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Misunderstood Photoshop: Clipping Masks

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  1. Clipping Mask Basics
  2. Other Techniques
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The Photoshop clipping mask feature is a quick way to create effects such as text filled with a photograph. Helen Bradley points out more handy uses for clipping masks, such as limiting the effect of adjustment layers, or simplifying the process of editing a portion of an image. You can follow along with the accompanying video tutorial to see exactly how it's done.

In this series, Helen Bradley discusses some handy Photoshop tools that are often overlooked or misunderstood, either because they’re hidden away or because their use isn’t immediately apparent. Yet these tools provide smart and useful ways to perform various tasks in Photoshop, so they’re worthy of adding to your Photoshop skill list.

In the third article in the series, we consider the clipping mask feature, which is often incorrectly referred to as "clipping paths" and sometimes called a "clipping group." This feature often is used to create text effects in which the text looks like it’s cut from a photo, but clipping masks have other uses that we’ll examine in a bit.

Clipping Mask Basics

A clipping mask is created using two layers of a Photoshop image. Transparent pixels in the bottommost layer act as a mask for the image on the layer above.

The easiest way to understand how clipping masks work is to try one yourself. Follow these steps to use a clipping mask to create text that looks like it’s cut from a photo:

  1. Open a photograph in Photoshop, double-click the background layer, and click OK to convert this layer to a regular layer. Click the Horizontal Type tool, click on the photo, and type some text on the image. (Choose a font with thick, solid letters so there’s plenty of room for the photo to show through.) Don’t worry about the text color; when this effect is complete, you won’t see the color anyway. Figure 1 shows the sample I’m using.
    Figure 1

    Figure 1 Turn the background layer of an image to a regular layer and then add some text to a new layer, using a thick, heavy font.

  2. Drag the text layer below the photo layer. Position your mouse pointer over the border between the two layers and hold down the Alt key (Option key on the Mac). When the mouse pointer changes to two overlapping circles (see Figure 2), click once to create a clipping mask. This is the equivalent of clicking the topmost of the two layers and choosing Layer > Create Clipping Mask.
    Figure 2

    Figure 2 To create a clipping mask, hold down the Alt key (Option on the Mac), position the cursor over the border between the two layers, and click.

  3. The photograph is masked by the text, so only those areas of the photograph that appear over the text are visible (see Figure 3). One benefit of this technique is that it’s editable, so you can move the photograph or the text around on its respective layer. As you do, the visible portion of the photograph on the screen changes. You can also click the layer containing the text and change the text or its format—choosing a different font and font size, for example.

    As Figure 3 shows, when you create a clipping mask the top layer thumbnail is inset slightly in the Layers palette, and a down arrow appears to the left of the thumbnail, indicating that the layer is part of a clipping mask. The name of the bottommost layer of the clipping mask—the one that’s acting as the mask—is underlined.

    Figure 3

    Figure 3 With the clipping mask applied, the text layer masks the image layer above.

    To undo the clipping mask, position the mouse pointer over the border between the two layers and Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac).

  4. Let’s complete the effect in this example by adding a lighter version of the image below the clipping mask. Duplicate the image layer and drag it below the clipping mask. Add a white-filled layer above that layer, and decrease the opacity of the white-filled layer to reveal some of the image below. Add a small Outer Glow layer style to the text layer to draw attention to it (see Figure 4).
    Figure 4

    Figure 4 Finish the effect by adding a duplicate of the image layer, and lighten it with a partially opaque white-filled layer.

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