Layer Masks

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In this tutorial  I'm going to show you how to add layer masks to any layer in Photoshop Elements 8 and older.  Normally they are only attached to Adjustment Layers.

Elements 9 users can now add Layer Masks to any layer and that is a wonderful improvement!

This is a good thing because it opens up a whole mess of other creative adjustments when working with normal layers.  The layer can be a modified background copy layer (a blur or a filter) or something as useful as a dodge and burn soft light layer.

A bit of background about layer masks may be useful at this point.

This is what it says in the Elements Help File ...

A layer mask prevents sections of a layer, or an entire layer, from being visible. You use the mask to show or hide sections of an image or an effect.

Does this make any sense?  When you use them it does - if they are something new to you then this explanation probably means - well - not much at all.

So let's look at how they work with an adjustment layer...

Layer Mask Example
With An Adjustment Layer

Here's something interesting to work with ...

layer mask original

The next step is to add a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Layer with the Saturation slider set to zero  which removes all of the color ...

layer mask black and white conversion layer mask palette

The little white part (outlined in red) is the Layer Mask.  When it's white like this painting on it with black will reveal what is underneath.

With that done - here's the image now ...

layer masks layer masks

The front of the streetcar in the original picture has been revealed by effectively "punching a hole" in the mask.

layer mask
Here's how the Mask looks - it is the shape of the front of the streetcar,

Those four little dots are the taillights of the streetcar going in the other direction.

The black is revealing what's underneath the Hue and Saturation Adjustment layer.

Elements 9 Layer Masks

Now that you can easily add a layer mask to any layer with Elements 9 let's look at an example.

Everytime I go downtown I see this gentleman in his pure white suit hanging around the downtown mall.  He certainly is a striking figure. 

On my last trip downtown I managed to get a picture of him but it was not a particularly good picture ...

layer mask white suit

See - I told you it wasn't particularly good.  The color is off, that lady is bolting across the frame and the background highlights are far too distracting.

The Average filter adjustment fixed the color and the Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware eliminated the dashing woman.

With those two corrections complete the Background layer was duplicated and then the Shadows/Highlights command was run on the duplicated layer (the shadows were lowered and the highlights maximized to darken those distracting highlights from the windows). 

And here is my masterpiece to this point ...

layer masks shadows highlights

Things are somewhat better but the beautiful white suit is now kind of, well - gray and ugly.

We can fix that because we have Photoshop Elements 9 with easy to add layer masks.

layer mask paletteWith the top layer selected click on the Add Layer Mask icon (outlined in Yellow).

This will add the white mask and now the nice white suit can be returned to its previous glory.

Grab the brush tool and set the foreground color to Black.  In this situation its best to set my Wacom pen to change size with pressure, leaving opacity out of the equation.

With this picture I zoomed in really close on the white suit and painted with black over the white suited gentleman - this part is always the best fun.

Then a crop and some Content Aware Spot Healing and here's the image now ...

layer masks masked

Just for the fun of it - here's the actual mask (Alt Click the Mask to make it appear) ....

layer masks mask

layer masks maskDon't know about you, but I really like the look of the Mask on its own.

For reference - here is the Layers Palette ...

The little silhouette in the mask (where I painted with black) punched a hole through the top picture so the bottom one can show through.

This is useful because the top layer has been modified with Shadows/Highlights and is much darker than the lower layer. 

When the hole is punched through the top picture the nice bright, white suit shows through.

That means, in this situation, I could run the Levels dialogue (Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels ...) on the bottom (Background) image and brighten up the white suit even more without affecting the rest of the scene.

Layer Mask
With An Ordinary Layer

It really is quite easy to add layer mask to an ordinary layer in only three steps ...

  1. Duplicate the Background layer and do whatever adjustments you want.
  2. Select the Background layer and add any Adjustment Layer between the Background and the Background Copy.  Don't make any adjustments to the Adjustment Layer - just create it and click OK.
  3. Clip the Background Copy to the Adjustment Layer and that's it.
Here's the first image ...

layer mask portrait

layer masks palette

The first step is to copy the Background layer.

For this I'm going to add a Surface Blur to the image - this will smooth out the skin in a big way.

The only problem is that it will blur everything and that isn't what we want.

The layer mask will be used to remove the Surface Blur from the eyes, lips, teeth, eyebrows and the hair.

Here's the image after the Surface Blur ...

Layer Mask blurred

The second step is to add an Adjustment Layer between the two layers.    You can use any of them except the top three (Solid color, Gradient and Pattern) - I'm using a Levels Adjustment Layer ...

layer masks with Levels
Here's the new layers palette with the Levels Adjustment layer added between the two image layers.

As you can see there is a layer mask attached to the adjustment layer and that's the one we will use.

As it is now, the layer mask is useless.  It has to be attached to the Background Copy and that's done by clipping them together - it's called a Clipping Mask.

To clip them together press and hold the ALT key and then place the cursor on the boundary between Levels and Background Copy (the cursor will change into something that looks like a piece of chain).

When the little chain appears left click and the Background copy will indent itself which indicates that the two layers are clipped.

Now the layer mask is available

Because the Mask is white it has to be painted with black to reveal what is underneath - un-blurred eyes, eyelashes, lips, teeth and hair.  If black is not the foreground color then press the D (for default) key to make black and white the default foreground and background colors.

To switch between the foreground and background colors press the X key.

The nice thing about the mask is that when a mistake is made (and I make a lot of them) they can be easily repaired by changing the foreground color to white and painting the mistake away.  Wasn't that nice of Adobe to do that for us?

Here is the image with the underlying image's eyes, eyelashes, lips, teeth and hair visible through the mask ...

layer mask

Now the important bits are nice and sharp and the part we want to be smooth is nice a smooth. It makes a big difference in the image, don't you think?

Just for reference, here's the mask and the layers palette ...

layer mask end layers mask
Final Layers Palette Final Mask

You can view the mask on its own by ALT-Clicking the Mask.  To get back click to the left of the layer mask in the layers palette and then select the mask.

Other Adjustments

There are tons of different adjustments you can make and then modify with a layer mask.  The Filter menu, for example, is full of really cool ways to modify an image.

Here are a few examples ...


layer masks blue eye

This was originally color.  The Background layer was duplicated, a black and white conversion was done and a levels adjustment layer added.  The Levels Adjustment Layer was clipped to the black and white layer and the color in the eye was restored.


layer mask zoom filter

The same procedure was used but on this one Filter > Blur > Radial Blur > Zoom provided the adjustment on the background copy and then the face was restored.

These are only a couple of examples.  No doubt you will find all kinds of uses for this technique.

Page Links

Adjustment Layers

Elements 9 Layer Masks

Masking a Normal Layer

Other Adjustments

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