When you are first learning Photoshop, layer masks can seem overwhelming and confusing. It’s ok, photoshop itself can be overwhelming and confusing. I promise, once you understand the basics of Layer Masks, you’ll be glad to utilize this skill in your post processing workflow. In fact, you will find that using layer masks is one of the most essential parts of Photoshop.

What is a Layer Mask?

Mask might be a deceiving term. Think of Transparency instead. If you think of it as Layer Transparency, that often will make a difference in understanding how it works. The bottom line, a Layer Mask allows you to control the level of transparency on a Layer. Yes, it’s that simple.

However, don’t think of it as Opacity. Opacity changes the transparency on the whole layer. If you adjust the opacity it’s going to adjust the transparency for the entire layer which can be great for certain files but if you only want a certain part to be transparent and making it gradual between layers, you can’t do that with the opacity tool. Often times we need a way to control the transparency of different areas of the layer separately. So this is when we would use a Layer Mask.

Let’s walk through 2 different beginner exercises to start with. We will begin using just one photograph.

Exercise 1:

Step 1

Bring in the photo you want to adjust. This particular exercise we are going to work with a landscape picture:

openimageGo to the Layers panel. Go to the Layer Adjustment icon (seen below) at the bottom of the layers panel and select the Black & White Adjustment

createadjustmentlayer copy.

You will now have a new special Adjustment layer added to your layers panel:

createsAMask copyStep 2

Adjust the sliders to meet the needs of your picture:


Step 3

Now make sure your foreground color is set to black.

changecolor copy

Step 4

Choose your brush tool and start painting back in the color in the areas you choose. Here is a partial of what your image starts to look like:

partialbrush copyThat’s the very beginning of understanding how Layer Masks work. Keep in mind, layer masks are completely NON destructive.

Exercise 2

Now let’s say you have two pictures that you want to work.

Step 1

Open 2 pictures in which you want to combined certain aspects of:

Here I have 2 pictures of a band out on the Salt Flats. Actually, I they were tourists that were curious about a music video I was filming but it makes for an ok shot to explain this lesson.

Notice how the clouds are slightly more dramatic in one picture and the women’s hair is out of her face in the other. I want to combine the aspects so I get the best of both pictures.

bandpic1 bandpic2Step 2

You are going to need both pictures in the same layers panel.

Select the 1st picture and do CMD(mac)/CNTL(pc) “A” which selects your entire picture,

Then click CMD(mac)/CNTL(pc) “C” which copies your picture onto your clip board.

Finally go to the 2nd picture and do CMD(mac)/CNTL(pc) “V” which pastes the 1st picture into the layer panel of the 2nd picture.

2layersStep 3

With Layer 1 highlighted, hold the Option(mac)/Alt(pc) Key while clicking on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of your layers panel. Photoshop adds a new layer mask to the currently selected layer and it fills the mask with black instead of white. We can see this in the layer mask thumbnail which is filled with solid black. The top layer is completely hidden from view, leaving only the image below it visible.


I like the sky a bit better in one and the girls expression in the other. Plus I want to remove the guy walking. All I’m going to do is take my brush, make sure the foreground color is set to black and paint in what I want from the photo on the top. If I paint in too much I just need to click on the color reverse arrow to make sure my foreground is white. Once I fix my mistake, I switch the foreground color back to black.

changecolor copyMy end result is the sky looking more dramatic, the expressions I want and the random guy gone. Best of all, these tourists get a fun picture from the Salt Flats


Bottom Line

Of course I can tweak and edit the picture even more but I wanted to show you how easy working with layers masks can be. Once you grasp the concept, you can then start becoming more creative with practicing fun shots and seeing what you can come up with. Start exploring layer masks by using your magic wand tool and taking out or putting in selections of pictures. There is so much more you can do with layer masks. This is just the beginning.