Tips and Tricks – Photoshop: Align & Distribute Layers

In Photoshop it sometimes can be cumbersome to align multiple graphic elements that reside on different layers. Luckily the Move Tool has some great options to alleviate this issue and save lots of time.

For this tutorial we will learn how to easily and automatically align and distribute layers in a Photoshop document using the Move Tool and some handy features in the Options Bar. This tutorial will work with CS4 – CS5.5 versions of Photoshop.

Below (figure 01) is our starting document with six small icons all on different layers.


figure 01

At the moment, the thumbnail graphics are scattered all over the document. So my task is to arrange them in more of a 3×2 grid pattern. Taking a look at the Layers Panel (figure 02), we see that each thumbnail is sitting on its own layer above the Background layer. I’ve gone ahead and renamed each layer based on where I want each thumbnail to appear in the final grid layout (“Top Left”, “Top Middle”, etc.).


figure 02

For our task I need to re-arrange the thumbnail graphics inside the document and line them up with each other. I could just try to drag them into place manually using the Move Tool, but that would take time especially if I have a lot of thumbnails; getting them all lined up perfectly by “eying” them could become a cumbersome task . So this is where the Align and Distribute options from the Move Tool will come into play.

1. First we need to select the Move Tool from the Tool Bar (figure 03).


figure 03

2. When the Move Tool is selected, the Align and Distribute options appear as a series of icons in the Options Bar along the top of the screen. At the moment, the icons are grayed out and unavailable because I only have a single layer selected in my Layers Panel. Lets select the top layer named “Top Left,” then SHIFT + Click the layer named “Top Right,” notice that all layers in between the two I selected are now selected. Also notice that with more than one layer now selected, the Align and Distribute options become available.

The first six icons in the row are the Align options, which will line up the contents of two or more layers based on either the edges or the centers of their content. The next six icons are the Distribute options, which will take the contents of multiple layers and space them out equally. ( Note that you’ll need to have three or more layers selected at once in the Layers Panel for the Distribute options to become available).

3. Since the Top Left thumbnail is already in the desired position, I will select the first Align option icon in the Options Bar – it is called Align Top Edges. Notice that after you click the icon, your 3 thumbs are all aligned only at the top (based off of the top most layer “Top Left” in the Layers Panel).


figure 04

4. Next we will distribute the three thumbs horizontally so they’re spaced equally apart from each other, so with the three layers still selected in the Layers Panel, We’ll click on the Distribute Horizontal Centers option in the Options Bar (figure 05).


figure 05

The thumbs are now aligned horizontally by their centers.


figure 06

5. Now I need to align the right edges of the “Top Left” and “Bottom Left” thumbs, so I will only select those two layers. Click on the “Top Left” layer first to select it, then CONTROL + Click (OPTION + Click on the Mac) the “Bottom Left” layer in the Layers Panel. Then select the last Align icon – Align Right Edges (figure 07).


figure 07

6. Select the three bottom layers from the Layers Panel – “Bottom Left,” “Bottom Middle,” and Bottom Right.” Then select the Align Top Edges icon from the Options Bar like we did in step 3 above.

7. Now select the “Top Right” and “Bottom Right” thumbs to Align Right Edges like we just did in step number 5.

8. Finally we will select the “Bottom Left” layer in the Layers Panel, then SHIFT + Click on the “Bottom Right” layer to select three layers: “Bottom Left,” “Bottom Middle,” and “Bottom Right.” Like we did in step 4, click on the Distribute Horizontal Centers option in the Options Bar (figure 05).

9. The images will be aligned evenly in two rows of three (figure 08).


figure 08

The key to using Align and Distribute effectively is to get all of your images roughly placed first, then use the options bar icons to clean up the positioning. Try experimenting with the Move Tool and the Align and Distribute options and post a comment below to let us know your results.

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