As a user of GIMP I tried to understand what Photoshop's Adjustment Layers are, without actually using PS. My understanding is that GIMP does not yet support AL (is this correct?).

So, trying to imitate the effect of an AL, is it equivalent to:

  1. Duplicate the image to a second layer.
  2. Apply the desired effect (filter/adjustment/whatever) to the new layer.
  3. Add a layer mask to the 2nd layer and set its transparency areas the same way you'd do with AL, this blending the adjusted image with the original image in the desired areas/amounts.

Am I thinking right?

I realize that there is one limitation to that method - changes to the original image layer will not affect the top layer (AL equivalent). Is there a way to lock the two images in the two layers?

  • I am not sure this is exactly like an AL. An AL is a way to apply, in a non-destructive way, stacking edits...such as levels, curves, saturation, contrast, etc. You tweak the settings of those TOOLS in an adjustment layer, and they get applied to the layers below the AL. I don't think you can get the same effect by duplicating and blending layers manually...unless I am misunderstanding your process.
    – jrista
    Jun 23, 2011 at 0:59

4 Answers 4


In short, no. What you're doing is not really related. Layer masks are basically ways of working with the alpha channel of a layer. Adjustment layers aren't really layers at all — they're ways of thinking of filters within the same metaphor. They don't actually accomplish anything you couldn't do simply by applying the filters in the traditional way. However, because the layers model is very powerful, they are a convenient and powerful tool which makes visual experimentation easier.

The problem is that "apply the desired effect" is a destructive operation for the layer you apply it to — if you want to change the parameters of that effect, you have to do something to reverse it. Generally, that means recreating the whole layer. Layer masks let you choose how "strongly" to apply an effect, and limit it to certain parts of the image, but they don't change that basic limitation.

In terms of final results, there's nothing you can do with adjustment layers that you can't do just by deleting and recreating the layer every time. The problem is that if you're trying to work with the combination of multiple different adjustments (for example, blur and curves), it becomes tedious.

So, it's basically an ease-of-workflow thing, and since you can combine multiple layers, for complicated operations it can be exponentially easier — nothing to sneeze at.

On the plus side, the Gimp development roadmap has something called "Filter layers (brightness/contrast, blur, etc)" as relatively high priority. Currently, that's slated for Gimp 3.2. That's not the impending future, but it sounds like we'll get it eventually.

  • As I mentioned at the end of the question, I realize that this is not 100% similar operation. You are absolutely correct, re-doing the "AL"(s) every time an image is modified is a tedious task. However, the graphical effect (end result) is the same, isn't it?
    – ysap
    Jun 23, 2011 at 2:32
  • 2
    You might be missing the general point of an AL...its not so much the end result...but the fact that they are non-destructive. You can get the same result by directly applying a specific tool (such as curves) to a copied layer, but thats destructive to the layer. With an AL, you don't have to touch your base layer(s)...you just apply the tools in the AL, and the combined effect gets "rendered" to the image without any actual edits.
    – jrista
    Jun 23, 2011 at 2:59
  • 1
    @jrista - obviously, you are right. The emphasis in AL is at the process itself, rather than the result. That said, the AL let you achieve results that are impossible using a layer mask (on the base layer), b/c it adds the localization factor to the game - whereas applying the adjustment (or filter) to the layer is a global operation. The method I presented (of course I was not the 1st one to come up with this, though) let you achieve the localization effect.
    – ysap
    Jun 23, 2011 at 14:07
  • I'm really not sure where you're going with the layer mask thing; that's basically an orthogonal concept.
    – mattdm
    Jun 23, 2011 at 14:11
  • 1
    OK, let me try and clarify a little bit. Let's say that you want to gradually convert a color image to B&W. With an AL, you would fill the AL with a gradient, where the adjustment operation itself is "Desaturate". I can't see a way of doing this with a single image layer and an associated layer mask in GIMP. The mask merely controls the transparency of the image layer. With the method I specified, I duplicate the image, desaturate the whole new layer and add a layer mask with a gradient fill.
    – ysap
    Jun 23, 2011 at 21:26

This has been asked and answered three years ago, but I'd like to refine the difference between the two types of layers.

The normal layers in Photoshop are like you said "image layers", personally I prefer calling them "raster layers".

The adjustment layers in Photoshop are data layers. They hold no function other than to overlay certain changes to whatever exists below them.
As such, they hold only the parameters for the change. Not the input, not the output. They have no existence in the world of raster.

Adjustment layers can carry an alpha with them just like any sort of layer in Photoshop can (vector, text layers).

Your suggestion for a workaround is basically an example on how to do non-destructive raster image editing.
It doesn't imitate adjustment layers because they're about the process. Adjustment layers simply aren't "just" non-destructive editing.
Since they're only data- they weigh nothing, they can be applied and reapplied on anything and everywhere, and are susceptible to changes.

  • Thanks. One note - if by "they weigh nothing" you mean no memory consumption, then the alpha channel itself weighs a considerable amount.
    – ysap
    Jan 22, 2015 at 2:34
  • The alpha channel weighs as any raster channel of course, but it's not a necessary part of the adjustment layer. Just like it's not a necessary part of any layer.
    – pfff
    Jan 23, 2015 at 10:06

There's nothing in GIMP that can achieve what layer adjutement can do, with LA you apply your adjustments separately so you don't have to undo the changes you make, you can also apply the same adjustement to a lot of images without repeating the same steps over and over. As the gimp developpers don't seem to add such a feat, you can try Krita, it's a painting open source software, it supports non destructive adjustement, it's called "filter layer".


I was wondering if you were trying to do the same thing as I do in Photoshop, which is select part of a image, create a new layer from that selection with control j and then apply things like curves etc, only to that layer without affecting the layer below. If so, this is what I do in gimp.

1) Select part of the image and do an edit -> copy

2) Create a new transparent layer, select the new layer and do edit -> 'paste into'

3) Do an anchor layer.

Now you can make changes only to that layer containing the selection without affecting the layer below. To turn the changes on and off, simply turn the new layer on and off.

Hope this helps,


  • 1
    Correct, but not applicable — this is a useful technique, but it's not the same as an adjustment layer.
    – mattdm
    Jul 7, 2015 at 15:58

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