Introduction to Layer Masks in Photoshop

Those new to editing often find layer masks in Photoshop very confusing and difficult to learn. When I first encountered masks it took me several months before I understood what was happening. Most of the information available was complicated and very unhelpful. But once I understood some basic principles, everything seemed to click into place for me. In this introduction to layer masks in Photoshop I will share the keys that helped unlock the subject for me.

What I really wish someone had explained to me are the basics of how layer masks work and where I can find them in Photoshop. If you find the subject confusing, watch the video below then read the notes that follow.


Layer Masks in Photoshop Video

Important Points About Photoshop Layer Masks

The key points from the video are:

  • When working with Layer Masks in Photoshop, each Layer adds to the final image. Think of layers as being images that blend together to produce a finished image.
  • Sometimes you don’t want the entire contents of a layer to be visible. This is where a Photoshop layer mask can help. Imagine being able to place a piece of card over part of the layer you don't want to see so that it’s hidden in the image.
  • When you add layers to an image there will usually be a layer mask attached to it. The layer mask is the same size and shape as the layer it’s attached to. Think of it as a transparent sheet that covers the layer. You can then use the Photoshop tools to draw on the layer mask and hide some of the content of the layer. It’s just like placing a piece of card over part of the layer.
  • Layer masks are white by default. Where you see white on a layer mask it allows that part of the layer to be visible in the image. If the entire layer mask is white, the whole of the layer is visible.
  • Painting with black on a layer mask will hide that area of the layer. Painting with white will reveal it. Use the rhyme “black conceals and white reveals” to help you remember this.
  • Painting with grey, will partially hide the area depending on how dark or light the grey is. The darker the shade of grey, the more it will hide the layer. Lighter shades will reveal more of the layer.

Keep It Simple

This example is very simple but the principles behind Photoshop Layer Masks are always the same. It doesn’t matter if you create a luminosity mask or a channel mask, the mask is always a black and white image. Understanding these basics will help you become much more effective when masking in photoshop.

You can find a more complex masking example in this tutorial where we look at blending images together with Photoshop layer masks. If you're still not feeling entirely comfortable with layer masks, read my tutorial Understanding Photoshop Layer Masks. It should help.


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