How to Combine Layers in Photoshop? (Step-by-Step)

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(Last updated on February 10th, 2023)

Layers are one of the most important aspects of Photoshop. They form the cornerstone of any document you create and one of the first things you should learn is how to combine layers in Photoshop.

Combining layers gives you greater freedom and control when working with images and graphics. Before anything else, using layers and merging them is an essential process I advise learning on Photoshop and this is what we discuss in the below guide.

Why are Layers Important in Photoshop?

Layers are what form the basic structure of your photos and graphics in Photoshop. Virtually all modern graphic design software utilizes layers. Layers allow you to stack objects on top of each other and move them around independently.

For example, the bottom layer could be your background. On top of that, you may want some clipart images and on top of that, some text. Having each of these items on a separate layer enables you to move, transform, and style them independently without affecting the rest of the image.

You may just want to change the color of the text, for example. If it was part of the background, you wouldn’t easily be able to do it. However, if it is in its own layer, you can change it freely. Basically, layers allow you to create complex, multi-faceted graphics with much more control.

Why Is It Important to Combine Layers in Photoshop?

I hope you understood all that and now know why layers are vital. But why does it matter if you can combine layers in Photoshop or not?

To Move Interlinked Objects Easily

Let’s discuss an example. I have a photo of a skyline in Singapore – I have added some text to it and a flag. I like the position of the text in relation to the flag, but I don’t like where they sit in the background.

Without combining layers, I would have to first move the flag and then move the text separately. It may take me ages to get the position of the two items the way I wanted again. In contrast, if I combined those two layers together first, I could simply move them as one object and keep their relative position.

Combining layers lets you move and align objects much more quicker and easier.

To Get Ready to Export a Document

Combining layers is also quite important for exporting images from a PSD to a compressed file type like a JPEG or PNG.

If you use the Save As option and save your PSD as a JPEG, it will combine the layers automatically and this could lead to some unexpected changes. For example, if you had blending options on one layer, they could potentially be applied to other layers and thus completely change the look of your image.

Therefore, it is preferable to manually combine your layers or flatten your image before exporting the PSD file. This should give you full control over how the final compressed image looks.

How to Combine Layers in Photoshop – Merge Visible

The first method is the quickest and one I use often. Using the “merge visible” or “flatten image” tools we can quickly combine all layers of a document in a few clicks. I typically use this process when I have finished editing a PSD file and want to export it as a JPEG or PNG.

I advise before combining all layers in your document, to save a separate PSD file with the original layers separated. This means that you can still go back and make edits afterwards if you decide you want to make changes.

To combine all layers in Photoshop of your current document, do the following steps:

  1. Open the layers toolbar on the right-hand side of Photoshop.
  2. Click on the layers menu button on the top right-hand corner of the layers toolbar.
  3. Click “Merge Visible” or “Flatten Image”.
Make sure that you have the layers toolbar open first
Make sure that you have the layers toolbar open first. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore.
Click the layers toolbar menu and select merge visible or flatten image
Click the layers toolbar menu and select merge visible, or flatten image. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore.

It’s important to differentiate between “Merge Visible”, and “Flatten Image”, however as they have two slightly different functions.

Merge Visible

As the name suggests, “Merge Visible” combines all visible layers in the document. Each layer can be visible or invisible – to change its state, simply click on the eye icon to the left of the layer thumbnail.

We can see below, that when I make the “Singapore Flag” layer invisible and then use the “Merge Visible” tool, only the background and top layer are combined.

The Merge Visible tool will not combine invisible layers
The “Merge Visible” tool will not combine invisible layers. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore

Flatten Image

In contrast, the “Flatten Image” tool combines every layer in your current active document and will discard any invisible/hidden layers.

If you choose this option while you have invisible layers, a warning message will pop-up asking if you want to discard the hidden layers as shown below. There is no “no” option – only OK or Cancel.

A pop up box appears asking if you want to discard the hidden layers
A pop-up box appears asking if you want to discard the hidden layers. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore.

How to Combine Layers in Photoshop – Merge Layers

You should now have a clear idea of how to combine layers in Photoshop. But that only covers combining every layer in your document. You may simply want to combine some of the layers while keeping others separate – this is possible and it’s just as easy!

  1. Open the layers toolbar on the right-hand side of Photoshop.
  2. Click on the first layer you want to combine so it is selected.
  3. Ctrl + Click on the other layers you want to combine so they are selected.
  4. Click on the layers menu button on the top right-hand corner of the layers toolbar.
  5. Click “Merge Layers”.

This should combine only the layers that you selected using Ctrl + click. In the example below, I clicked the top layer first, and then Ctrl + clicked the second layer as I wanted to keep the background separate, but be able to move the flag and text together as one item.

Use Ctrl Click to select which layers you want to combine
Use Ctrl + Click to select which layers you want to combine. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore.

As you can see, once I clicked the “Merge Layers” option, the two top layers were combined, but the background was not as intended.

The two layers were combined but the background was not
The two layers were combined but the background was not. Image Credit: Paul Skidmore.

This gives you far greater control of your layers and it is an incredibly useful process to remember. By combining different layers with Ctrl + Click, you can then easily move your document components and align items properly without having to move multiple objects individually. This YouTube tutorial also describes the process quite succinctly –

Merge Down

The “Merge Down” tool works in a similar manner to Ctrl + Click however it simply combines the layer you have selected, with the layer beneath it.

For example, if I had the “Singapore Flag” layer selected and clicked “Merge Down”, that layer would be merged into the background layer.

Learn How to Merge Layers to Improve Your Workflow

It really is that easy! As you can see, merging layers in Photoshop takes a few clicks. However, it’s an incredibly important process to learn. By merging different layers, you can manage your images and graphics easier and align items exactly as you want them. I advise spending some time in Photoshop playing with different layers and the merge tool – you will find some other useful tools that will help your creativity.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I flatten or merge layers in Photoshop?

This depends on what you want to achieve. Flattening layers will combine every layer together into one – you will then not be able to edit them individually. Merging layers gives you the option to select which layers you want to combine and thus offers more control.

What is the keyboard shortcut to merge all layers?

There are a few different keyboard shortcuts. Firstly, Ctrl + Shift + E merge all visible layers in the current document. Alternatively, Ctrl + E uses the merge down function and merges layers one at a time from top to bottom.

Why are my layers not merging in Photoshop?

There could be several reasons. Firstly, there could be a layer mask between the layers. Secondly, you may have locked one of the layers which could prevent it from being merged.

How do you put all layers together in Photoshop?

You can click on the menu button in the top right-hand corner of the layer tab then select flatten image or merge visible. Alternatively, you can use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Shift + E to merge all visible layers.

Can you split merged layers in Photoshop?

Yes but only by using the undo feature and the image editing history. If you merge two layers by accident, you can use Ctrl + Z to undo your last action. This will split the merged layer back into the original layers.

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