Layer masks in Photoshop allow us to non-destructively hide and show selective portions of our image. This article discuss about working with Layer masks in Adobe Photoshop.

Creating Mask

To create a elliptical mask,

  • Tap m key and select Elliptical Marquee Tool. It’s going to be easier to drag out this marquee if we show our rulers.
  • Go to the View menu and then choose Show Rulers.
  • Drag guide out of the ruler as desired.
  • Start dragging elliptical marquee from the crosshairs. When I drag into the image area, it’s going to create a selection that is as circular.
  • Now release the cursor. We have our selection.
  • Then from the Layer menu, choose Layer Mask. And then select Reveal All or Hide all. Reveal or Hide the selection or create a mask from transparency.
  • To make mask out of the elliptical selection, choose Reveal Selection.
  • It will just show the selected portion of the layer.
Selecting Guide in Adobe Photoshop

Below image shows the elliptical mask as we discussed above.

Elliptical mask using Guides. Working With Layer Masks In Adobe Photoshop.
Figure 1: Elliptical mask using Guides

Mask Configuration

In order to soften the mask edge,

  • Select the mask by clicking in Layer panel.
  • If I want to see just the mask, down the option key on the Mac or the Alt key on Windows and click.
  • Move the feather slider right in the properties panel, we can start seeing the softening of the edge.

If I wanted to reposition the layer or the mask, select the move tool. And then click and drag around. By default the layer and the mask are going to move together. Click on the link icon (as shown below) that links together the mask and the photograph. By unlinking this, if the mask is selected, I can now move the mask separately from the image.

Layer mask(left) and it properties(right)
Layer mask(left) and it properties(right)

Clipping Mask

We can also add another layer within the elliptical mask which we created above. To add another layer within the elliptical mask, we don’t need to create a mask. Instead we can create clipping group i.e.

  • Go to Layer menu choose Create Clipping Mask.
  • When I create the clipping mask, Photoshop will only display the content as shown below.
  • A downward pointing triangle in the Layer panel confirms that it is a clipping mask. Also the name of a layer at the base of the clipping mask is underlined.
  • Using the move tool, we reposition the layers.
Clipping Mask and its detail in Layer panel
Clipping Mask and its detail in Layer panel

Reveal All Mask

Now I do want to mask the boundary and don’t want this sharp line as shown in the below image.

  • Got to Layer menu and choose Layer mask, and select Reveal All. This is going to add a blank white mask.
  • Switch to the brush tool by tapping the B key.
  • And you’ll notice that the mask is white. Wherever the mask is white, we can see as shown in Figure 1. So I need to exchange foreground and background color. Tap the X key so that now I’m painting with black and with a large brush.
  • I can paint across the boundary to hide that harsh line.
Layer mask showing Reveal All mask.

I think that one of the most difficult things when you’re learning layer masks in Photoshop is just remembering to target the mask when you want to work on the mask and target the layer when you want to work on the layer. But if you remember that where the mask is white, you’re going to be able to see the information on the layer and wherever the mask is black, it’s going to hide the information.

Gradient Mask

In order to achieve the effect where one photograph slowly blends into another, we’re going to use the gradient tool to draw in a layer mask.

  • Open image having two layers.
  • Add the layer mask using bottom of the layers panel as shown below.
  • Then I’ll tap the G key to select the gradient tool.
  • Tap the D key in order to reset the foreground and background colors.
  • Now drag a linear gradient across the mask. Hold down the shift key in order to constrain it to a horizontal gradient. Length of the gradient is going to determine the transitional area. If I drag a very short gradient, then that transitional area will be very short.
  • Now the selected mask and gradient is applied.
Gradient Mask along with Layers Panel
Gradient Mask along with Layers Panel

If I ever want to view the mask, I can hold down the option key on Mac or the alt key on Windows and click on the mask to view it. If I ever want to temporarily disable the mask, I’ll hold down the shift key and click on the mask. I’ll click again in order to enable it.