How to Unlock Layers in Photoshop: 10 Steps (with Images)

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How to Unlock Layers in Photoshop: 10 Steps (with Images)
How to Unlock Layers in Photoshop: 10 Steps (with Images)

Locked layers prevent you from accidentally making changes to original images or parts of your work. This is why any image you open is locked by default and marked as a 'background layer'. Photoshop doesn't want you to accidentally ruin your original image. That doesn't mean there wouldn't be ways to customize locked layers.


Method 1 of 2: Unlocking the background layer

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 1

Step 1. Open an image as you normally would in Photoshop

No change or setting is possible before opening an image that unlocks the background layer. Open the image as normal.

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 2

Step 2. Click on the locked layer in the 'Layers' palette

It's the long box on the right side of your screen labeled Layers. Here you can see each layer – with 'Background' at the bottom -- as well as a small thumbnail of the image. Next to the background, there is also a padlock icon to indicate that the layer is locked.

  • Troubleshooting: I don't see 'Layers':

    Click on 'Window' in the top bar. Make sure 'Layers' is checked. If this is the case and the palette is not already open, click on 'Window' → 'Workspace' → and click on 'Essentials'. Still not working? Reset the 'Painting' workspace and click on it.

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 3

Step 3. Click on the layer and press Ctrl/Cmd+J to duplicate an open version of the background

This is arguably the safest way, as you'll still have a perfect original if something goes wrong. For PC users, press Ctrl+J when the background layer is highlighted. For Mac users, press Cmd+J. The new layer will be unlocked and ready for editing.

You can also click on 'Layers' in the main menu, then click on 'Copy layer'

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 4

Step 4. Double click on the background layer to change and unlock it

Just double click on the layer's title ("Background") and a small box will open to reopen the layer. From this box you can do the following:

  • Change the name
  • Set a blending mode
  • Organize layers with color codes
  • Set the base opacity of the layer
Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 5

Step 5. Click "Layer" and then "New Layer From Background" to create an unlocked replacement layer

From the main menu, click on 'Layer' -- the correct option is somewhere at the top. Simple and easy, this also replaces your background layer with a brand new one. You don't get an extra background, just an unlocked layer.

Method 2 of 2: Troubleshoot locked and unlocked layers

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 6

Step 1. First check the color settings if you can't work with layers or can't add new layers

Some file formats (especially "Index Colors") are not fully compatible with Photoshop. Fortunately, you can easily change this, giving you full control over the layer:

  • Click "Image" in the Photoshop main menu. Your image should already be open.
  • Click on 'Mode'.
  • Click 'RGB' to temporarily set the color settings to something you can work with.
Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 7

Step 2. Re-lock a layer by clicking on the little lock in the Layers palette

The Layers palette has a number of keys above the actual layers. Clicking the padlock locks each layer (or layers because you can Ctrl/Cmd-click several at once) that you've marked. Clicking again will unlock selected layers. However, know that this never works for the background layer.

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 8

Step 3. Use keyboard shortcuts to quickly lock and unlock layers

The keyboard shortcut for locking the layers is Ctrl/Cmd + /. This will lock and unlock all selected layers.

  • Mac:

    cmd + /

  • computer:

    Ctrl + /

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 9

Step 4. Unlock all layers (except the background) with Ctrl/Cmd + Alt/Opt + /

This keyboard shortcut opens everything for editing except the background. Note, however, that the background layer, which is locked from the start, will not be changed. The keyboard shortcuts, depending on your system, are as follows:

  • Mac:

    cmd + opt + /

  • computer:

    Ctrl + Alt="Image" + /

Unlock Layers in Photoshop Step 10

Step 5. Lock parts of a layer for complex editing

You can even lock certain parts of a layer to work more accurately. These buttons are all to the right of the padlock, and their names are displayed when you hover the mouse over them. Try the following:

  • Lock Transparent Pixels:

    This icon is a checkerboard. This will not allow you to edit anything that is transparent in the layer, meaning nothing below the layer will be accidentally changed.

  • To lock image pixels:

    This icon is a brush. You can edit everything except for the transparent parts of the layer.

  • To lock pixel position:

    This icon is an intersection. It prevents you from moving the layer, but you can still paint on it, change color and add text.


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