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Layer Masks

If there actually were awards for the most flexible Photoshop method, layer masks would win hands-down (and probably be inducted into the Flexibility Hall of Fame). Layer masks offer the highest level of control and flexibility imaginable, or, said another way, use layer masks whenever possible! Simply stated, layer masks hide portions of a layer rather than deleting any pixels, which means that you can always get the contents of the layer back.

The concept of a layer mask is simple: paint with black to hide portions of a layer; paint with white (or leave areas white) to show those areas.

To fully understand the benefits of using layer masks, consider the following two methods. First, I made a feathered selection and dragged it into my main document.


It's a nice effect, but without much room to play. For example, if I decide that I want to reveal more of the photo I dragged over, I can't, since I only dragged the selected area. I'd have to delete the layer, make a larger selection and drag it over.

Here's how much easier it can be with a layer mask. This time I drag the entire photo over—without selecting anything first. Then I click on the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers palette.

Now I can hide any areas I don't want—note the word hide versus delete—by painting with black. If I use a soft-edged brush, I can create the same effect as a feathered selection, but with one very important difference.

If I decide I need to reveal more of the layer, I simply switch my Foreground color to white and “paint” the hidden area back in. Remember, the black areas in the mask are hiding those portions of the layer; the white areas are visible.

Here's another huge advantage of layer masks: painting with gray. While painting with black hides the layer and painting with white shows the layer, painting with gray makes the layer somewhat transparent.


Press X to switch between black and white; use the bracket keys to change the brush size: Left bracket ([) makes the brush size smaller, Right bracket (]) makes it larger.

Here are two examples of how you can use a layer mask to paste one photo inside another, and to make it look like one layer is “behind” the other.

Layer Masks: Example One

In this first example, I used the Polygonal Lasso tool to make a selection of the sign. (I didn't worry about his hands—I can fix that later.)

Then I switched to another photo, Selected All, and copied. I returned to the photo of the man with the sign and from the Edit menu, chose Paste Into (not Paste, but Paste Into). A few things happened when I did that: a new layer was created, and a layer mask was created based on my selection; the layer and its mask were not linked.

I pressed Command-T (PC: Control-T) for Free Transform, and then pressed Command-0 (zero) (PC: Control-0) so that I could see the transformation handles.


I scaled the photo down to fit (while pressing the Shift key) and rotated it to match up with the angle of the sign. Then I pressed Enter to lock in my transformation.

Then I had to deal with the areas where the pasted image covered up his fingers. I hid the pasted photo by clicking on its Eye icon and used the Lasso tool (L) to make a selection around his fingers.

Then I made the pasted layer visible again and clicked on the layer mask thumbnail to make sure it was active. Finally, I filled the selection with black by pressing Option-Delete (PC: Alt-Backspace).

Note that the layer and its mask are not linked (this happens automatically when you use Paste Into). This allows me to reposition the pasted image while the mask “stays put.”

Layer Masks: Example Two

In this example I added a layer mask to a Type layer and painted with black to hide portions of the text, creating the illusion that it was behind the tower.


Of course the type is still editable, as you can see here:

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