4 Essential layer masking tools in Photoshop

4 Essential layer masking tools in Photoshop - featuredLayer masking is one of the most essential skills when you are using Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. In this article, I will give you an overview of the most important tools that Photoshop provides for creating layer masks. I will quickly run you through the basics of layer masks before we go on to the more advanced techniques like channel masks and paths. This will give you a set of tools that you can use in many different situations.

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Layer masking basics

4 Essential layer masking tools in Photoshop - Layers stackThe entire concept of layers builds on the ability to make some parts of your layers transparent to let the pixels of the underlying layer(s) shine through. This allows you to combine the contents of the layers in arbitrary ways and mix different image layers and adjustments (e.g. color or contrast adjustments) to create your final image. The only non-destructive way of doing this is to apply layer masks that hide some regions of a layer and reveal others. You can add, change or delete such a layer mask at any time without affecting the actual pixels of the layer.

A layer mask is essentially a grayscale image that is applied to a specific layer: White pixels in the mask let the respective pixel of the layer shine through, a black pixel hides the layer pixel and the shades of gray reveal the layer pixel the more the lighter they are. The general rule of thumb is: White reveals and Black conceals.

Photoshop provides at least a thousand different ways for creating and modifying layer masks, but there are a few basic tools and workflows that need to be in your arsenal so that you can master the most common masking problems that you will encounter.

1. Selections

Let’s start with the most obvious workflow that you most likely already know: We will use one of the many selection tools in Photoshop, create a selection and then turn this selection into a layer mask. Selection tools themselves are a topic that can fill many articles, and we will look at them in greater detail in another post. For now, let’s use the tool that is used most widely: The Quick Selection Tool.

Creating a layer mask with the Quick Selection Tool is simple:

  1. Pick the Quick Selection Tool from the toolbar.
  2. Choose an appropriate brush size: Hold down the alt key, right-click on the image and drag the mouse to change the Size setting
  3. Brush on the areas of the image that you would like to reveal in the final layer mask. The Quick Selection Tool will turn your strokes into a selection and adapt it as you go.
  4. Trim the selection (optional): While you brush, use the shift key to add to the selection and the alt key to remove parts from the selection. Do this until the selection encloses the parts that you want.
  5. When you’re done, create a new adjustment layer. A mask will automatically be created from the selection and added to the new layer.

The details of creating the selection vary depending on the selection tool you are using, but the basic workflow remains the same: You create and modify the selection until you’re happy with it, and then you turn it into a layer mask. In the process above, I assumed that you want to create the mask to apply a selective adjustment to only the parts that you select. But you can also add the new mask to any existing layer by pressing the Add layer mask button at the bottom of the Layers palette.

The Brush Tool

Another layer masking technique that is used often is to use the Brush Tool with White, Black or Gray color and brush directly on the mask. Especially if you have a graphics tablet, this can be a quick and powerful technique that gives you a lot of control:

  1. Create a new adjustment layer with the adjustment you want to apply. This will probably affect the rest of the image in undesirable ways, but that’s what the mask will take care of.
  2. Create a new layer mask on that adjustment layer by clicking the Add layer mask button at the bottom of the Layers palette. Hold down the alt key while you click the button to create a black layer mask (hide all the pixels of the underlying layer).
  3. Select the layer mask by clicking on its icon in the Layers palette.
  4. Choose the Brush Tool from the toolbar.
  5. Choose an appropriate brush size (depending on the size of the areas you want to change), and choose the hardness of the brush accordingly. Most often, you will go for a very soft brush to create nice soft transitions between the parts that are revealed (White) and the parts that are hidden (Black).
  6. Set the Flow parameter of the Brush Tool to a low value to allow the paint to build up as you brush over the same areas multiple times. This gives you fine control over the transparency of the mask.
  7. Now brush gently and repeatedly with White color over the parts that you want to reveal until you’re happy with the result.

Tip: While you are brushing, look at the image (not the mask view that you can invoke by alt-clicking on the mask icon) to control and verify the final result.


While selections and the brush are used widely, the Channels palette is less well-known for its abilities to generate complex masks. In RGB mode, your image is composed of a Red, a Green and a Blue channel. In the Channels palette, each of these is represented by an Alpha Channel (essentially a layer mask) that hides and reveals the correct amounts of each of these colors such that their combination results in the final image.

You can create a new layer mask from any of these channels and modify it further as you wish (e.g. by using the Brush Tool). Here’s how you do this:

  1. Switch the Channels palette (choose Window > Channels if it is not visible).
  2. Choose the channel that fits your needs best. You can inspect each channel by clicking on its icon. You will note that for a color image, the differences between the channels can be huge.
  3. To turn a channel into a selection, ctrl-click on the channel icon. Do not forget to click on the RGB channel (top-most) again after that to make the regular image visible again.
  4. Go back to the Layers palette and create a new adjustment layer. The selection you loaded from the channel will automatically be turned into a mask. To trun a mask for the light areas into a mask for the darks, select the mask icon and press ctrl-I to invert it.
  5. Tweak the adjustment according to your needs.

Each mask that you create that way reveals the parts that are bright and hide the ones that are dark in the respective channel. Therefore this is a great way of adding adjustments to the bright tones of your image without touching the dark tones. As indicated in step 4, the opposite becomes true when you invert the mask.

Tip: You can also ctrl-click on the RGB channel (combination of the three component channels) in the same way to turn the combined brightness information of the image into a mask.

These are the fundamental basics of luminosity masking, a technique that is widely used (e.g. among landscape photographers) to work on the different tonal ranges (pixels in a certain brightness range) separately.


If you are trying to create a precise mask for an object in your image that has sharp edges (cars, statues, buildings etc.), paths are the most effective tool. To create a path, you use the Pen Tool and trace around the edges of the object until you can close the path. You can then create a selection from that path and turn it into a mask. The big advantage of the paths compared with all the other masking tools is that they are not based on pixels. Thus, they can be scaled without ever getting pixilated. Moreover, you can change a path at any time without having to push pixels around.

Here’s how you create a path and turn it into a mask:

  1. Pick the Pen Tool from the toolbar.
  2. Zoom in close and click on your image to create anchor points that define where the path is going to go. To create a curvature, click and drag the mouse. This will create direction lines and points that define the curvature of the path.
  3. To create a corner point, alt-click on the point.
  4. To close the path, click on the initial anchor point you created.
  5. To modify a path, hold down the ctrl key, click on any anchor point or direction point and drag until you’re happy.
  6. To turn the path into a selection, go to the Paths palette (Window > Paths).
  7. Select the path you have just created by clicking on it. In most cases, it will be called Work Path.
  8. Click on the Load path as selection button at the bottom of the Paths palette.
  9. Go back to the Layers palette, and add the desired adjustment layer (assuming that you are going after a selective adjustment of your image as we do in the example).
  10. Tweak your adjustment as needed.

Tip: Paths can be really useful if you are working, for example, on product photos, vehicle shots or architecture shots. All these types of photos depict objects with sharp edges that can be nicely selected with a path. Do not use paths if you are trying to create a mask for fuzzy objects like hair, fur or a tree. Such objects are way too complex and you would need ages to create the mask.


The ability to create complex layer masks quickly and precisely is the most fundamental Photoshop skill that divides amateurs and professionals. When a professional retoucher works on a photo, they will typically spend a lot of their time creating layer masks to separate the different areas from each other and be able to apply targeted adjustments to each of them.

In this article, I gave you an overview of the range of techniques that you need to master in order to step up your Photoshop skills to the next level. Obviously, we could only scratch the surface here as the possibilities and the range of different techniques are endless.

Mask It Like a Pro! - PCS Pro Video CourseIf you want to know more, check out the PCS Pro Video Course Mask It Like a Pro! It contains 6 hours of video on layer masking and covers all the different techniques (many more than we cover here) in detail. In the 21 lessons of this course, you will learn this art from the ground up all the way to the most advanced techniques. You can inspect and work with all of the 20+ resources of the course, including images, Photoshop projects (all masks included), Photoshop actions and even a brand new Photoshop masking extension. All of this is tightly integrated with the course through our unique PCS Player technology that provides you with a comprehensive learning environment.

At the end of the course, you will be able to mask everything that comes your way. Check out the course today. If you want to try the PCS Video system before you buy a course, download our Free Trial Course now.

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8 replies
  1. Bob Wilson
    Bob Wilson says:

    I’m confused as elements does not have some of the options. Please ID the masking option in Elements 11

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Bob,

      that is correct. PSE does not have channels and paths. But you can still create masks through other means (selections, brush etc.), and layer masks are still a very important concept in PSE as they allow for selective editing. That’s what I was referring too at the beginning of the article.


  2. Patrick Warnshuis
    Patrick Warnshuis says:

    I really do mean this constructively.
    The visuals were of no use whatsoever. They merely went flashing by without explaining how they were achieved. Not even what tool was used.
    THe text seemed to merely state you were doing and not .
    With respect for your intent and effort.

    • farbspiel
      farbspiel says:

      Hi Patrick,

      Well, the visuals illustrate the steps given in every section. So you have to consume them together with the bullet lists below them. To make this clearer, the respective step is also given on the slide.

      I hope that makes it clear.



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