Layer Masks [Photoshop]

Layer masks are the easiest way to make a selection or to blend multiple pictures together (also called composites). Layer masks basically allow you to make changes to your shot with the ability to go back when needed.


Start here

So, let’s say you’re working on a shot you did this past weekend. The weather was great, location was perfect, and the car was beautiful. The lighting looked good on everything except on the car, it just looks too dark compared to everything else. If you took another exposure then you could fix it like that. But you didn’t, you only took one exposure.

But man you really need to lighten up that car, the photo would be so much better. If you just bring up the exposure, the whole thing will become brighter and you don’t want that since everything else is well lit. You only want to get the car. Don’t know how to get only the car? Don’t worry, that’s why I’m here, to show you how to improve the quality of your images by using layer masks.


How do I do it?

At the bottom of the layers panel, there’s a little button that looks like a camera . When you hover over the button it says Add layer mask. Click on that little camera to add a layer mask to any layer you’re working on. For the sake of this tutorial, we’re going to say that you only have 1 layer, which is the main image that we’re adding the layer mask to.

Now, to select the car, what we’ll have to do is basically erase the background. Simple, just use the eraser and erase it. No, I’m joking, don’t do that. What you want to do is grab the brush tool, yes the brush tool. Is it weird that you’re “erasing” parts of your image with a brush? Well yes, it is weird but it works and will save you time making selections and/or blending photos.

When you first make a new layer mask, a little square will pop up in the layers panel right next to the image of your original layer. You will see that it is filled up with white. Why is that? Well, everything that’s white on the layer mask will not be transparent at all, meaning everything will be shown.

Since we want to “erase” the background we will have to paint it black. Everything that’s black becomes fully transparent, meaning it is basically erased (or looks like it’s erased) except that you have the option to “paint” it back in with a white brush and make it show again. Or you can just delete the layer mask entirely. An easy way to do this is by right-clicking on the layer mask and just choosing Delete Layer Mask.
Now you’re back to your original image, just like that. I told you it was easy.


What else?

So what happens if you use a different color besides black and white? If you use anything in between those 2 colors, like any gray color, it will make it more or less transparent. If you use a slightly darker white, it will be slightly transparent. If you use a gray that is just a step below black, then it will be almost completely transparent.

The layer masks in Adobe Photoshop are pretty much identical to the adjustment brushes in Adobe Lightroom. Matter of fact, you can use the layer masks to make adjustment brushes just like you can in Lightroom, although I prefer to use Lightroom for that. So if you know how to use the brush in Lightroom, then you will be able to do layer masks, and vice versa.

The layer masks are basically a Lightroom way of making selections on your Photoshop files with the ability of just brushing your image back in if you make a mistake.


How do you use Layer Masks?

I’m sure there are many different ways to use layer masks, so I ask you, what are some ways that you use layer masks? If this is the first time using layer masks, how hard do you think this is compared to, let’s say, the pen tool for selection?



Feature image credit: Elvis Pasic
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