How to Unlock the Background Layer in Photoshop

Convert, merge, and duplicate background layers in Photoshop CC

What to Know

  • Duplicate background layer, make edits in new layer, and then merge them.
  • Or, convert background to new layer or smart object.

When you open an image in Photoshop, the background layer is usually locked in the Layers palette. Here's how to unlock it in Photoshop CC 2019 for Windows and Mac.

Duplicating the Locked Layer

Rather than unlocking the background layer, many pros duplicate the locked layer and perform their edits on the duplicate. That way, if they make a mistake, they can toss out the new layer while preserving the original.

To duplicate the background, right-click the Background layer and select Duplicate Layer.

Duplicate layer

Once you're satisfied with your edits, merge the two layers by selecting the Menu icon in the top-right corner of the Layers palette and choosing Merge Visible.

Merge visible layers

The background layer always appears at the bottom of the Layers palette. You cannot move other layers below it.

Unlocking the Background Layer

To convert the background to a new layer that isn't locked:

  1. Select Layer > New > Layer from Background.

    Create layer from background
  2. Give the layer a name and select OK.

    Naming the new layer
  3. The new, unlocked layer will replace the background layer in the palette.

    The new unlocked layer in Layers palette

Converting the Background Layer to a Smart Object

Another approach is to convert the locked layer to a Smart Object. Right-click the Background layer in the Layers palette and select Convert to Smart Object.

Converting a layer to a Smart Object

Why Is the Background Layer Locked?

The background layer is locked because it is like the canvas for a painting. Everything is constructed above it. For this reason, the background layer doesn't support certain features like transparency, and you can't move or delete its contents. Likewise, you can only fill a selection on the background layer with a background color. Therefore, if you want full control over how an image looks, you need to make your edits in a layer that isn't locked.

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