out what a layer group is. The more important question is why you would want to use one.

Layer groups allow you to put selected layers in a folder. These folders can organize a large layer stack or help you make changes to all the layers inside the group at once. Being organized always saves time, of course, but being able to change the opacity or the layer mask on 3 layers at once? That’s huge!

In this tutorial, I’m going to show you how I used layer groups as I worked on the edit of the photo below. When I’m retouching or adding creative edits, as in this photo, layer groups are particularly useful to control all the layers that the edits require:

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements: How to Use

The layer stack for this image has more layers than will fit on my screen:

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

When I use layer groups in Photoshop Elements, I usually create groups for similar types of edits: all the skin retouching layers, for example, or all the color correction layers. Having these groups lets me “tidy up” the Layers panel to make room for other layers. And it lets me change the opacity, blend mode, or layer mask of all the layers at once.

How many times have you opened a photo the day after editing it and thought, “Whoa. I went way overboard on my skin softening.” Or your color correction. Or whatever else you did. If all my skin softening layers are in a group, I can reduce the group’s opacity to tone down all the edits with just a click or two.

Creating a layer group is as simple as selecting the layers and clicking the Layer Group button on your Layers panel. (The Layer Group button is circled in green at the top of the screenshot above.)

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

To select contiguous layers as you see in the preceding screenshot, click on the first layer you’d like to group, hold down the shift key, and click on the last layer. If the layers aren’t next to each other, as in the image below, hold down Command (PC: Control) while you click on each layer you’d like to put in your group.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

Once the layers are grouped, you can open and close the group by clicking on the arrow on its left side.

When the group is open, you can click on each individual layer to edit as normal.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

Whether the group is open or closed, you can edit all of the layers together when you have the folder selected. The edits you can apply to groups are:

  • Changing the blend mode
  • Clicking the eyeball button to turn the layers off and on. This is handy for when you decide that you don’t like a creative edit or want to turn off your Black and White conversion layers.
  • Changing the opacity (strength) of all the layers together
  • Painting on the layer mask – see the next section for details.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements: Layer Masking

To add a mask to a group, simply click on the group to activate it for editing and then click the Layer Mask button at the top of the Layers panel.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

If all of the layers in this group will have the same exact mask, I recommend adding the group and its mask at the beginning of your edit. That way, you only have to paint the mask once.

If, however, the layers in the group have different masks, you can only use the mask on the group to REMOVE the underlying edits from all the layers in the group. For example, say that you have 3 color-correcting layers in a group. You were changing the overall white balance but you decide that these changes added an unwelcome tint to your subject’s hair. You could paint OUT the edits on the hair by painting with black paint on the group mask.

Read this tutorial if you need help with layer masking.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements: Tips & Tricks

When using layer groups in Photoshop Elements, there are a few more tricks you can use.

First, to rename a group, double click on its name and type the new one.

Next, you can assign each group a color. Hyper-organized people use these colors as a cue for which type of edit is is which  folder. For instance, you might always color your skin softening folders red and your creative edits violet, as you see in this screen shot.

To assign a color to a group, right click on the group and then select a color from the menu that appears.

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

{Power user tip: you can assign colors to individual layers too!}

To ungroup a set of layers, right click on the group. You can see the Ungroup option in the prior screenshot. If, on the other hand, you were to select Delete instead of Ungroup, you would see the following message:

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements

Only select “Group and Contents” if you really want to delete the group and ALL the layers you created inside it.

So, for those of you who want to use layer groups in Photoshop Elements. Post a comment below if you have any questions!

Layer Groups in Photoshop Elements {Video Tutorial}