Layer Masks – Tutorial

Layer masks are one of the most useful tools in digital editing. The amount of flexibility Layer Masks give you in making selective and subtle changes makes learning how to use them very helpful.

Creating a Layer Mask is very simple. Duplicate your layer then go to Layer>Layer Mask at which point you’ll have the choice to Hide All or Reveal All. Which you choose depends on how you want to use the mask. If you want to use the mask to selectively add an effect to a photo you’ll choose Hide All. If you want to use the mask to selectively remove an effect from a photo you’ll choose Reveal All.

Once you’ve chosen Hide or Reveal, you next choice is in which paint colour you’re going to use to adjust the Layer Mask. If you’ve chosen Hide All then you’ll select white as your foreground paint colour. If you’ve chosen Reveal All, you’ll select black as your foreground paint colour. Painting on a Layer Mask with white reveals and painting with black hides.

Layer Masks can be used to adjust effects (e.g., Levels, Curves) very nicely. One example where a Layer Mask can be useful is in selectively sharpening a photo. In the photo below, I wanted to sharpen everything except the water coming over the waterfall. I used the High Pass sharpening method to sharpen. Then, going to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal All, I created a layer mask for the sharpening layer. Once that was done, I selected black as my foreground colour (clicking on the small overlapping black and white boxes on the tool palette next to the curved arrow for switching colours automatically makes your foreground/background colours black and white if they weren’t already) and with a soft brush set to a low opacity painted over the water to hide the effect of the sharpening on the waterfall. Using a soft brush ensures that the effect is less at the edges so if I accidentally brush over an area I don’t want, the mask isn’t affected as much. Using a low opacity on the brush means that the effect is gradual. To increase the effect of the brushing, release and reclick and brush over the area again. If you happen to go outside the desired area, just switch your brush colours and repaint the mask. In the case of the photo below, everything else remained sharpened by the High Pass layer and the waterfall is kept a little softer.

The effect of the Layer Mask can be seen in the layer stack on the right. The black area is the area of the mask that has been hidden by painting over the layer with the black brush.

Layer Masking (click for larger version)

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