When you have a lot of layers in your Photoshop file, it’s sometimes useful to merge layers together in order to reduce the total number of layers in your project. In this tutorial, you’ll learn how to merge layers in Photoshop, when you should and shouldn’t use merge layers, as well as exploring some alternatives to merging layers.
A refresher on the concept of layers
Layers are one of the most basic functions of Photoshop. Think of them like sheets of clear plastic laid upon each other. You are free to draw, color, scribble, and paint all you want on one layer of the stack without hurting the artwork above or under it.
Photoshop allows us to create layers to avoid destructively editing our photos or artwork. Every time you enhance a color, push a pixel, or swipe away a stray hair and follow it with a tap of the Save button, you’ve permanently altered that image. By using layers, you can go crazy with your edits, experiment, and perfect your designs and alterations without touching a pixel on the main image.
Pretty cool, right?
The result of using layers can sometimes get a little messy. If you’re a designer like myself, you might find your file is full of “Artwork 1,” “Artwork 1 final,” “Blahblablah,” “Really final this time” named layers. We graphic designers, we’re not always known to be the best organizers in the moment.
All of the layers stacked up, just like a physical pile of plastic sheets, get mighty heavy to your computer’s memory and file sizes.
Merging layers allows you to take multiple layers and combine them together into a single layer. This reduces the number of layers in your project file. So let’s explore how to merge layers in Photoshop, then talk about why you would want to do this in the first place.
To merge layers in Photoshop, simply select multiple layers in the layer panel by holding down the
CMD key while clicking on each layer, then press
E . (You can also go to the Layer menu > Merge Layers.) Keep in mind, once layers are merged, you can no longer edit each of those layers separately. They have been permanently fused together.
So, let’s talk about when you should and shouldn’t merge your layers and take a deeper look at how it’s done.
Why merge the layers in Photoshop?
- Reduce file size – As stated before, those layers can make your Photoshop file into quite the hefty chonker. While it’s good to keep files you may want to return to (especially client work!) in a layered format on your backup drive; a merged file can be great to have around to send for print, work within its edited form, or share the file online.
- Protect your artwork – If you send out the layered version of your file, anyone can edit it! If you want to avoid seeing changes in your files when you send them to print shops or avoid allowing random artists on the internet from “improving” on your work, flatten your artwork before sending it out.
- Save your print shop the headache – A layered file sent to the print shop can cause a lot of headaches. Not only is the file-size downright huge (and therefore takes up a ton of data to send both to the print shop and the printer), but you also have to think about how the elements will render on a different computer. Fonts, for example, don’t travel well. The print shop may not have the font you used or, even weirder; they may have a font with the same name that isn’t the one you chose. If you flatten your file, what you see is what you get.
Why shouldn’t I merge layers?
You should always, always, always keep a backup of anything you might return to in its original, layered format. Otherwise, you won’t be able to edit any of the layered changes that you made later! If you’ve done work in design or photography for a client or you think you’ll want to return to the file in any way, save a backup before you hit that merge button.
Remember, merging your layers is like reducing all those sheets of plastic to just one. Proceed with caution if you haven’t backed up your file.
An exercise in merging layers in Photoshop
After a fun afternoon making some VCR-inspired photomanipulation, I thought this could be a great example of how to merge some of these pesky different types of layers in Photoshop.
So, let’s look at this layered cake of fun that I’ve made:
And now, just a peak at this mess of a layers panel:
So, let’s talk about four elements of layer merging: merge layers, merge visible, flatten image, and merging layer styles/adjustments and do a little house cleaning in the process.
Take a look at the layers panel in the image above. At the top, you’ll see two text layers. One named
--:-- and one named
PLAY. Text layers can allow us to continue to edit the text, but before sending a file off, you might want to rasterize the text.
In this instance, I want to merge these two text layers and rasterize them so that I can apply the same “wave” effect to it that I’ve applied to other elements in my image.
Click (WIN) or
Click (Mac) to select the “
--:--” layer and the “
PLAY” layer. Then, go to Layer > Merge Layers or press
Ta-da! Now, you’ll only have one layer, which will be named whichever title was on top. You can rename it if you wish.
Now, the text is rasterized and the layers are merged. You can now treat this layer like any other artwork layer and edit all the merged elements at once.
Merge visible will merge all the selected layers that aren’t hidden. So, if the eyeball icon is turned off, those layers will not merge.
This is good to use if you have hidden elements, like backups of your original artwork, for example, that you don’t want merged in.
So, for this example, I want to save the original photo I used, but still merge the rest of the files. I’d also like to retain the Photo Filter 1.
Okay, so let’s merge. Start by selecting any single layer. It doesn’t matter which one. Then, click Layer > Merge Visible or press
Like magic, your layer panel will be looking a lot smaller.
As you can see, all that remains is any layers that didn’t have their eye icon clicked and the layer that you decided to merge everything into. Rename it accordingly.
If you want to go down to just a single, tiny layer, this is the way to do it. Flatten image will smash your layers like a pancake, leaving only a single-layered artwork behind. This is appropriate to use if you’re sending your file into a print shop or will export it to the internet.
So, let’s flatten.
Go to Layer > Flatten image.
If you have hidden layers, you will be asked if you’d like to discard them. If you hit cancel, it will stop the process (and you’ll probably want to use “Merge Visible” instead). If you’re ready to discard those layers, confirm by hitting OK.
You’ll be left with a single, background image.
Merging Styles/Adjustment layers
One of the main reasons that people use layers is to utilize the powerful, non-destructive functions in Photoshop like layer styles and adjustments. Since these tools don’t actually change any of the pixels in your image, but act as an overlay, things can get weird when you merge them individually.
In general, you’ll find that if you use Merge Visible or Flatten Image, your final image will look exactly like (or really close to) the image you were working with.
If you try to merge just a few layers, and layer styles are involved, things can get hairy.
For example, try using merge layers to merge Photo Filter 1, Color Mix Bar 1, Color Mix Bar 2, and Artwork Copy 2. Funkiness happens.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do in this instance. A lot of the layer style and adjustment looks come from your blending settings. When you stack the layers, they all default to a single blend style, which changes the way the newly-merged layers look laying against the rest of your artwork.
In cases like this, it’s usually better to look at a different solution for reorganizing your layers.
Alternative to merging: Grouping Layers
In many cases, you really don’t need to merge layers. Since merging is a destructive action, it’s usually worth exploring non-destructive alternatives. Grouping layers is a great, non-destructive way to organize layers.
To group layers, just select multiple layers and click the group icon to move them into a sub-folder in your layers panel.
You can then collapse the group when you don’t need to see the layers inside of it. You can even nest groups inside of groups, created a multi-dimensional hierarchy of groups which contain all of your layers. Reorganizing layers is as simple as drag and drop.
Combine layers with Smart Objects
Smart objects are another non-destructive alternative to merging. What it does is take one or more layers, and contains them inside a protective “container”, which can be edited externally from the current file. Think of it as merge, but with the benefit of being able to go back in and edit the original layers.
To create a smart object, select the layers you want to convert, right-click on them, and select Convert to Smart Object.
Once a smart object is created, you can right-click on it and select Edit Contents to open the referenced file. Any changes you make will be reflected in the original project once you save.
There are many other benefits of smart objects which you can learn about on Adobe’s website.
Stamp Visible layers
Finally, if you’d like a merged version of your image in your layered file, there’s a little trick you can do called Stamp Visible Layers.
Make sure all of the artwork layers you’d like in your final comp are turned on. Then, press Shift + Ctr l+ Alt + E / Shift + Cmd + Option + E to create a snapshot of your artwork that will become the top layer of your file.
Pretty cool, right?
Now, go forth and merge—but only when you need to.