How to Unlock the Background Layer in Photoshop

Background layer locked in Photoshop


The above image shows a lock in the layers palette. How do you unlock the file? There are several approaches to this issue and the one you pick should best suit your workflow.

Approach 1

Most photos open with the background locked. To unlock it, you need to convert the background to a layer. You can do this by double-clicking on the background layer in the Layers palette and renaming the layer, or by going to the menu: Layer > New > Layer from Background.

This works but you face a rather serious risk if you go right to work on the unlocked image. So how does one protect the original without unlocking the background layer?

A lot of pros simply duplicate the locked layer and perform their edits on that duplicate. You can accomplish this by dragging the locked layer on top of the New Layer icon in the Layers panel or by selecting the layer and selecting Duplicate from the Context menu. This is done because, if they make a mistake or change something that doesn't quite work, they can toss the new layer. This also follows an unwritten Photoshop rule: Don't ever work on an original.

Approach 2

Another approach is to convert the locked layer to a Smart Object. This protects the original image as well.

Of course, one could turn the question around and ask: Why even bother locking the background layer? Part of the answer goes back to the first versions of Photoshop to sport layers — Photoshop 3, which arrived in 1994. Prior to that, any image opened in Photoshop was the background.

The background layer is locked simply because it is like the canvas on a painting. Everything is constructed above it. In fact, a background layer won't support transparency because, well, it is the background, above which, all of the other layers sit. There is also a visual clue that the background layer is indeed special. The layer name is in italics.


There are other oddities associated with the background layer you may have encountered. For example, open a new blank document. The first thing you notice is the layer is white. Now select the rectangular marquee tool and select Edit Cut. You would expect to see nothing happen or the checkerboard pattern indicating transparency. You don't. The selection fills with black. Here is why: If you look at your foreground and background colors, you will see black is the background color. What you can gather from this is you can only fill a selection on the background layer with a background color. Don't believe us? Add a new background color and cut out the selection.

Another oddity is this. Add a layer and put some content in that layer. Now move the background layer above your new layer. You can't because the background layer must always be the document's background. Now try moving the new layer below the background layer. Same result. Same rule.

Final Thoughts

So there you have it. The background layer is a special Photoshop layer containing some pretty stringent conditions. We can't move their contents, we can't delete anything on them, and they always have to remain the bottom layer in the document — pretty simple conditions and nothing we can't deal with because we rarely, if ever, work directly on the background layer.