Tag Archives: Layer Masks

Using Layer Masks

Using Layer Masks 

I’ve talked a lot about “masking this off” or using a “Layer mask”  in Photoshop with the assumption that everybody knew how to use them. And that was a bad assumption on my part. So I’m going to do a quick little tutorial on layers masks and how to make and use them. 

When we place a layer onto an image in Photoshop, it can be many things, it can be an “Adjustment Layer” where you made a specific adjustment to an image, Levels Curves, Saturation etc and applied it to an image but as a separate layer so not to change or damage the original image and make those changes reversible.

We could also add a texture layer, a color or gradiant layer a text layer, we can even put a whole photograph on top of another in a layer as we would do in a “Blend” as I showed here

Now a layer, in most cases is a solid object above the layer below. But what if we wanted to show some of the layer below this layer? Well we could just use the eraser tool to erase away the top layer. But the problem with that is once you erase away that area is gone unless you step back in your history. Erasing is very hard to fine tune. “Oops went to far can I put some back?” No you can’t. So instead we use a layer Mask, which allows us that flexibility of taking away, putting back, feathering and varying opacity.

Practice Sample.

So let’s make a practice sample so we can easily see how to use layer masks.

Start in Photoshop and go to File> New and let’s make a new image. We’ll make it easy and use one of the presets and make an 800 x 600 image. You don’t need to worry much about anything about this new image except for the size. Most likely you will now have an 800x 600 white image on your screen now. If you have a different color or even a transparent one that’s OK we’ll fix that in the next step 

Now go to your tools and select the Paint Bucket Tool, then go to the color palette and click on the foreground color. Choose any color you like but to make this more visual choose something other than Black or white. In my case I chose full red. Fill your image using the paint bucket tool with red 

Now go to Layer> New and add a layer on top of the red layer. Once again go back to your paint bucket tool and now choose a different color. In my case I chose full Blue and fill the next layer with a different color. 

You should now have two layers and your layers should look like this. 

Now at the bottom of your layer palate you will see an Rectangle with a white circle in it and if you hover over it, it will say “Add Layer mask” click that and it will add a layer mask to your top layer. You should now see a white box next to the blue box in your layers panel, The White box is your layers mask. 

Now let’s go back to our color palette and return them to the default values by pressing “D” on our keyboard. Make Black your color ( you can swap easily between white and black by pressing “X”) And grab your brush tool set to a size 200 soft brush and with black as your color, take a swipe across the Blue layer (making sure the White layer mask is highlighted ion your layer panel). What happened? You now see the red layer below. 

By painting black on that layer mask, you “revealed” the layer below. Here s the most important part to take away from this: White Conceals, Black Reveals, the layer below. 

Now switch your color back to white (x) and paint back over it. It conceals the red layer below in as little or as much as you want. 

Now this may also be a very good time to get to understand Brush “Hardness” hardness is how hard or soft the edge of the brush is. Soft would give you a very diffuse edge; Hard would give you a very defined edge. So with your one swipe across, below that change your brush hardness to 100 (by clicking the downward arrow next to your brush size) and take another swipe across your image with black. See the difference in the edge? 

So that is the basics of using a mask. Most times I use a Soft brush so there is a smooth transition between what I want to show and what to conceal but there will be times you need to use a hard edge to clearly define what you want to show, such as cutting out an object. 

But wait, what if I want to go somewhere in between? I want to show the layer below but not fully or I want to apply just a little of the effect layer in some parts and it fully in others? 

There are two ways to accomplish that. The first is to vary the opacity and fill of the brush. Here is a swipe across using 50% Opacity and full on the brush. You can see that if only partially shows the layer below in fact it turns the swipe purple with the mix of red and blue. 

But that’s not my favorite way of doing this even though it may be the preferred method of Photoshop Professionals. 

If White Conceals and Black Reveals, Then what would a shade of gray do? Exactly!

When I want to vary the amount of the layer below to show through I use varying shades of gray to paint over and accomplish this. It gives men great control and is quickly and easily done. The lighter the shade of gray, the less will show through, the closer to black the more that will be revealed. Choosing middle gray accomplished the same thing that the other method above did. 


Just to re-emphasis something I said earlier: If at any point you get White or Black paint instead of just masking on your image. Make sure that the Layer Mask is selected on the Layer Palatte

And that is using layers mask, short and sweet.

Hope that Helps,


Local Adjustments – Dodging, Burning, Layer Masks

Local Adjustments

When we make adjustments to an image we can apply them globally or over the entire image at once, or we can apply them locally or to a small or separate section of the image only. (Please note this is not the tell or end all of how to edit an image nor about using adjustment layers and masks. It’s to get you acquainted with some of the tools you may not have used yet and then can explore further through some of the excellent tutorials online. Let Google be your friend)

As I noted in the review of Nik HDR Efex Pro, it has the ability to add control points within an image and work on that area “Locally” from the rest of the image, which is a very cool thing. Photomatix 4.1 ( 15% Coupon code: theHDRimage ) also has the ability to select parts of the image and choose a different exposure out of the blended images for certain parts of the scene. This again is another but different way to apply local change. I applaud both companies for having these methods but sometimes they still aren’t enough or more to the point, they don’t work as precisely in as small an area as we may need.

This is when it is time to take the image out of the HDR software and into another photo editing program, be that Adobe Photoshop ,  Adobe Photoshop Elements  , Paint Shop Pro or whatever may be your weapon of choice. Let me just make one thing clear; just as we want to get as much right “in Camera” so we have an easier time later in processing, we also want to get as much right “in Tone- Mapping” so that we again have to spend less time fixing things down the road. So this is not a fix for sloppy work in your tone-mapping of the image to begin with.

Let’s just recount what Tone- Mapping is. We are trying to take a very high dynamic range image (Our 32 bit merge file) and fit or compress that information into a medium such as a print or display on our monitors that has a much lower dynamic range. So we need to tone-map or place the different tones within our final image that gives us the perception, of that wide dynamic range. Now we can do that in a realistic, as the eye sees method as I usually choose or we can do it in other methods that have no basis in reality but may be what the artist desires.

So we do our tone-mapping and we get the balance as good as we can get but we still know there are areas we can get better that is beyond what may be capable in the HDR Program. This is where we turn to our other local methods of dodging and burning and also the use of Layer Masks or adjustment brushes along with the use of what may be global adjustment methods such as Levels, Curves and Saturation

The examples I am going to give will be using Photoshop which I still think is the best for finish editing; the methods shown can also be done in most pixel editing programs including Paint shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. One note Elements 9/10 has added true layer masks to the software so what once took a little bit of workaround to archive can now be done straight away.

For those of you that may not be Old School and have worked in a dark room with film negatives and print making. Dodging and Burning were methods used in a dark room to make local adjustments to a print. Dodging was a way to make an area lighter, Burning was the opposite and made the burned areas darker. These methods and names continue with us today but they just are done digitally and also we have a lot more control of the range that these tools cover. We now can be even more precise than the darkroom counterparts.

Before we get into dodging and burning I want to talk about making larger area adjustments and then we will get into the really fine detail. We can also make local adjustments using global adjust tools such as Levels and Curves. These adjustments usually work globally but through the use of layer masks or selection we can apply them only to a smaller area. You always want to make these adjustments on a separate layer because one they give you more control and also don’t harm an pixels of the original image in the process (Note Photoshop CS 5, now puts all adjustments layers in panel because they are that important)

Levels, Curves & Layers Masks

OK, so here is our starting image. It’s a very tough shot, very high dynamic range because even though it is a setting sun it still is quite bright in this spring sky. Now I could have brightened the entire image in tone mapping but doing so I loose the detail I want in the sun. The other problems are: Haloing around the Lifeguard Tower, the sky is too dark overall and we could use a little more detail in the beach area. So with a curves adjustment layer and mask let’s work on the sky first.

In Photoshop go to Layers> Adjustment Layer> Curves. When the curves dialog came up since I knew that blue sky is an almost perfect mid-tone I boosted the curves line up centered at mid-tone. If you don’t know where the tone you want to affect lays on the line, when the curves box opens open click the curves eye dropper on the area you want to adjust and it will show up as a dot on the linear line.

This adjustment  lightened the whole image quite a bit but blew out the sun which I didn’t want to happen so now let’s use a layer mask to apply that curves layer to only the area we want.

The nice part about Adjustment layers is that they already come with a Layer Mask so there is no need to add one. In the default layer mask the mask is filled with white, which means that it fully conceals the layer below. To reveal the layer below we would paint with Black. White to conceal, black to reveal ( Press X to switch between Black & White
















In this case I want to reveal part of the original image around the sun but I don’t want to reveal all of the original darkness, I only want to bring back some of that around the sun, so I choose for my paint a Medium Gray and I painted over the areas of the sun That I wanted to return to the original values or close to that.
As you can see on the mask I painted around the sun and the horizon but I also painted around the tower to take out some of the haloing around it. We’ll clean that up in the next step. So that is how we apply an adjustment to a large area but not the entire image.

Dodge & Burn

Now lets work on making adjustments to even smaller areas with our dodge and burn tool

Let click on our background layer and say “Duplicate Layer” You can rename it Dodge and Burn if that helps you keep things in order.

Selecting our Burn tool from the toolbar, I’ve selected a soft Brush and then in the tool setting panel, I select Highlights and 10%. The nice part about the dodge and burn tools is that we can select the tones of the image we want to work on; Shadows, Mid-Tones and Highlights. Sometimes figuring out which one we want to use is confusing. In fact it’s kind of backwards thinking. Like in this instance you may think since I want to make the bright areas around the tower darker, I would choose shadows, but I really want highlights since that is the pixel value I want to work on and burn or make darker.

Now switching to the Dodge tool, I switch back and forth between Mid-tone and Highlights and brighten areas of the tower, the tower stanchion, and the clouds in the upper part of the image. The nice part about adding these on a separate layer is again, we can vary the whole amount by using the opacity slider on that level or we can again add a mask if necessary

I’m not trying to make any area overly bright, just trying to make it look as I saw it that night and more to the way the eyes see than my camera.

When you are done, My suggestion is that you save the file as a .PSD or a TIFF file (16 bit)  with the layers intact, so if you need to you can always return to the image and readjust things. Only make flattened JPEG’s when you need post to the web or to send to print labs that require JPEG’s

And there you have a finished image, well, almost. From the original image through all the post work, There is some Noise present I would really not like there. So, in the next segment, well look at reducing the noise. Both through workflow and with some of the Noise Reduction software that is available.

If you are a fan of doing your post work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture two non-pixel editing programs, You will want to look to using Adjusment brushes to do eccentually what we have here. It’s just not my favorite way to do it and I feel more comfortable using Photoshop having used it for many years. It’s still my number one choice for post work

Hope that helps,