Want To Edit Photos Like a Pro? Let’s Get to Know Layer Masks in Photoshop

Photoshop is a powerful resource in the photography world. Some may say that it is essential to be running some form of photoshop alongside more widely used photo editing software such as Lightroom. While both programs complement each other respectively in different arenas, layer masks in Photoshop offer the editor a wide range of options in post-processing.

Through the use of layer masks in photoshop, you can precisely edit a section and be in full control of exactly how much, where and in what area(s) you want the underlying photo to be affected. You can also adjust the entire visibility of the layer to control exactly how much of the edits and changes you want to see in the final rendered image.

But what are layer masks? If you are new to photography or have never used a program like Photoshop before, these terms can sometimes be a little intimidating and you may have never heard about what layer masks are.

A very simple way to think of layer masks is this: Layer masks in photoshop are filters you place on your original images that hold the key to enhancing your image exactly the way you want without changing your original image.

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One of the advantages of this is that you can make as many changes as you like and play around with what you would like to see. You can even ‘mess up’ (not that we would encourage that) but if you were to make any mistakes or want to experiment with different brushes or techniques, you could always just ditch the layer mask that you are working on, and start a new one, all the while preserving the original image.

Why Layer Masks Are Used

Perhaps there are a few changes that you want to make to an image that requires a little more than just a spot touch here or there. Layer masks are a great way to change the characteristics of only one area of an image instead of the whole thing. Let’s start with the most simple of masks to get an understanding and use what is called a ‘reveal all’ mask. This essentially does nothing. A reveal all mask will show up as white. When you look over on the right panel, a reveal all layer mask will look like this:

layer masks in photoshop

Any changes you make to this reveal all mask will apply in whole to the underlying image. To create a reveal all mask, go to your menu bar, Layer – Layer Mask – Reveal All

Creating a ‘Hide All’ layer mask in photoshop will do the opposite from the white ‘Reveal All’ and NOT show any changes to the underlying image. To create a ‘Hide All’ mask, go to your menu bar, Layer – Layer Mask – Hide All. It will look like this:

layer masks in photoshop

Again, this is just so you get a grasp on a basic creation of a layer mask. Let’s get to work on the real deal!

The Art of Masking

Remember that where ever the mask is white, the changes you apply will impact the image, whereas where ever the mask is black, no changes in that area of the mask will apply to the underlying photo. Since we want to affect only a portion of the photo, we will work with a ‘Quick Select’ tool method from you left toggle menu to keep things simple for the purpose of this tutorial.

As an example, I will work on changing the brightness of the sky in the photo below:

layer masks in photoshop

To select the area that you want to work on through masking, select your ‘Quick Select’ tool from the left-hand tool menu.

layer masks in photoshop

Move the cursor over the area that you want to edit. Hold the mouse button down and move the cursor around until the area is selected. The quick select tool will automatically pick up on edges and select your area.

Once the area is selected, click on the ‘Curves’ adjustment tool (as an example for the purpose of this tutorial)

Now we are ready to make our edits. Using the Curves layer mask, we will darken the sky.

layer masks in photoshop

Keep in mind that this example was using the ‘Curves Adjustment’ tool from the right panel. This is only one of the possibilities to demonstrate the usefulness of layer masking. To Darken the photo, I simply created an adjustment point to the left and dragged it down towards the left a little. Make the needed adjustments to your image, then once you are satisfied with your final image, you can now export it.

Here are the images before and after to show you how the photo is affected.

layer masks in photoshop

layer masks in photoshop

Moving Forward

This tutorial is meant only to introduce you and get you acquainted with layer masks in photoshop. Practice practice practice! yes, we encourage you to try this, and other techniques this a few times to really get the sense and to master your way around using masks. There are a lot of other additional techniques you can add to further enhance your photos. While this example only affected the brightness of a section of the photo, layer masks can be used to affect several other avenues of a photo such as saturation, color, and contrast to name a few. Full image manipulation is the name of the game when using photoshop and using layer masks is only one of the several things that you can do with this handy photographers editing tool.

Of course, creating local adjustment layer masks is not the only use of layers. Another use of layers is the ability to remove unwanted objects from the final image without affecting the original image allowed. I recommend creating duplicate layers and making your adjustments on the top layers of the image that you are editing. The spot heal brush and/or the clone stamp tool are excellent tools to further enhance your images.

At times however, your image may need a little more than just a quick blemish fix, like a head swap because of blinking eyes in family portraits. Read this article if you have ever faced this and weren’t quite sure how to do a proper head swap.

See you next time classmates


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