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Do Not Fear the Layer Mask: Tips for Using One of Photoshop's Most Powerful Tools

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Matt Kloskowski takes the fear out of learning to use layer masks with quick, fun tips that show you how to make the most of one of Photoshop's most powerful tools.
This chapter is from the book

I’m going to start this chapter intro out with a bold statement. In fact, if there’s one chapter intro you want to make sure you read, it’s this one. Okay, so are you ready for my bold statement? Because if you’re not, I’ll wait a moment—no, really, it’s okay. Okay, I guess I’d better make my bold statement before I just flat out annoy you. Here it is: you already know what a layer mask is. Yep, as long as you read through and understood what we did with adjustment layers in Chapter 3, you already know all about layer masks. If you didn’t read Chapter 3, then I take my bold statement back. You have no idea what a layer mask is. But you will, if you go back and read Chapter 3 and then follow it up with this chapter. Why? Because layer masks are one of the most important things you can learn when it comes to layers. It’s a topic usually avoided like the bird flu. But, once you figure them out, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them.

Layer Mask Basics


Let me start out by saying that if you didn’t read the chapter intro on the previous page, then stop right now and go read it. I made a very profound statement there and I think it’s important that you read it before continuing. If you don’t, then the rest of this chapter just won’t be the same for you. So go read I’ll wait. Okay, you’re back and I bet you feel much better about embarking on your journey to learn all about layer masks. Now, in that chapter intro, I said that you already know what a layer mask is. You do! That little white thumbnail that kept getting added next to each adjustment layer we added in Chapter 3 is a layer mask. The difference between them and what we’re about to do here is that adjustment layers automatically include a layer mask with them. A regular layer does not. But, it takes just one click to get the same effect.

Step 1: Open Two Photos that You’d Like to Combine

In order to really take advantage of layer masks, you need to have at least two layers. So go ahead and open two images that you’d like to combine. You can download the images shown here from the website I mentioned in the introduction.

Step 2: Drag One of the Images onto the other so they’re in the Same Document

Use the Move tool (V) to drag one photo from its document onto the other one. In this example, I’m going to drag the photo of the barrel onto the image of the James Bond–looking guy with the gun. Now that photo’s document has two layers. Once you’ve got the photo moved, you can close the original so you’re left with only the document with two layers.

Step 3: Add a Layer Mask to the Top Layer

Remember back in Chapter 3, whenever you added an adjustment layer it automatically added a layer mask (that little white thumbnail) to the layer it was on? Well, ordinary layers don’t work like that. They don’t automatically get a layer mask with them. However, adding one is really simple. First, select the layer you want to add the mask on. In this case, it’s the top layer. Then click on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. It’s the third one from the left (shown circled here).

Step 4: Notice How a Layer Mask on a Regular Layer Looks Just Like the Adjustment Layer One

When you click on the Add Layer Mask icon, you’ll see that Photoshop adds a little white thumbnail next to the layer thumbnail in your Layers panel. This is a layer mask. See how it looks just like the one that we saw in Chapter 3 whenever we added an adjustment layer?

Step 5: Make a Selection of the Area on the Top Layer that You Want to Hide

Right now, we can only see the barrel photo because that layer covers the one below it. Let’s combine the two photos by hiding part of the top layer so we can see the layer below it. Choose the Elliptical Marquee tool from the Toolbox (or press Shift-M until you have it). Click-and-drag out a circular selection in the middle of the canvas.

Step 6: Fill the Selection with Black

When we were working with adjustment layers, we made a selection and filled it with black to hide part of the adjustment to reveal the layer below it. The same thing works here with a regular layer mask. Go to the Edit menu and choose Fill. Then, choose Black for the Use setting and click OK. Finally, choose Select>Deselect to clear your selection.

Step 7: White on the Layer Mask Shows the Top Layer; Black Reveals the Background

To see how things are working here, take a look at the layer mask thumbnail. Wherever it’s white, we can see the barrel layer (the layer that holds the layer mask). Where you see black on the layer mask, you see through the barrel layer to whatever is underneath it in the Layers panel (in this case, that’s the James Bond–looking guy). That’s probably the most important thing to understand about layer masks: black and white. White shows you the effects of the layer that the layer mask is on. Black hides the layer and shows you whatever is below it in the layer stacking order.

Step 8: Fill the Layer Mask with White again to Get Things Back to Normal

So, even though it looks like we erased away the pixels from the top barrel layer, we didn’t. Instead they’re just hidden from view. In real life, you’d probably save this file, then reopen it at a later time and possibly decide you want to change something. If you had erased or deleted the circular selection from the image, you’d have to go back to the original and start over. With a layer mask, though, you can always change your mind without starting over. Try it. Click on the layer mask and fill it with white this time. As you can see, all of the barrel photo is still there and the layer mask is all white again—nothing was permanently erased or deleted.

Step 9: Make Another Selection to Change Your Layer Mask

Finally, since the layer mask is still on the barrel layer, you can always make another selection and try again. This time, select the Rectangular Marquee tool (press Shift-M until you have it), make a square selection in the middle of the canvas, and fill it with black. Photoshop doesn’t care what shape you create. It just cares about black and white. That’s just the beginning, though. Layer masks get way cooler. In fact, there’s a way to automatically create a layer mask. Turn to the next page to find out how.

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