Use Layer Mask For Safe Photo Editing (Part 1)

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Once you’ve mastered this helpful Photoshop tool you won’t ever be able to live without it

What you’ll need…

·         Editing software with the Layer Masks

·         Staring photos

We used…

·         Photoshop CS5

You could try…

·         GIMP

·         Elements 10

What you’ll learn…

·         To make non-destructive edits


·         These always need to be black or white – black erases and white reveals. Press D to reset to black and white then press X to switch.

Tool options

·         You can make use of tools such as the Marquee and Pen tools – as long as you can create an active selection you can Mask away quickly and easily.

Brush tool

·         In the Layers palette, set the blend mode to Normal and set the Opacity depending on the effect you’re after. For precise work use a hard-edged brush.

Multiple Masks

·         You can have multiple Masks in one piece of art and on the same Layer, just make sure you’re always clicked onto the Mask thumbnail and not the photo.

Extra controls

·         Click the Refine Edge button in the Masks palette and discover even more ways to tweak your photo, even tidying up any messy edges by shrinking the Mask!

Add a Mask

Add a Mask by pressing the icon at the base of the Layers palette. Also open the Mask palettr via Window>Masks, where you can adjust settings.

Description: Use Layer Mask for safe photo editing

Use Layer Mask for safe photo editing

Layer Mask allow you to edit specific parts of an image leaving the remaining areas untouched and unaffected by any changes applied. It’s such a useful feature that we use them in nearly every project we do and it’s available in all versions of Photoshop and Photoshop Elements.

Using a Mask when editing your shots means you can always revisit it and make areas visible once more by just switching the foreground and background colours. Or simply drag the Masks thumbnail over the Trash icon to delete and start all over again.

The most important things to remember when working on a Mask is that painting with the Brush tool set to black will hide areas, whereas painting with white will make items visible. If at any time you find your Mask isn’t working, just check these colours are correct in the side tool bar and press X on the keyboard to switch them if necessary.

Use the Brush tool as you normally would varying the size and opacity to get the effect you’re after. With practice you’ll quickly learn what type of brush tip best suits your project. A softer brush is best to blend two layers together, whereas a hard-edged brush or even the Pen or Marquee tool will be better for cutting out objects more precisely.

So, before starting off, read through our easy-to-follow guide to Masks and then pick out your photos to get started.

Technical tip

If the Mask thumbnail appears black not white, invert the Mask properties by pressing Cmd/Ctrl+l, or swap foreground/background colours using the shortcut ‘X’.

“Using a Mask when editing means you can always revisit it and make areas visible once more”

Introduction to Layer Masks

Learn to set up the tool correctly for the best performance

Description: Introduction to Layer Masks

Introduction to Layer Masks

1.    Location

Layer Masks can be found at the base of the Layers palette – it’s the small grey square with a white circle in its centre. It is only visible if you have made your Background Layer editable. To do this, simply double-click on it, which gets rid of the padlock icon.

Description: Location


2.    Add the Mask

Click and highlight the Layer you wish to add the Mask to. Press the Mask icon and you will see a thumbnail appear next to your Layer. Click onto this new thumbnail to make sure you apply your edits to this part of the layer only and not the photo.

Description: Add the Mask

Add the Mask

3.    Brush settings

Select the brush tool from the sidebar. In the top options bar make sure the brush is set to a normal Blend mode. Ensure the foreground. Background coloured squares in the side toolbar are set to black/white so that you can erase sections of the image.

Description: Brush settings

Brush settings

4.    Hide and reveal

Paint over your canvas and wee areas disappear. To make the areas visible again, switch the foreground/background colours to white/black – black erases and white fills in. you can invert the areas that are masked and visible using Cmd/Ctrl+l.

Description: Hide and reveal

Hide and reveal

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