How to flatten an image in Photoshop; 3 easy steps


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Are you trying to figure out how to flatten an image in Photoshop? Do you prefer to learn from an actual practicing graphic designer rather than an AI blogger bot? Do you hate fluffy tutorials that aren’t actually helpful?

If you answered ‘yes’ to those three questions then you’ve come to the right place.

In this article, I’m going to talk about what it means to flatten an image in Photoshop, why you would want to do it and how to do it correctly.

What does it mean to flatten an image in Photoshop?

When you flatten an image in Photoshop, all visible individual layers are merged together to form a single layer. Invisible layers are discarded. Transparent areas in your Photoshop image are filled with whatever default background color you have selected when the merge is initiated.

Should you flatten an image before printing?

You can flatten an image before printing but it is not necessary. However, there are a number of benefits to flattening.

It condenses the file size

Flattening your Photoshop file will reduce the file size, making the image more portable. And small file sizes are always easier to export, print, share and send.

It reduces the margin of error

If there’s one thing that Photoshop doesn’t do well – or at least not as well as its counterparts Illustrator and InDesign – it’s embedding fonts and linked images. But when you flatten an image, those fonts and images are automatically flattened and rasterized along with it. This protects the integrity of the design file.

In fact, protecting fonts and linked images is the main reason I flatten files before sending them off to the printer.

When the file isn’t flattened, fonts aren’t rasterized and images aren’t properly linked or embedded and the file is opened elsewhere (like at the printer for instance) the document might produce errors. And if those errors are not handled correctly, it could alter the original design.

Pro-tip on file formats: Web graphics – like banners and social media images – should usually be exported as JPGs or PNGs. Print documents, like letterhead and posters, should normally be exported as PDFs. Some file formats, like JPGs and PNGs don’t support layers anyway. So saving your PSD file in a different format where layers are unsupported also inherently produces a flattened uneditable file.

In a nutshell, it’s just safer to flatten files because it reduces the margin of error.

But there’s also one huge drawback.

It makes the document uneditable

However, the biggest drawback to flattening an image is that it makes the file uneditable.

That’s right, once you hit the flatten button and save, there’s no editing the text, and no (easy) way to swap out photos or individual design elements.

And if you accidentally save the flattened file over your original layered file, there’s no going back.

As someone who has made this gut-wrenching mistake more often than I would care to admit in my life, I now make a backup copy of my file before flattening it. And I save both files – the flattened version and the layered version – on my computer, just to be safe.

And I suggest you do the same.

How to flatten an image in Photoshop

And finally, the information you came here for – instructions on how to flatten an image in Photoshop.

There are three easy steps to flattening an image in Photoshop – made even easier by a keyboard shortcut which I will share with you at the end of this tutorial.

Before we start, I am going to assume that you are working with the Essentials (Default) workspace. If you are not, you may want to switch to that workspace before you begin by finding the Window menu located at the top of your screen and selecting Workspace > Essentials (Default) from the dropdown.

Also note, I will be working with Photoshop 2022 for this tutorial.

Save a copy of your file

1. Save a copy of your working layered file

Most of the other tutorials you will find on the internet skip this step as it is not necessary. However, getting into the habit of making a copy of your file before flattening protects you from accidentally saving over all of your hard work. I promise, if you do not heed these words, you will live to regret it.

To save a copy of your file, navigate to File in the top menu and select Save As.

I normally like to append something like “_Flat” to the end of my filename for the new version.

And for the purposes of this tutorial, I will be saving my new flat file as a PSD.

Open the layers window

2. Open the layers window

Navigate and expand the layers window.

Pro-Tip: If you are using the Essentials (Default) workspace, the layers window should be located on the right-hand side of your screen. If you don’t see it, you can also toggle the layers menu on and off by going to Window > Layers.

flattening the file
Flatten your file

3. Flatten your file

Locate the layer options menu by finding the little icon in the top right-hand corner of the layers menu that looks like four horizontal lines.

When you click on that icon, a longer menu will appear. Scroll down until you see the option to Flatten Image and click on it.

When prompted to discard hidden layers, click OK.

You should now have a flattened PSD file. Don’t forget to save your work.

And just in case you’re wondering…

Is there a shortcut to Flatten Image in Photoshop?

There is no default shortcut to truly flatten an image in Photoshop however, there is a shortcut to create a flattened layer on top of all of your other layers while preserving the original unflattened layers underneath.

On Windows the default shortcut is Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E.

On a Mac, the default is Command+Option+Shift+E.

But remember, as I said before, this doesn’t flatten the entire file, it just creates a flattened layer that sits on top of the file. If you truly want to flatten the entire file, you’ll have to use the steps listed above.

What’s the difference between “Merge Visible” and “flatten image” in Photoshop?

Merge Visible does exactly what it sounds like it does – it merges all of the visible layers in your Photoshop document. Hidden layers will remain intact, and hidden. The flattened visible layers will now appear as a merged background layer.

Easy peasy right?

Are you considering a career in graphic design or freelance? Was this tutorial helpful? Comment below and don’t forget to connect with me on social media.

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