Layers: Multi Layered Screenshots

We’ve recently looked at a few screenshot tools, along with a range of screen recording applications. A recent addition to this area of software which caught my eye is Layers, a screenshot utility which records all your screen content in a layered Photoshop file.

Layers is actually quite an advanced application, with a whole bunch of different preferences and options for changing what is recorded and how the file is produced. This review will take a look at what’s on offer, and investigate how useful this functionality actually is.

Keyboard Shortcuts

When launching the application for the first time, you’re presented with a window displaying a welcome message and a list of the available keyboard shortcuts for activating the application:

The Layers Info Window

The Layers Info Window

There’s also a note which states that the demo version will intentionally distort a few layers of your resulting screenshot. The shortcut combinations can be altered through the ‘Preferences’ menu, found via the Layers menu bar icon.

The Inspector

Opening the inspector generates a preview screenshot of your current display content, with a listing displaying each layer which will be created. There are a few options to modify the resulting image and, if you have multiple displays attached, you’ll be able to choose each one of them separately or any combination of them to capture.

Layers Inspector

Layers Inspector

Here is a brief outline of the actions available via the inspector window:

  • Refresh: This updates the preview to the current content of your monitor
  • List Mode: Allows you to alter the layer view between a hierarchal display or a simple list
  • Desktop: Toggles the display of your desktop background in the screenshot
  • Offscreen: This simply shows a list of other windows which don’t appear on your display (it doesn’t affect the screenshot content in any way)
  • Tight Fit: If you select a particular layer/window, then click Tight Fit, the capture will close in to only record that single application window
  • Shadow: Allows you to capture just a window’s shadow, with none of the actual window content
  • Framing: When turned on, removes all the shadow and extra padding around a window to just display the actual content
  • Opaque: Allows you to incorporate opacity variations (i.e. shadows etc) into your screenshot, or render everything as opaque

Layer Grouping

Layer Grouping in Folders

Layer Grouping in Folders

After capturing an image, proceed to open it in Photoshop. You’ll see that PSD layers are grouped by window nature: Desktop (with Finder icons), Dock, Main Menu and Applications, Overlays, Pop-ups, Floating windows, and others. This hierarchal nature makes it a simple affair to find a particular layer (or combination of layers) that you’d like to isolate from your capture.

This is the feature which makes Layers such a unique and time saving application. Providing you have a copy of Photoshop, being able to immediately access and edit any layer of your screenshot can be really valuable. If you’d like to share a screenshot of your desktop without a particular window or group of icons, you can simply hide those layers in Photoshop before exporting.

It is worth noting that it is possible to capture any single window in OS X by pressing Command+Shift+4, followed by Space. This achieves similar functionality to Layers but requires a slightly greater amount of work.

Output Options

Output Options

Output Options

If you don’t want to output the screenshot as a layered PSD, you can select (via the Inspector) to save as a composite PNG or as a bunch of images. It means that the tool still has a slight use if you don’t run Photoshop, and aren’t able to open a PSD fie.

The ‘Bunch of Images’ option is quite useful, as it skips the middle step of Photoshop and gives you instant access to the layers of interface which are usually tricky to capture.

Uses and Conclusion

Layers definitely delivers on its claim – to provide well organized, layered screenshots of your desktop. The extra features available via the Inspector are welcome, adding additional value to the app and going some way towards justifying the $19.95 price tag.

One slight gripe I have with the interface is the lack of explanation of the Inspector actions. I couldn’t figure out what a few of them actually did just from playing around with the app, and needed to go to the FAQ page to discover their cryptic meaning. In particular, the ‘Off Screen’ button which doesn’t really change a setting as such.

Layers as a concept certainly appealed to me – the idea of a layered PSD screenshot is unique and inventive. However, in practice I don’t feel that it actually adds a huge amount of value over the in-built screenshot tools in OS X. If you need to capture a particularly tricky window or icon then the ability to access individual layers could be very useful; for most Mac users, however, there’s limited value to be had. I’ll be sticking with the Command+Shift+4, followed by Space functionality in-built into OS X which allows you to achieve a very similar outcome with a minor amount of extra work.

Are there any scenarios where you feel Layers could be particularly useful? Please feel free to share in the comments!


  • http://www.constantinpotorac.com Constantin Potorac

    Yes I have to mention that this app is amazing… really useful.
    As a tutorial writer I make a lot of screen printing and using this app is just perfect. I recommend the app. ;)

  • http://www.thegraphicmac.com Jim

    For the average blogger this app is so overkill, and therefore not worth the $20. It’s unfortunate that it’s a great app but only appeals to a very, very small audience – because it IS a great little app for what it does.

    For the average blogger/Mac user who wants versatility, I still think Snapz Pro is the best option due to image and video capture options (though it carries a hefty price tag).

  • http://www.webmaster-source.com redwall_hp

    This may be overkill for most people, though I quite like the idea. I’m not ready to pay $20 for it though… :)

    For basic screenshot-taking, I highly recommend Skitch.

  • http://www.mellowbusiness.com David Turnbull

    The first use that came to my head is that it could help people design the UI for Mac applications who are non-programmers. But still, it’d be overkill for that – pen and paper would probably be just as good.

    The app works well, but yeah, not something I’d spend $20 on.

  • Shade

    I had seen this around several times and never quite could wrap around my head what i would use it for. I was hoping this overview would help me with that, but i’m still at a loss.

    The only people you could send these screen shots to are other people with the software capable of opening .psd documents.

    I mean if i saw a use for it i’d pay for it, but i just don’t see anywhere that i’d use it. Command+Shift+3 and Command+Shift+4 work perfectly fine.

  • http://blog.designnerd.net Nikki

    Your post has been featured on March’s “Nerdiest of the Net!”

    http://www.blog.designnerd.net/nerdiest-of-the-net-march-09

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