Layer Masks

This tutorial is for people who are just starting out Photoshop or for the people who have been using Photoshop but don’t know how to use Layer Masks.

The basics of Layer masks are incredibly simple but very powerful.

As always we’ll go over a simple tutorial that will quickly teach you how to use Layer Mask Basics. I think that actually doing something is the best way to learn. At least doing some thing is much, much better than just reading about it :D

First, a tiny intro:

What happens when someone wears a mask?

ladywithmask

Dumb Question, yeah? It’s obvious that everything behind the mask is not visible and everything else is visible. That’s basically how Layer masks work except that you choose where the mask is and how opaque it is. Simple huh? So let’s follow a quick tutorial.

The Final Result of the tutorial is:

layermasked

Yeah, so it’s a glass that is behind some rocks but in front of the ocean. Notice that the glass is partially transparent and you can see the ocean from inside it but the straw, slice of lemon and the stem of the glass are opaque. And yeah… I know the image isn’t going to win any awards but it’s great for explaining Layer masks :D

Step 1: Find two images that you want to combine. Here are the images I used:

169820_9687

246635_9583

Step 2: Open both the images in Photoshop. Then, choose the Arrow / Move Tool. Click on the glass image and drag it over to the image with the guy fishing. You can resize the glass so that it’s not too big or you can leave it the way it is. Your choice. Click here for a short flash video of this step if you are having trouble moving the glass image on top of the ocean image.
step2

Step 3: Choose the layer with the glass and then click on the Layer Mask button. It’s the rectangle with the circle in it.

step3a

After clicking you’ll see something like this:

step3b

There it is! The layer mask. Currently it is set to reveal all of the image, meaning that the mask is off and nothing is hidden (since it is revealing everything!)

Now we actually use the mask. First let’s think of what we’re trying to do.

  • We want just the glass visible so we need to get rid of the background of the glass image.
  • We also don’t want all of the stem of the glass visible because we want to give the illusion that the glass is sitting behind the rocks.
  • We also want part of the top of the glass transparent because we want the viewer to see through it.

If we used just layers and opacity of layers to accomplish this then we’d end up cutting up glass in lots of portions and messing with the opacity and it would be tedious and really, really annoying and would take a long time. That is why we’ll use the layer mask!

Hmm, you’ll also notice that when you click on the layer mask your colors in the color picker turn to black and white. So here it is… the secret of Layer masks: Depending on what the settings are, the color WHITE shows or reveals the image AND the color BLACK hides or masks the image (We’re talking about the image on which the layer mask is applied, not the layer below it). So on to step 4…

Step 4: Grab your PAINTBRUSH. Choose BLACK and start wildly painting. Paint over the stem so it looks like the rocks are infront. Paint over the background of the glass image. Keep on painting until you only have the glass. Now what if you make a mistake and hide part of the glass? No problem. Layer masks are not destructive so just change the color to WHITE and paint over the glass and it’ll magically reappear. You can basically adjust the brush size, or the shade of
gray and you get way more control than using destructive methods. If you use an eraser you can’t easily undo something you did 20 steps before etc etc.

So here is my version of this step:

stepwhat

I’m not worried about being perfect because nothing is being deleted. It’s all there. Just hit the “X” key on your keyboard and you’ll quickly switch between black and white and you can fix your mistakes. Now after you have quickly erased everything that is not needed just zoom waaay in and with a small brush just fix up the edges so they look good. Be sure to get that area in between that lemon slice :D .

So now I have something like this:

step4b

Step 5: Finally, we need to make the glass a bit transparent. You can do two things. You can a) Set the opacity of the brush to 50% and then paint right over the glass or b) You can change the color of your brush to gray and then paint over the areas you want to make transparent. Using the current settings (i.e White reveals) then if you make your brush dark gray then your glass will be less opaque and more transparent. If you choose light gray then your glass will appear less transparent. Just
paint it gray in the areas where you want it to appear slightly transparent but not in the areas with the lemon slice and straws. If you can’t make the transparent area look smooth (ie. you can see the brush strokes) then just grab the smudge tool and lightly smudge the gray area until it looks good and smooth. You can use any filter or tool on the layer mask and it’ll give you a new sort of effect :D.

That is all. You have the final image:

layermasked

I hope I was able to show you how layer masks can make your life easier. This is obviously not the only thing you can do with layer masks so keep playing with this and learn more. If you have any questions then leave me comments below and I’ll try my best to get back to you in a timely fashion.

Notes:

  • Layer Masks are one of the easiest features of Photoshop to understand. A Layer mask is just what it sounds like: a mask that goes on a layer. Think of what happens when a person wears a mask. You can see through the holes but not through the mask itself. It’s a great way to non-destructively hide parts of a layer. You will not lose any data and to go back to the original state you’ll just delete the mask.
  • You can go to Layer > Layer Masks > Reveal All or Hide All to apply the mask (also you can just choose the rectangle with the circle from the Layers window.)
  • Use the “X” key to quickly switch between Black and White (to show and hide)
  • Shades of Gray in a layer mask change the opacity of the layer.
  • A link icon appears in the middle of the layer and the layer mask. If it is linked then both the mask and layer can be moved together. If it is unlinked then you can independently move the layer and its mask.
  • Be sure to click the Layer mask rectangle in the layer window when working with layer masks.
  • Commonly, layer masks are used with Text and Gradients so experiment with those.
  • I’ll continue updating this page with more tutorials and examples if I can think of any :D
  • Comments, Critiques and suggestions are always welcome.

114 thoughts on “Layer Masks

  1. garg

    Thanks every one :)

    Amy > If it says that it is locked try to double click on the background layer and then click ok. The layer name will change from “Background” to “Layer 1″ and then you’ll be able to click and drag it over to the second image :) Please let me know if that does not work.

  2. Krupa

    Hi!!

    I am trying to implement this tutorial but i dont’t know i can not import second image in new layer. How to import two diffrent image in two diffrent layers? I am a biginner.

    Thanks,

  3. Sam

    It worked the firts time i did it really well, but now i couuple of days on its not. It’ll maks a layer, but not unmask it… i must of changed some setting, how can i reset it?

  4. lwilliam

    I have always been afraid of asking anyone about the layer mask tecnik and you have made it so easy and fun to do, a big THANK YOU …. I got it. There are alot of me’s out here and only a few you’s…so keep pumping out the basic stuff. It is appreciated..lwilliam7

  5. garg

    Thank you everyone :)

    I am writing more tutorials. I’ll post them soon :)

    Also please feel free to suggest what tutorials you’d like to see. The most difficult thing for me is to decide what to write next :)

  6. David

    Thank you! Dude, I just got ImageReady, simply hours before I found this… You wouldn’t believe how lost I was…

    Thank you for giving me an example of the wonders ImageReady has to offer

  7. crito

    hey… that was great tuturial…i learned a lot… thanks…what about applying text.. say if we use pictures and add text as if it is the person that is talking… like cartoon… yes… cartoon figures with messages… would appreciate it very much..

  8. Randy

    Garg, Excellent tutorial for us beginners. Thank you for the easy analogies too, since PS is so complicated that we tend to get overloaded with the “less-than-simple” names of a few tools. Please keep them coming in your easy-to-learn style, i.e. using the “Unsharp Mask”. Thanks again!

  9. Glenda

    Thanks so much, I have played with Photoshop to no end but this part escaped me until I read this, all of a sudden t clicked! I had absolutely no problems once I tried your project.

  10. Katie

    Hi, Sure hope that you can help me. I just started using Photo Shop Cs2. I found your tutorial for layer masks. I can get to step 4, but can not get the paint brush to do anything. What I am doing wrong! Would appreciate any HELP!
    Thank You.

  11. Tim

    Great tutorial. Having trouble getting black as a paint in my brush. I have photoshop 7 and the color comes in light red. Then when I move the picture over all I get is the painted area to move. What should I do to get the center area like your glass to move?

  12. Tom B

    Hey, thank you V much, I’ve spent weeks messing around trying to work photoshop out… Thanks for the helping hand. Im sure I will be re-visiting these pages many times.

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  14. Mary

    I have read many tutorials on layer mask, and your tutorial is the only one help me to understand the concept. In particular, I like your introduction, provided example, and the detailed description of what we should do next (see below). You did a very good job indeed. A BIG clap and thank you to you.

    We want just the glass visible so we need to get rid of the background of the glass image.
    We also don’t want all of the stem of the glass visible because we want to give the illusion that the glass is sitting behind the rocks.
    We also want part of the top of the glass transparent because we want the viewer to see through it.

  15. Tom

    I’m using Photoshop CS3 Extended Trial version. First, I was not able to produce two separate windows from which to drag and drop the martini glass layer so I copied it in from File/Open Recent and pasted into the Layer 2.
    Then, using the brush tool followed exactly the instruction to hide all but the upper part of the martini glass. The only change was the look of the black paintbrush on the martini glass layer.

    What did I do wrong?

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  18. charlie

    help!

    Hello, iv been using photo shop for ages but dont really no many tricks. i use it to render design concepts at uni. I put sketch’s in and then render as life like as possible. i need to kno how to use layer masks to reveal only certain colours. is this possible? i want to work with with colour underneath an outline sketch with only the back pencil lines showing. Any one who knos please email me at n0027687@ntu.ac.uk.

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  21. Sribuz

    Really usefull tutorial, made simple and more informative.
    looking for tutorials on other tools…keep posting :)
    applause for your creativity ;)

    Thanks,
    Sribuz.

  22. Bob

    You did a great job explaining this — you mentioned key points that others l’ve read left out. You have a gift at explaining things. Thanks very much!

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  24. Susan

    Thank you so much, that was very helpful and intelligently written (a miracle nowadays, at least on the web!)

    A couple of questions I hope don’t sound too ridiculous…first, when you save your new masked layered image, does it become a single image or are the layers still available for editing? Second, I have a little trouble with a layer vs. the background image. Please tell me if I am understanding this correctly:

    You are saying that the mask covers up (like a real mask), yet when you paint on the masked layer you are actually revealing the image below. Do you mean to say that the Background is acting as the ‘mask’? And if so, why does it matter which color you choose to paint with? Again, I’m a total beginner so I hope I don’t sound too clueless.

    Thank you so much! :)

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    When I select “New Layer” my second image disappears into a little box & doesn’t show up on the background I want to apply it to. I can’t figure out how to apply it. I’d appreciate if someone could assist me. THANX! :-)

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