Using Photoshop Layer Styles

Transforming the Wraps Industry

360 Wraps was started by Tommy Strader in Dallas. He has been a graphic artist and marketing director for several companies over the last 10 years. Some of his work includes working with NASCAR teams to create visual representations of cars and transporters for teams’ sponsorship search efforts. 

This month I have chosen to write about one of the most important design tools in Photoshop, called Layer Styles. If you already use them, great; if you don’t use them, you need to start. 

Here is my best effort to describe a layer style. 

A layer style is a group of special effects that you can apply to a layer. Layer styles can include a drop shadow, inner shadow, outer glow, inner glow, bevel and emboss, satin, color overlay, gradient overlay, pattern overlay and stroke. This might help you a little more to see the different parts of the layer style applied to the same graphic (see examples at left).

Styles can do many things for your design elements, while mostly used on text and shapes, it is also quite handy on photos. If this is the first time for you to see styles, or you occasionally use one of the stock layer styles that comes with Photoshop and you have never dug into them, then they may seem a bit complicated. That’s OK, because they are, but if you understand the basics, then it will help you get your feet wet. As time allows, play with styles and create some unique styles of your own. I have been using Adobe Photoshop now for more than 11 years, and our lead designer, Devaughn Jones, has been using it for eight years.

Almost every day, one of us learns something that we share with each other, so if you feel like you don’t know everything about Photoshop already, it’s OK. Neither do we. The reason that we are able to continue to learn new things almost every day is that styles is just one tiny part of the design process in Photoshop, and styles alone are very complex. Think about this for a minute, there are 10 basic style functions that I listed above, when you are in the styles dialogue box and you click on one of the attributes like inner shadow, there are another 10 different things that you can do with that, then on top of it, about half of those 10 settings have another 10 or more settings to choose from. You can literally make millions of combinations of styles. There are many great resources online to find styles. All the styles in this article will be available for you to download at free of charge. This will allow you to play with them and try out some of the stuff you may have learned in this article, besides everybody loves free stuff, right?



To make a layer style, you simply click on the layer that you would like the style to apply, and then click the little icon at the bottom of the layers pallet that has the letters fx on it. This will give you a drop down list (See Figure 1) of options, that are the same ones I listed at left, along with one more, called blending options. The blending options are kind of layer styles and kind of not. If you look in the top left hand corner of the layers panel (See Figure 2) you will see a drop down list that is default to Normal. This is the layer blending option, which means it will determine how the layer that you have selected effects the layers bellow it. You need to play with these settings on different layers with different images and colors to learn what they do. The same options that you will find in the layer blending mode selections will be found in the options of the different layer style attributes. I know this sounds complex, but bear with me; it will start to make sense as you play with it. 

So, back to the first option in the fx drop down being the blending mode. The reason I didn’t list this in the layer styles setting is because it can be used with or without a layer style. When you add something like a drop shadow or an outer glow, the layer in your layers pallet will change to show you that you have a layer style applied to it (See Figure 3). However, when you change the layer blending mode, it does nothing more than change the blending mode at the top of the layers pallet for that layer. Once you have applied a selection from the fx layer style drop down, you will see the attribute in a submenu directly under the layer with a little eye icon that allows you to toggle on and off that setting for that layer. If you do not see the eye icon in the submenu (See Figure 4) then click on the little arrow on the right side of that layer. This will expand the layer style for you to see all the applied layer styles and which ones are visible indicated by the eye being dark.

Just remember when using styles that they are like spices for your food, a little salt can make your food taste better, but too much salt can ruin it.  


I am going to briefly explain the 10 layer styles and the most common features used in these styles. 

Drop Shadow: The drop shadow is one of the most commonly used layer styles. It is a way to give a little depth to your graphics or text. When you click the drop shadow from the fx drop down list, you will see several options. I am going to cover only the main ones because this article would turn into a book if I were to explain all the options in detail. Blend mode is set to Multiply by default and the color is black by default. This is good. This will make your drop shadow black and the blend mode multiply, meaning that the black will darken the layer underneath it. This effect will create what we typically see when we see a shadow in real life, thus giving depth to your graphic. The opacity will make the shadow more or less transparent, or lighter. The angle has a line across it, think of this as the direction that the sun is shining on your object from. If the line is on the top, your shadow will be on the bottom. To the right of the angle setting you will see a check box that says “use global lighting.” This means that it will have the same direction of light on the shadow as all the other styles in your other layers. When creating layer styles, try to be consistent with your lighting. You don’t want one set of text to have a shadow going down and one going up in the same file, it will look un-natural. Distance is how far the shadow is from the object, spread is how soft the shadow is and size is how large the shadow is.

Inner Shadow: The inner shadow is much like the drop shadow, however it effects the inside of the object instead of the outside. The settings are almost identical except the setting called “spread” in the drop shadow is called “choke” in the inner shadow settings. This effect is good for making something look like it is cut out and you are looking through the top layer and the one beneath it has a shadow because of the distance between the two.

Outer Glow and Inner Glow: I am grouping the two of these together because they are almost the same except one affects the inside and one affects the outside of the object. Just like the drop shadow and inner shadow, they have the same settings except the “spread” on the outer glow and “choke” on the inner glow. They both have Blend Mode, which affects the layers bellow it; Opacity, which affects the transparency of the glow; and Noise, which creates an effect that I think looks like spray paint. You can play with Noise and see for yourself. The color picker is the square under the word noise, just double click it to change the color. Spread will change the softness of the glow, and size will change the size (See Figure 5).

Bevel and Emboss: This style is probably the second-most used style. You can always spot a new designer that discovers the bevel tool. They will go crazy on it. Just remember the salt on your food principle with this one. The bevel tool will give you a 3-D look on your text from a hard chiseled edge to a soft rounded edge. There are options to determine the type of bevel or emboss you will create. The bevels will look like you chiseled or shaved away the edge of the letter, but the emboss will make it look like the letter is inset or indented into the background. “Techniques” will change the finish on the edge of the bevel or emboss. “Size” will determine how far in the bevel or emboss goes from the edge of the object or text, and “Soften” will soften the effect on the object or text. “Shading” in this style effect is much like the others, the angle will determine the light source, and the “Highlight Mode” and “Shadow Mode” will show you the different ways to alter the edges of the bevel and emboss. I suggest turning the highlight and shadow mode to normal and pick a bright color for each one while you learn what these functions do. This way, you can see what they are actually doing to the object. (See Figure 6

Satin: This one is hard to explain other than by just calling it satin. Depending on the settings that you use in this attribute, you can make the object that you apply this to look like satin, or like water. I would suggest turning the blending mode to normal and click around; you can’t hurt anything by experimenting. I will use this in the examples at the end of the article and ones you can download from our site.

Color Overlay: This style is very simple. It is basically changing the color of an object or text by just overlaying color on the entire layer. The cool part of this style is that you can overlay a color and play with the blend modes in the style to affect the layer that it is on. (See Figure 7

Gradient Overlay: The gradient overlay is much like the color overlay; however, you can add multiple colors to it and change the way the colors are represented, such as a linear, radial, angle, reflected and diamond gradient. Much like the other styles, you will see a blend mode, opacity, and angle. This style has an extra attribute called “scale,” which allows you to scale the gradient. This comes in very handy for the radial and diamond gradients. 

Pattern Overlay: The pattern overlay allows you to apply a pattern to an object or text. This is handy for giving some texture to your graphics. Not very many options in this one. You have blend mode, opacity and scale like the others, but this one has a pattern drop down. This is the pattern that will be laid over your graphic. Try using the blend modes to multiply or others to see what effects you can come up with.

Stroke: This is probably the third-most used attribute in the styles pallet. The stroke can be used creatively to help make text stand out from the layers that it is above. The settings for stroke are pretty basic. “Size” will determine how large the stroke is in pixels. “Position” determines inside, outside, or center of the object. “Blend Mode” and “Opacity” are just like the others. “Color” is self-explanatory. The fill type determines how the strike is. (See Figure 8

The last three things I want to tell you about is how to save your own styles into the styles pallet, how to copy and paste them to other layers, as well as how to load styles that you have downloaded or ones that come with Photoshop. 

To save a style, just double click on the line that says “effects” on the layer that has the style on it. Once it opens, you will see a button that says “new” on the right side. Click that and it will ask you to name the style, then it will put it in your styles pallet. (See Figure 9)

The styles pallet can be found in the top file menu, click window/styles and this will open the style presets. If you don’t have anything in yours, it’s ok. All you need to do is click the little arrow in the upper right corner of the box and in the drop down, click load styles (See Figure 10). If the computer does not navigate to the styles folder, you will need to go to the adobe folder and this path: adobe/photoshop/presets/styles. This will hold the styles that come from Photoshop when you buy it. If you download styles from the Internet, just navigate to the folder you have saved them in to load them. Once you have a style loaded, all you need to do is select the layer that you would like to try out the style on and then click the little button in the style window. The little buttons in the style window represent what that style would look like if applied to a little square.

To copy and paste styles, you can right click on the blank area in the layer with the style you want to copy and go down to “copy style.” Once you click on “copy style,” you will need to select the layer or layers that you want to apply the new style to. Then right click on the selected layers and click “paste style,” this will apply that style to all the layers selected. 

I know this can be very confusing; the best thing to do to learn these is to make some text or an object then click on one of the premade styles in your style panel and apply it. Once you have applied it, you can double click on the effects under that layer and it will bring up the style editor. You can play with the different effects and turn them on and off to make styles of your own. It’s kind of like Legos; we all start off with the same ones and it is up to us what we do with them depending on our imagination and, most of all, patience. Good luck, and remember to go to to download the style examples in this article.