Fix It In Photoshop | Layer Masks

David Coultham

This article is a beginner’s guide to Masking In Adobe Photoshop. In this article you will learn how to create, optimize and refine Layer Masks.

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Video | Beginners Guide To Layer Masks

Creating A Layer Mask

With the Layer selected that you want to add a Mask onto, head to the very bottom of the panel. The ‘Add Mask’ icon (illustrated above) creates a vector mask. If you have nothing selected when you add a Mask to a Layer you will get a completely blank Mask. However, if you have something selected, such as an object in your image, then Photoshop will mask the object for you automatically. In other words, Photoshop will isolate the selected object from its background/surroundings.

NOTE: You can invert a Mask (with the Mask selected on its layer) using Command I (on a Mac) or Control I (on a PC).

How To Optimize A Masked Layer

Double-click onto the Mask that you want to edit from the Layers Tab (illustrated right).  This opens up the Quick Mask Mode window (illustrated below). The dedicated Quick Mask window gives you several tools to help you fine-tune your masks. 

Down the top-left-hand side of the window are a set of tools dedicated to masking optimization (illustrated over the page).

These are as follows:

Quick Selection Tool: This tool is the same as the Quick Selection Tool in the main Photoshop window.

Refine Edge Brush Tool: With this tool, you paint on the transitions, and this helps Photoshop identify the edges.

Refine Edge Brush Tool: With this tool, you paint on the transitions, and this helps  Photoshop identify the edges.

Brush Tool: This is exactly what it says, you can either paint areas of a mask onto the image or remove areas. This is a great tool for manually tidying up the mask layer.

Object Selection Tool: Is the same as its cousin in the main Photoshop window.

Lasso Tool: Enables you to manually select areas and add them to your masked area.

Hand Tool: Is the same as in the main Photoshop window for moving your image around when in magnifications greater than 100%.

Magnifying Glass: Enables you to zoom in and out of your image.

Each of the brush tools has an Options Bar (example illustrated below) associated with it, so that you can set brush sizes, characteristics, as well as whether you want your brush strokes to be additive or subtractive. 

The Properties panel over to the right of the window lets you tailor how the mask is visualized, such as mask color and different views; such as Onion Skin and Marching Ants. Further, you can tailor how the mask is applied, such as feathering, smoothing, and contrast. When you have finished editing in this window, selecting the Ok button at the bottom right-hand-side commits your changes, and takes you back to the standard Photoshop window.

Getting A Really Good Look At Your Masks

To view a Mask in the Document Window, press ‘Option’ (on a Mac) or ‘Alt’ (on a PC) as you click the Mask icon. Repeating the command gets you back to the regular Document Screen view. This is a useful short code if you want to directly paint on your mask layer, and/or to check whether you have any obvious selection errors that need correcting. This mode is great for minor edits, but I always recommend the Quick Mask Mode if you are doing anything more extensive.

How To Permanently Apply A Mask To A Layer

NOTE: Before doing this, consider making a copy of your layer, as the change cannot be undone. 

Make sure the Layer with the Mask is selected, and that you are specifically highlighting the mask. You can see if the Mask is selected, as it will have brackets symbols [] around the Mask icon. 

Next, right-click on the mask, and select the Apply Mask option from the pop-up window. In doing so, the Mask is applied to the Layer. Anything on the Mask that was black is deleted from the Layer, and everything White on the Mask remains intact.

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