While the price point is pretty high, in the long run, Photoshop is going to serve you well professionally and nailing down how to use may just be one of the most valuable skills you can have moving forward in the web industry. Now, keep in mind, there is a free equivalent called “GIMP.” GIMP isn’t going to be as flashy as Photoshop and doesn’t have all the same features, but the concepts are pretty similar if not the same.

How to Use Layer Styles in Photoshop

Within this article, we’re going to cover 5 of the most usable layer styles you can find in the “Layer Styles” panel in Photoshop CS5. These styles are going to save you a ton of time, and provide your images with much better quality. You can also use these styles on text. For examples purpose, we’re going to use a basic blurred image as a background, and our layer in the forefront will be a white circle.

Photoshop Tools - Layer Style Basics

On the right hand side of your Photoshop dash, you should see a “Layers” panel with your two layers. First is the background layer, then (in this example) we have the circle. If you double click on the circle layer, your “Layer Style” panel is going to pop up. On the left, you’ll see “Drop Shadow” as the first option.

Shadows: How to Create a Shadow in Photoshop CS5

When you open the “Drop Shadow” tab, you’ll see a plethora of options divided into two categories. The categories are “Structure” and “Quality.” For the record, I almost never have to change anything under the “Quality” section.

The only things I generally change in this, are the “blend mode” (which effects the strength, tone, and affect of the shadow itself), the Size and Distance (which change how dramatic the shadow is), and the Opacity (which affects how dark or light the shadow is).

Most people often tweak the Angle a bit as well. You may notice (in our screenshot or in your Photoshop instance) that the way in which the line is pointing on the “angle” chart is the opposite where the shadow is.

Think of this line as your light source. If you had a ball, and shined a light on it, the line in this chart will dictate where the light is coming from.

Layer Styles - Drop Shadows

How to Make an Outer Glow in Photoshop CS5

The glow options (as silly as it may sound) are by far my favorite tools in the layer style panel. I use them most frequently because they can be as light or subtle as you like and can make an object stand out in an image. In our example, I’m going to show you what the “outer glow” starts out as in Photoshop, and what you can create with it.

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Outer Glow

When you first open your “Layer Styles” panel, you may notice the third option down on the left is your “Outer Glow.” I believe the default Photoshop option when you open this is a beige glow set to “screen” for blending mode which creates the very subtle light glow you see above.

However, with a few minor tweaks, you can take this to a whole new level. In this case, I’ll show you one of the most common settings I use for this style.

Because the background on this image is kind of light, I’m going to choose “Black” as the color of the glow, and set it to overlay. Overlay is similar to letting a color bleed into the colors on the image.

This creates almost a shadow type effect as seen below. Note the different settings on the right and check how they effect the image we have on the left.

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Dark Outer Glow

Apply Gradient Overlay Layer Style

Most important with flat icons, text, and other images, a gradient overlay can add a lot of depth to an item without much effort. In this example, you see I put a semi-transparent (low opacity) black and white gradient overlay onto our circle.

Do you see how it just pops out and forward? We’ve taken our flat, boring circle, and turned it into something more in the present. Take note of the example just below it with text; I literally just copied the layer style we had on our circle and pasted it onto the text. Do you see how much life it gives that text?

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Gradient Overlay

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Gradient Overlay on Text

Adding More Depth to That with Inner Glow

Inner glow doesn’t always prove to be useful, but when you’re trying to add depth it can certainly help. You can change the size, color, and settings much like you can with outer glow. I tend to keep it all at default except change the color to white, lighten the opacity a bit, and if needed expand the size.

The shape that you see in our example is starting to look a little iOS 6 on us, which is what we were going for. You can apply these same techniques to text, boxes, and other items in Photoshop to create brilliant designs!

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Gradient Overlay on Text

Complete Everything with a Vingette Effect on the Background

So this isn’t a layer style option; there are plenty of other layer styles but this will really make the difference in your overall image. Almost any image looks good with this, so what we’re going to do is create a new layer. You can do this in the “Layer Toolbox” on the right, or go to Layers >> New Layer at the top.

Now, grab your paint brush. Choose a circle tip (the kind that looks glowy or feathered) and make it pretty large. For me, my image is 500x300px so I’m going to use a 200px brush.

The first step, is to paint the corners of your background with that brush black (see the first example below) and if your finding your edges are too blunt, just decrease the “Hardness” on the brush palette.

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Feathered Black Border

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Creating Vingette

Once you’ve gotten that step complete, change the opacity for your new frame to something a bit lower, I chose 73%.

You’ve officially made it. You’ve learned some basic tools that all designers know will truly transform your work. You’ve also created a pretty cool circle in the process 😉

Layer Styles in Photoshop - Creating Vingette