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The Ultimate Guide to Mastering Photoshop Masks for Beginners

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What You'll Be Creating

In this ultimate guide to Photoshop masks for beginners, you'll learn everything you need to know to get started with using the Photoshop masks. I will explain everything in so much detail that everyone can learn it, even those who have just opened Photoshop for the first time.

Masks are one of the most important Photoshop features, and I'll make sure you find out why in this article. There are two primary types of masks in Photoshop:

  • Layer Masks
  • Clipping Masks

What Are Layer Masks?

Layer masks are masks you can use to change the transparency of the very specific area of the layer. You might be wondering why you should use layer masks if you can use the Eraser Tool for the same thing.

When you use the Eraser Tool, you are making destructive changes to the original layer that are permanent. With layer masks, you can always refine them to re-adjust the layer transparency, or you can delete them and the layer will have the original look again. When using layer masks, the original layer always stays untouched. You can check out the article below for a more detailed comparison of layer masks and the Eraser Tool.

How Do Layer Masks Work?

Once you add the default layer mask to the layer, there won't be any changes made to the layer yet. The layer mask will be filled with white, and in this case, the layer transparency stays untouched. The layer will look the same as without a layer mask. However, once you start brushing with a black brush onto the layer mask, you'll notice that wherever you brush, the layer gets removed.

The color you use to brush onto the layer mask determines the transparency of the area where you brush. Where you have a white color in the layer mask, the layer opacity will be 100%, and where you have a black color in the layer mask, the layer opacity will be 0%. Where you have different shades of gray, the opacity will be 0-100%, so where you have a 50% gray color, the layer opacity will be 50% in that area.

In the image below, you can see from the Layers panel that all three ellipses are black. However, the layer masks are changing the transparency of the ellipses so that they all appear with different opacity. The first ellipse layer mask is filled with white, and the ellipse is visible at 100% opacity. The second ellipse layer mask is filled with 50% gray, and the ellipse is visible at 50% opacity. Lastly, the third ellipse layer mask is filled with 10% brightness gray, and the ellipse is visible at 10% opacity. 

Filling layer masks with different colors

When to Use Layer Masks

As explained in the previous section, layer masks can make transparency changes of very specific areas of the layer that can always and at any moment be refined. Whenever you work on adjusting the layer transparency and might need this possibility, layer masks are the way to go.

You might need to remove an area from the layer, combine and blend several photos, isolate the subject from the background, or literally make any other transparency change. Being able to refine the changes at any time makes layer masks almost always a preferable option. 

Here are some of my tutorials where I used layer masks in the process of creating a photo effect:

How to Use Layer Masks

You can add a layer mask to a layer in many different ways. The easiest and quickest way to add a layer mask to a layer is to select the layer you want, and click on the mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This way, you will add a default white color filled layer mask to the layer. The other way of adding a layer mask to the layer is to select the layer you want, go to Layer > Layer Mask, and from there choose one of the following options:

  • Reveal All
  • Hide All
  • Reveal Selection
  • Hide Selection
  • From Transparency

You'll also find some layer mask options that you can choose from once you add a layer mask to the layer:

  • Delete
  • Apply
  • Enable
  • Unlink

Reveal All

The Reveal All option will add a white color filled layer mask that reveals the complete layer and doesn't affect the layer transparency if not further refined.

Adding reveal all layer mask

Hide All

The Hide All option will add a black color filled layer mask that will hide the complete layer.

Adding hide all layer mask

Reveal Selection

The Reveal Selection option will add a layer mask that is filled with white inside the selection area and with black outside the selection area. The selection area will be revealed, while the remaining area will be hidden. You need to have an active selection in order for this option to be available.

Adding reveal selection layer mask
Here I have made a selection of the graphic element of the logo before using this option to add a layer mask.

Hide Selection

The Hide Selection option will add a layer mask that is filled with black inside the selection area and with white outside the selection area. The selection area will be hidden, while the remaining area will be revealed. This option is the opposite of the previous option.

Adding hide selection layer mask
Here I have used the same selection as with the previous option before using this option to add a layer mask.

From Transparency

The From Transparency option will add a layer mask that is filled with white where the layer has visible pixels and with black where the layer doesn't have visible pixels. The layer will still look the same, but the empty area of the layer will be filled with white.

Adding from transparency layer mask

Delete

The Delete option will delete the current layer mask of the layer. You can also delete it as you Right-click on the layer mask in the Layers panel and choose Delete Layer Mask. The layer will still look the same as before you added a layer mask.

Deleting layer mask

Apply

The Apply option will also delete the layer mask but with the difference that the layer mask is going to be applied to the layer. The layer will look the same as with the layer mask, but the layer mask will be deleted and you won't be able to refine it.

You can also apply the layer mask as you Right-click on the layer mask in the Layers panel and choose Apply Layer Mask. I'm going to demonstrate this option with a quick example below:

Step 1

Make a selection of an area of the layer—feel free to use any selection tools that you like.

Making selection

Step 2

Now go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection to add a layer mask that hides the selected area of the layer.

Adding hide selection layer mask

Step 3

Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Apply.

Applying layer mask
As you can see from the Layers panel, the layer mask is deleted and the area we hid using it is also removed. Now you can add a new layer mask if you want to further adjust the layer transparency.

Disable

The Disable option will temporarily disable the layer mask, and you can enable it again at any time from the same menu. You can also disable and enable the layer mask as you Shift-click on the layer mask in the Layers panel.

Disabling layer mask
As you can see from the Layers panel, here I have added a layer mask that hides the complete layer. However, as the layer mask is disabled, the layer is completely visible.

Unlink

The Unlink option will unlink the layer and a layer mask, and you can always link them again from the same menu. You can also unlink and link a layer and a layer mask by clicking on the link icon between them in the Layers panel.

When you add a layer mask, it will be linked with a layer by default. When they are linked, if you move, transform or apply any filters to the layer or a layer mask, they will both be affected by those changes.

When they are unlinked, they work completely separately. You can move, transform or apply a filter to both of them separately. I'm going to demonstrate this option with a quick example below:

Step 1

Make a selection of the specific area of the layer—feel free to use any selection tools that you like.

Making selection

Step 2

Now go to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection to add a layer mask that reveals the selected area of the layer.

Adding reveal selection layer mask

Step 3

Go to Layer > Layer Mask > Unlink to unlink the layer and layer mask. Then, select the layer mask, choose the Move Tool (V), and drag the layer mask where you want to reveal the other area of the layer.

Moving layer mask

More Layer Mask Options

There are a few more layer mask options, like:

  • Density
  • Feather
  • Mask Options
  • Select and Mask

Density

The Density option is like a layer mask opacity. As you lower the density, the layer mask opacity is lowered as well. When you set the Density to 0%, the layer mask becoming filled with white color won't make any difference to the layer. I'm going to demonstrate this option with a quick example below:

Step 1

Add any layer mask that you like—it's just important that the layer mask hides an area of the layer so that you'll notice the Density difference once we make it.

Adding reveal selection layer mask

Step 2

Go to Window > Properties and, in the Properties panel, set the Density to 50%.

Changing layer mask density
As you can see from the Layers panel, the area of the layer mask that was filled with black has the opacity reduced now to 50%, so the area of the layer that was completely removed is now visible at 50% opacity.

Feather

The Feather option can be used to smooth the edges of the layer mask. It looks similar to adding the Gaussian Blur filter to the layer mask. I'm going to keep working on the previous example. Go to Window > Properties and, in the Properties panel, set the Feather to 50 px.

Changing layer mask feather
As you can see from the Layers panel, the layer mask is feather and the transition is now smoother.

Mask Options

The Mask Options option gives you the option to adjust the display of the layer mask. To display the layer mask, Shift-Alt-click on the layer mask in the Layers panel.

Displaying layer mask
These are the default display settings of the layer mask.

Select and Mask

This Select and Mask option gives you advanced mask adjusting options. Here are some of my tutorials where I used this option to refine the layer mask:

What Are Clipping Masks?

Clipping masks are masks that can be used for creating similar effects to those created with layer masks. However, they work in a completely different way. The use of clipping masks requires at least two layers. Instead of using the black and white values to determine the opacity of the layer, a clipping mask uses one layer to determine the transparency of another. 

Clipping masks and layer masks can be used together as well. Here is a tutorial where I used both layer masks and clipping masks:

How Do Clipping Masks Work?

As mentioned, a clipping mask works by using one layer to determine the transparency of another. You need at least two layers to use a clipping mask, and they must be positioned one below the other in the Layers panel. The top layer will use the transparency of the layer below.

The layers must be in the same group if there are any layer groups. Also, a layer group can't create a clipping mask over a layer, but a layer can create a clipping mask over a layer group.

Below, I have drawn three ellipses. They are all black in color, but with different opacities. The first ellipse has 100% opacity, the second one has 50% opacity, and the last one has 10% opacity. They are placed inside a folder so the text can create a clipping mask over all three ellipses at once. As you can see, the text is visible only over the ellipses' area and has a transparency depending on the opacity of the ellipses.

Creating clipping mask

When to Use Clipping Masks

Clipping masks are the perfect choice when you have two layers that you want to combine by making one layer have the transparency of another. Here are some tutorials where I have used clipping masks to create various photo effects:

How to Use Clipping Masks

To add a clipping mask, you need to select the layer and go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask. You can also create a clipping mask by pressing Control-Alt-G. Now we are going to go through a quick example.

Step 1

Let's say you have added some text over the texture and you want the texture to appear over the text only.

Adding text over texture

Step 2

Now drag the Text layer below the Texture layer in the Layers panel.

Arranging layers

Step 3

Press Control-Alt-G on your keyboard to create a clipping mask.

Creatng clipping mask

What Are Vector Masks?

Vector masks are very similar to layer masks. The main difference is that layer masks are pixel based, while vector masks are vector or path based and resolution independent.

When you are refining a layer mask, you usually use the selection tools or the Brush Tool. With a vector mask, you'll be using the Pen Tool and different shape tools. You can use both layer and vector masks on the same layer, and also you can convert a vector mask to a layer mask by rasterizing it.

Considering that vector masks don't lose their quality when transformed, they are best used when you might need to transform the layer or its mask in your work.

To add a vector mask, select the layer, go to Layer > Vector Mask, and from there choose one of the following options:

  • Reveal All
  • Hide All
  • Current Path

You'll also find some layer mask options that you can choose from once you've added a layer mask to the layer:

  • Delete
  • Enable
  • Link

These options work the same as the options of the layer masks. There are just a few things that are different. Vector masks don't have the Reveal Selection, Hide Selection and Apply options, but they have the Current Path option, which layer masks don't have. Here's an article that is all about vector masks:

You Made It!

We have come to the end of this article. You should now know everything you need to know to get started with using Photoshop masks and to bring your projects to a completely new level! If you want to start practising right away, here's a good start:


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