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A Guide to Layers in After Effects


The layer tab is one of the first parts of After Effects you’ll find yourself accessing. The many layer types may be overwhelming at first, but they’re actually more straightforward than you might expect.

With this brief guide, you’ll soon understand which layers do what! If you’re completely unfamiliar with After Effects, you may want to check out our previous post, The 10 Most Important Tools in After Effects.  Let’s get started!

Shape Layer

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: SHAPE LAYERS

We’ll start with the basics. The Shape Layer is one of the first layers you’ll likely experiment with. Shape Layers are 2D objects either drawn with the pen tool or generated with a predetermined shape that After Effects offers, such as a rectangle, star, or oval. Shape Layers feature unique properties such as stroke (outline of the shape), fill (the inner area of the shape within the outline), and other specific properties such as corner roundness or number of sides. Shape Layers are best used to quickly generate symmetrical shapes and unique patterns.

Solid Layer

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: SOLID LAYERS

The Solid Layer is basically a less complex version of the Shape Layer, without customizable properties beyond dimensions, color, and standard 2D transform properties (position, scale, and rotation). Because of this, Solid Layers are much less taxing on processing power than Shape Layers, making them a more efficient alternative if you don’t need those extra features. Unlike Shape Layers, Solid Layers have specific pixel dimensions.

Text Layer

Text Layers are fairly self-explanatory — they’re simply text with standard customization like paragraph size and alignment, text spacing, kerning, color, and, of course, font. After Effects also includes a plethora of unique animation options that are accessible in the Animation Tab of any given Text Layer. Within the context of a composition, Text Layers behave just like a Solid or Shape Layer might. They can be set to 3D, adjusted via position/rotation/scale, and more.

Adjustment Layer

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: ADJUSTMENT LAYERS

An Adjustment Layer works similarly to a Solid Layer, but instead modifies all layers that are below it. Therefore, an Adjustment Layer alone would be a blank image, but when placed above others, any of its effects would carry down and apply to them. Adjustment Layers feature all of the same transform properties as a Solid Layer, from position to opacity to masks. An Adjustment Layer will affect any other layer it overlaps.

Null Layer

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: NULL LAYERS

A Null Layer is much like an Adjustment Layer, but instead of applying its effects to layers below it, it controls the transform properties of other layers when they are attached to it via the pick whip. To use a Null, you would simply use the pick whip function to attach a layer to a Null. Any attached layers will now behave as though physically fixed to the Null, and will therefore reflect any transform adjustments made to said Null — with the exception of opacity.

Camera Layer

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: CAMERA LAYERS

A Camera Layer, like a Text Layer, is self-explanatory. Primarily used in 3D compositions (2D Camera Layers are nonexistent), it serves as a virtual camera that will replace the composition’s default perspective. It features adjustable position and rotation.

Camera Layers can also be tweaked according to real camera settings, such as lens type, film size, depth of field, zoom, and just about anything else you can think of. With Camera Layers, you can imitate any real-life camera or even venture beyond the bounds of real hardware.

Light Layer

Like a Camera Layer, Light Layers only exist in 3D. As you might’ve guessed, they serve as a light source for other 3D layers. Here is a cube of layers, without a light source:

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: LIGHT LAYERS

There are four types of Light Layers:

1. Point Lights

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: POINT LIGHTS

The most straightforward of Light Layers, Point Lights simply produce light from the position they are placed — like a light bulb.

2. Spot Lights

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: SPOT LIGHTS

Spot Lights are just what they sound like. They cast light in one direction, with specified range, width, spill, and more.

3. Ambient Lights

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: AMBIENT LIGHTS

Ambient Lights generate a universal light source across the entire composition, providing flat illumination regardless of the layer’s position.

4. Parallel Lights

A Parallel Light is somewhat of a hybrid between Spot Lights and Ambient Lights. Parallel Lights cast even light across the entire composition (like an Ambient Light), but only in one direction (like a Spot Light). Think of it similarly to a light source like the sun.

A Guide to Layers in After Effects: PARALLEL LIGHTS

As you can see, layers in After Effects are actually quite intuitive despite their endless features. You will probably never use everything that they have to offer, but hopefully this provides you with a good basis on which to start creating awesome content in After Effects!