If you're an experienced editor or motion graphics artist still feeling dicey about jumping into After Effects, perhaps you should finally give it a go. You may feel daunted by the technical aspects; however, After Effects offers several powerful tools that make all your logo animations, graphic design, character animation, tasks much easier.

The layer tab is probably one of the first few After Effects tools you'll end up accessing. The several layer types may feel a little overwhelming at first; however, they're actually quite straightforward than you might assume.

With this brief beginner's guide, you'll soon understand which layers do what!

Getting started with Layers in After Effects

New to After Effects? Well, here's an opportunity to dig in a little deeper. So, let's explore one of After Effects' most fundamental and essential elements — Layers. 

Shape Layer

The Shape Layer is perhaps one of the first layers you'll probably experiment with. You can either draw shapes using the pen tool or using the default shape that After Effects offers, such as an ellipse, rectangle, star, polygon, or oval. Shape Layers in After Effects are often used to generate symmetrical shapes and unique patterns quickly.

  • However, you can also draw a shape (with the help of a pen tool) directly in the Composition panel and add it to the composition in After Effects. 
  • Besides, you can also apply stroke and fill settings to a shape and modify its path. 
  • You can also change the color of a shape by modifying its Fill settings and stroke setting in the Tools panel. 
  • Further, you can create Mask on their Solid Layer, and it creates a new shape layer automatically.

Solid Layer

The Solid Layer is a less complicated version of the Shape Layer, i.e., without any customizable attributes. As a result, the Solid Layers are a more practical alternative if you don't need all those extra features. It's a plain single-color layer with particular pixel dimensions. A solid layer is excellent for creating backgrounds.

  • To create a solid layer, you can press on keyboard ctrl+y or go to the Layer drop-down menu under the New select Solid. 
  • You can use a Solid layer when you need a simple graphic that is a solid color; you can manage all transform properties (size, position, change opacity, or rotate). 

Text Layer

Text Layers are just text with regular customization like paragraph size and alignment, text spacing, color, and, of course, font. After Effects offers a plethora of unique animation options accessible in the Animation Tab of any given Text Layer. 

  • To create and edit text directly on the screen in the composition panel, go to the Layer drop-down menu under the new select text. 
  • Here, you can quickly change the style, size, color, and other properties of the character in the character panel of the text. You can likewise create a stroke on the text. 
  • To create a paragraph text, click on the Horizontal Text tool, then go to the Composition panel, drag your mouse in the panel, and create a text box. 
  • Click inside the text box, then enter your paragraph. You can additionally resize the text box by dragging the handles. 
  • Further, use the Paragraph panel to format your paragraph.

Adjustment Layer

An Adjustment Layer modifies all layers underneath it. An Adjustment Layer alone is a blank image; however, any of its effects would carry down and apply to them when placed above others. An Adjustment Layer will modify any layer it overlaps.

So, if you want to modify several layers at once, using an adjustment layer in Adobe After Effects is pretty useful. 

  • For creating an Adjustment Layer, go to the  Layer, New, Adjustment Layer. 
  • Here, you can apply the Lumetri effect for color correction.

Null Layer

A Null Layer is quite similar to the Adjustment Layer; however, rather than applying its effects to layers under it, it controls the transform properties of other layers when attached to it using the pick whip. Null objects are often used to store position data of motion tracking. 

They are represented in After Effects by little red squares with nine handles that you can use to transform them.

  • To create a null layer, go to the Layer Tab in After Effects, then New Null Object, or you can also simply enter Command+Option+Shift+Y for Mac or Ctrl+Alt+Shift+Y for Windows. 
  • To use a Null layer, apply the pick whip function to attach a layer to a Null layer. 
  • Any attached layers will now act as if physically attached to the Null and therefore display any transform adjustments made to it, except for opacity.

Camera Layer

The camera layer acts like a real camera in terms of lens type, film size, depth of field, zoom, etc. A Camera Layer is primarily used in 3D compositions and serves as a virtual camera to replace the composition's default perspective. It highlights an adjustable position and rotation.

Besides, it can also be tweaked according to real camera settings, such as lens type, film size, depth of field, zoom, and anything else you might think of. With Camera Layers, you can pretty much imitate any real-life camera or even experiment beyond the limitations of actual hardware. 

  • To activate a camera tool, press the ‘C' key on your keyboard.
  • For creating a Camera layer, create a new composition and go to the Layer, New Camera on the timeline. 
  • You can also make a new camera by hitting the keyboard shortcut command+option+shift+C on a Mac or control+alt+shift+c on a Windows PC. 
  • If the layers in your timeline are not set to 3D, you must check the 3D box before interacting with your camera layer.

Light Layer

The light layer works similar to the camera layer and only exists in 3D. In fact, it serves as a light source for all 3D layers. 

There are four types of Light Layers:

Point lights

The most basic Light Layers, Point Lights, simply produce light from their position — like a light bulb. It's a point of light that you can move around. To control the point light's area, you can control its brightness. 

  • To create a point light, go to the New Light layer.
  • A dialog box will open, then click the light type drop-down menu and select point light. Note that Point lights work with 3D layers only.

Spot Lights

It works just like a spotlight in real life, i.e., it casts light in a single direction, with the specified range, width, spill, and more. Spotlights are often used to highlight a specific part of a frame; the rest is in black shadow. It is usually smaller, more circular-focused lights that you can control.

Ambient Lights

Ambient Lights generate a common light source across the entire composition, presenting flat illumination irrespective of the layer's position. It can be the natural light from your windows or the light that substitutes for natural light.

Parallel Lights

A Parallel Light is a combination of Spot Lights and Ambient Lights. Parallel Lights project even light across the entire composition (just like an Ambient Light); however, only in a particular direction (just like a Spot Light). 

Parallel lights often produce a more evenly distributed amount of light on a broader area with a more gradual fall-off out from the center. 

Wrapping Up

There you go, folks! Like we discussed, layers in After Effects are pretty intuitive, notwithstanding their endless features. 

You may perhaps never use everything they have to offer, but this guide surely gives you a good head-start to create excellent creations in After Effects!

You can achieve countless graphic effects and animations with layers in After Effects, specifically because of its simplicity. In fact, working in After Effects is an everlasting activity toward visual problem-solving. 

Consider it as a creative logic problem rooted in layers and values that are yet waiting to be solved. And, once you've mastered the skills, be ready to step into the world of infinite possibilities.

Frequently Asked Questions

In After Effects, layers are fundamental components used to organize and composite visual elements in a composition. Each layer represents a distinct element or asset, such as text, images, videos, or effects. Layers can be stacked in the Timeline panel, and their properties can be animated or adjusted individually to create complex animations and visual compositions.

To add a layer in After Effects, you can follow these steps:

  • Open your composition in the Timeline panel.
  • Go to the “Layer” menu in the top menu bar.
  • Choose “New” and select the type of layer you want to add (e.g., Solid, Text, Shape, Footage, etc.).
  • Customize the settings for the new layer as needed, and it will be added to your composition.

Managing layers in After Effects involves various actions to organize, arrange, and control them effectively. You can do the following:

  • Rename layers to maintain clarity and organization.
  • Use layer folders (pre-compositions) to group related layers together.
  • Adjust the layer stacking order to control visibility and hierarchy.
  • Animate layer properties, such as position, opacity, and scale, to create animations.
  • Apply effects and adjustments to specific layers.
  • Toggle layer visibility and solo layers for focused editing.

To create multiple layers in After Effects, follow these steps:

  • Open your composition in the Timeline panel.
  • To add additional layers, you can either use the “Layer” menu and select the desired layer type or use keyboard shortcuts like Ctrl+Y (Cmd+Y on Mac) to create a new solid layer quickly.
  • Customize the settings and properties of each new layer to suit your project requirements.
  • Arrange and organize the layers in the Timeline panel to create your desired visual composition. Layers can be stacked and adjusted as needed to build complex animations and visual effects.