Locked layers help you avoid accidentally making changes to original images or sections of your work. It is for this reason that any image you open is locked from the beginning and only has one layer called Background. Photoshop doesn't want you to accidentally ruin the original image. However, this does not mean that there are no ways to unlock locked layers so that they can be edited.
Method 1 of 2: Unlock the Background Layer
Step 1. Open your image in Photoshop as you normally do
There is no change or setting that you can change before opening the image that will unlock the background layer. Just open the image as you normally do.
Step 2. Click on the layer that is locked in the "Layers" palette
This palette is a long box on the right of the screen that says "Layers." You'll see each layer, starting with the background layer, as well as a thumbnail of each image. Next to the background layer, you will see a small lock indicating that the layer is locked.
Troubleshooting: I don't see the "Layers" panel.
Click on the "Window" menu on the top bar. Make sure the "Layers" option is activated. If it is and the palette isn't open, click "Window" → "Workspace" → and click "Basics." Still struggling, click "Restore standard workspaces".
Step 3. Click on the layer and press Ctrl (or Cmd on Mac) + J to duplicate an unlocked version of the background
This is the safest way to do it, as it saves a perfect original copy in case something goes wrong. If you're using Windows, press Ctrl + J when the background layer is selected. If you're using a Mac, press Cmd + J. The new layer will be unlocked and ready to edit.
You can also click the "Layers" menu on the top bar and click "Duplicate Layer"
Step 4. Double click on the background layer to rename and unlock it
Just double click on the layer name and a small text box will open where you can change the layer name. In that text box, you can:
- select a blending mode;
- color the cape for organization purposes;
- adjust the opacity of the layer.
Step 5. Click "Layer" and then "New Background Layer" to create and unlock a replacement layer
In the top bar, click on "Layer", the correct option should be almost at the beginning. This is very simple and easy to do, but this replaces the background layer with a new layer. You won't have a copy of the background, just an unlocked section.
Method 2 of 2: Troubleshoot Locked and Unlocked Layers
Step 1. Immediately check the color settings if you cannot edit the layers or add new layers
Some file formats, especially "Indexed Color" mode, are not fully compatible with Photoshop. Luckily, you can change this quickly, gaining complete control of the layer:
- Click on "Image" on the top bar of Photoshop. You should already have the image open.
- Click on "Mode."
- Click "RGB Color" to temporarily adjust the color settings to something you can work with.
Step 2. Lock a layer again by clicking the little lock in the layer palette
The layers palette has several buttons above the layers. Clicking the lock will lock the layer (or layers, if you select by Ctrl [or CMD on Mac] + click multiple layers at the same time) that you have selected. It will also unlock it. However, keep in mind that this does not work on a background layer.
Step 3. Use the hotkeys to quickly lock and unlock layers
The shortcut keys you need to press to lock layers are Ctrl (or Cmd on Mac) + /. This locks and unlocks all the selected layers.
Cmd + /
Ctrl + /
Step 4. Unlock all layers except the background with Ctrl (Cmd on Mac) + alt = "Image" (Opt on Mac) + /
These keys open everything for editing, except the background. However, keep in mind that the background layer, the one that is locked from the beginning, is not affected by this action. The keys depend on your system:
Cmd + Opt + /
Ctrl + alt = "Image" + /
Step 5. Lock portions of a layer to allow for more complex editing
You can lock certain parts of a layer for more precise editing. These buttons are right next to the lock button and their names will appear if you hover over them. Try them:
Lock transparent pixels:
this icon looks like a board. This option makes it impossible to edit on transparent elements on the layer, which means that nothing below the layer will be affected.
Lock image pixels:
the icon is a paintbrush. You can only edit the transparent parts of the layer.
the icon is a crosshair. This option prevents you from moving the elements of the layer, although you can paint, change the color of the elements and add text.