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How to Unmerge Layers in Photoshop

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Photoshop is an amazing software for creating complex compositions, editing, and manipulating graphics. So learning how to unmerge layers could be essential to quickly edit your designs. In this article, we will cover the effective methods and techniques used to unmerge layers as well as alternative ways of merging them properly.

What You'll Learn in This Quick Tip Tutorial

  • Can you unmerge layers in Photoshop?
  • How to unmerge using the Undo Command
  • How to unmerge layers through the History panel
  • Learn how to merge and unmerge layers in smart and effective ways

What You'll Need

You can use your own assets for this tutorial. However, for presentation purposes we will be using the file:

Can You Unmerge Layers in Photoshop?

Uh-oh! So you made a mistake and flattened a document or merged some layers in Photoshop, and now you'd like to go back to edit some changes, but to do so you need to unmerge some layers. Is it possible? Yes, it is, depending on where you are in the editing process. In this short article, we will go over some simple and handy methods to keep in mind when you want to unmerge your layers.

Methods on How to Unmerge Layers in Adobe PhotoshopMethods on How to Unmerge Layers in Adobe PhotoshopMethods on How to Unmerge Layers in Adobe Photoshop

Method 1: How to Unmerge Layers Using the Undo Command

Once you have merged a layer or layers and made no other edits, the simplest way, yet a quite limited way of unmerging, is simply taking a step backward by undoing the last action, using the Undo shortcut Command-Z. Or alternatively, you can Edit > Undo from the top menu.

If you have made a few edits after the merge, you can simply backtrack a couple of edits back to 'undo' the merged layers. This is the easiest method of unmerging Photoshop layers.

Use the undo command Z shorcut to unmerge layers in adobe photoshopUse the undo command Z shorcut to unmerge layers in adobe photoshopUse the undo command Z shorcut to unmerge layers in adobe photoshop

Method 2: How to Unmerge Layers Using the History Panel

Step 1

Another method when learning how to unmerge layers in Photoshop is by going through the History panel and tracing back through your steps. The History panel is a great tool for keeping a record of all the edits made on a design file in your current Photoshop session. By default, the History panel (Window > History) records and displays 50 recent history states.

If the document hasn't been closed since the layers have been merged, then you can trace back the 'Merge Layers' action within the 50 states on record. All you have to do is scroll through the history states and find the 'Merge' adjustment. If you click on the history state before the 'Merge Layers', you can step back to the point before you merged or flattened the layer/s.

Use the History panel to browse the history states to unmerge layersUse the History panel to browse the history states to unmerge layersUse the History panel to browse the history states to unmerge layers

Step 2

If you wish to increase the number of 'History States', then you need to adjust that in Photoshop > Preferences > History States. You can increase the number to help you step back further than 50 steps—however, keep in mind that the software performance may lag. You also might lose a lot of the work edited after the merge, and most important, if you close Photoshop and open a saved file, you will not be able to access any history from the last session.

ajust number of history states from Photoshop preferencesajust number of history states from Photoshop preferencesajust number of history states from Photoshop preferences

Alternative Methods for Merging Layers

At a certain point, you might be faced with a case where you can't undo a merged layer and there is no editing history state to go back to, so what do you do? You need to learn how to manage layers in Photoshop without merging the layers together. There are two ways to do that—one is by creating groups, and the other is by using smart objects.

Method 1: How to Group Instead of Merge

A good alternative method for merging layers in Photoshop is to develop the habit of grouping the layers you want to merge, instead of merging them. Groups can be edited as a whole or individually, and they are much easier to find when editing.

To create a group, select the layers you want to merge and Group (Command-G). Or you can select the layers and click on the group icon (folder icon) at the bottom of the Layers panel (Window > Layers), so the layers will place themselves in a folder.

Use command G shortcut to Group layers on Photoshop instead of merging Use command G shortcut to Group layers on Photoshop instead of merging Use command G shortcut to Group layers on Photoshop instead of merging

Method 2: How to Preserve the Original Layers Before Merging

Another way to separate merged layers in Photoshop is by learning how to preserve our original layers. Once you have grouped the layers you want to merge, select the group layer from the Layers panel and Duplicate using the shortcut Command-J.

Once you have two identical group layers, you can hide the original group layer by clicking the visibility icon (eyeball icon) in the Layers panel, and you can proceed to merge the visible duplicated group. This way, you will always have the original layers available and hidden if you need to go back to them.

Use Command J to Duplicate Group with Visibility icon off to save a copy of unmerged ayersUse Command J to Duplicate Group with Visibility icon off to save a copy of unmerged ayersUse Command J to Duplicate Group with Visibility icon off to save a copy of unmerged ayers

Method 3: How to Merge Layers Into a New Layer

Now, let's try another method where we will preserve the original layers that we wish to merge. Select the layers you wish to merge, then click Command-Option-Shift-E. This will duplicate as well as merge all the visible layers into a new layer. You can then turn off the visibility icon on the original files to preserve them for future reference.

USe the Command Shift Alt E shortcut to Merge Visible layersUSe the Command Shift Alt E shortcut to Merge Visible layersUSe the Command Shift Alt E shortcut to Merge Visible layers

Method 4: How to Work With Smart Objects

Also, an alternative method and a simple option for merging layers smartly is to convert them into smart objects.

Step 1

To Convert to Smart Object, just right-click on the layer or layers from the Layers panel, and select Convert to Smart Object to merge the layers into a single smart object layer. You will notice a smart object icon appear over the layer thumbnail.

Convert Layers to Smart Object Right click Option to Unmerge and merge layers in Adobe PhotoshopConvert Layers to Smart Object Right click Option to Unmerge and merge layers in Adobe PhotoshopConvert Layers to Smart Object Right click Option to Unmerge and merge layers in Adobe Photoshop

Step 2

If you double-click on the smart object layer thumbnail, the smart object will open in another tab. In this open tab, you can edit each layer individually and save them back to the original project window. Here, you can simply make changes to separate layers, which is something you cannot do when you merge layers.

double click the smart object layer to edit unmerged layers individually on Photoshopdouble click the smart object layer to edit unmerged layers individually on Photoshopdouble click the smart object layer to edit unmerged layers individually on Photoshop

Step 3

Smart Objects are easy to work with because you can easily unmerge and merge them. For instance, to separate merged smart object layers in Photoshop, right-click on the smart object layer in the Layers panel and select Convert to Layers. This will unmerge the smart object layer and place all the layers into a group of layers. 

Convert smart object to Layers to unmerge layers in PhotoshopConvert smart object to Layers to unmerge layers in PhotoshopConvert smart object to Layers to unmerge layers in Photoshop

Take Your Photoshop Skills to Another Level!

There you go! I hope you enjoyed learning the tips and tricks on how to unmerge layers in Photoshop with more flexibility. Unmerging layers can be a hassle—however, there are alternative options to merging layers that you can try in order to avoid the challenge of unmerging layers in the future.

If you are interested to learn more Photoshop tips and tricks, we have plenty of amazing resources here:

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