Photoshop For Beginners: Understanding Layer Masks

Photoshop For Beginners: Understanding Layer Masks

This article is part of a series of tutorials thought for Photoshop beginners. I’ll explain in depth those features that can result difficult to understand for a newbie. In the previous article I’ve explained the core of Photoshop: layers and their functionality.

Today I will show you one of the most powerful Photoshop tool: layer masks. They can result difficult to use for a beginner, but once understood how they work, you won’t need the Eraser tool anymore. Let’s start!

What are layer masks?

As I often write, one of the most powerful Photoshop features is the possibility to modify the same object again and again and, if you’re not satisfied, go back and return to the original image. I’m not speaking about the history timeline (ctrl+Z), that allow you to eliminate the last steps, but of some functionalities that allow you to have full control on your layers at any time during your workflow. Layer masks represent one of these functionalities.

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I prefer the practical approach so download this free image of a lion and open it in Photoshop. Double-click on the thumbnail of the image in the layers window to unlock it.

Why do I have to unlock the background layer? By unlocking the background layer, you are free to move it over the canvas. Grab the move tool (V) and move the lion layer: you will see the transparent background, while if you lock it there’s no way to move it. Also you can’t apply a layer mask if the layer is locked.

unlock the background layer

Now let’s create the layer mask. Simply click the “add layer mask” button which is at the bottom of the layers window. A white rectangle will appear near the lion thumbnail layer. This white rectangle represents the layer mask.

create the layer mask

Let’s see the basic use of the mask: set black as foreground color and grab the brush tool (B). In my case I’ve chosen a 300px default round brush. Click a couple of times over the lion face:

click twice using the brush tool

As you may have noticed, the black brush, combined with the mask, works like the eraser tool. There are two spots over the mask thumbnail, representing the area eliminated with the brush tool. So where’s the power of the mask?

Switch the foreground color from black to white. With the mask still selected (not the layer thumbnail, but the mask. Make attention!) paint over one of the 2 spots. Ta-daa! Pixels will reappear. So here is the power of masks: you “mask” pixels, don’t eliminate them. If you mask pixels, you can replace them at any time, while if you eliminate them you lose them.

How the layer masks works:
  • Black: eliminate pixels
  • White: replace pixels
  • Grayscale colors: reduce pixel opacity

repair using the white brush

Let’s suppose you’re working on a complex composition with lots of layers. At the end of the process you decide that you’ve erased too much of an object. How to repair? If you have used the eraser tool there’s no way, while if you used a layer mask, simply grab a white brush and modify the image until you’re satisfied.

So here is a basic definition: the layer mask is a tool that allow you to eliminate and replace pixels of a layer at any time.

Exercise 1: create the til-shift photography effect using masks

Download this beautiful photo of Prague and open it in Photoshop.

Prague photo

Duplicate the layer by pressing Ctrl+J (or go to Layer>Duplicate layer).

duplicate layer

Now go to filter>Blur>Gaussian blur and enter a value around 10px:

gaussian blur

At this point we have two layer: the bottom one which is the original layer, and the upper one which is blurred. To create the til-shift effect we have to remove the blurred effect from a specific area – the one you want to emphasize. So create a layer mask:

create a layer mask

Grab a black soft brush (reduce hardness to 0%) and start painting over the bridge. Painting over the mask using a black brush we remove that area. In this way an area of the below layer will reappear:

apply the black brush

Here is the til-shift effect! In case you’re not satisfied with the result. you can always use the white brush to replace the pixels.

til-shift photo effect

Exercise 2: working with gradients

There’s another tool that can be used combined with layers masks: the Gradient tool (G). Download this picture of a flower and open it in Photoshop.

flower picture

Duplicate the flower’s layer (ctrl+J) and desaturate it by going to Image>Adjustments>Desaturate.

desaturate the flower

Create a layer mask. Set black as foreground color and white as background. Then grab the gradient tool (G), click on the left edge of the canvas, drag till the right one and release. The final result gently goes from the colored area (eliminated from the top layer using the gradient tool) to the black/white one.

This technique, that can result not so useful, is often used in web and icon design to create gradients going from white to transparent.

gradient applied

Exercise 3: Masks and selections

Masks can work as separate layers because what you make on them won’t affect directly the layer masked, but only the mask. Another powerful feature derives from the combination between masks and selections.

Download this beautiful portrait of a woman and open it in Photoshop.

Unlock the background layer. Grab the Polygonal lasso tool and make a rough selection of the face:

polygonal lasso tool

Press the layer mask button. The face will be isolated from the background.

Tip: if you want to eliminate the selection using masks, instead of isolate it, hold down “alt” on your keyboard while pressing the mask button.

face isolated

After desaturated the lady’s face by pressing shift+ctrl+U, create a new layer and move it below the lady’s one. Grab the Paint bucket tool and fill the layer with white.

create the background

Select the lady’s layer and fo to filter>Artistic>Dry brush and enter the following settings:

  • Brush size: 7
  • Brush detail: 5
  • Texture: 1

Press OK to apply the filter:

dry brush filter

Now select the mask thumbnail. We will play a bit with face contours using dry paint brushes. You can download our Dry Paint strokes brushes here.  Once obtained the .abr file, grab the brush tool (B), then in the tool options bar (on top) open the brush window and, once opened, click on the little arrow on top-right. In the menu that appears select “load brushes”. Here select the .abr file and load it.

load a brush set

With black as foreground color and the mask still selected, grab a brush from the new set and paint over the outline of lady’s face.

Here is my result:

Finally create a third layer and put it between the lady’s one and the background. Grab the brush tool and paint around the lady’s face. This time dry paint strokes won’t be used to eliminate some areas from lady’s face, but to enhance it.

And here is the nice result of this brief tutorial:

final result

I hope you have understood how masks work following these brief tutorials. I’m going to publish other tutorials for beginners, so stay tuned! In case you have suggestions on a specific Photoshop feature you want to learn, use the comments below.

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(+add yours)
  1. mala

    Thank you.Its good for me.

  2. It is well done and helpfull for photoshop begginer..!!! Nice!

  3. I love the til-shift effect! Thanks!

  4. Vedderwing

    Will you do a tutorial on how to get rid of jagged edges around images and logos when they are exported into other applications such as Dreamweaver. I would really appreciate it.

    Thank you for explaining the use of layer masks. I am trying to teach myself Photoshop and this helped me alot.

  5. Thanks. You made this very easy to understand. Very helpful.

  6. Hi folks!
    I’m glad to hear from you positive feedbacks. I’ll work soon on new Photoshop features.

    @Vedderwing We are working o new site templates tutorials so stay tuned ;-)

  7. Very helpful tutorial. I’ve been using PS for so long but never knew what masks do. I’ll definitely be using masks instead of deleting from now on.

  8. Finally,I’ve been using photoshop for years and could never be bothered figuring out what layer masks do. Thanks man.:)

  9. Thank you so much for a very detailed instruction on how to use layer masks and the tools to combine them. Let me try to combine first the Gradient tool since it looks easy, still have a lot to learn in Photoshop.

  10. Victor


  11. Good tutorial ! Thank you

  12. Brilliant post – working with layers is a must in Photoshop as you show well in the tutorial. I liked the mask and gradient examples also – very effect and useful. Look forward to your future postings – thanks.

  13. Stacy

    Thank you!! I’ve been looking for a good basic tutorial on layer masks. I would also love to see a post on creating graphics to go with blog posts (or on the sidebar like your awesome Photoshop for beginners one)… One way to do it would be to go to some really popular design blogs and teach people how to do their specific type of image….certain blogs use the same type of graphic, just changing the actual image used and applying the same effects to it. .. I think that makes sense…lol. Anyway, thanks again!

  14. great steps…thanks for sharing this….

  15. useful for beginners and some tips are new for professionals. thanks

  16. begginer

    thanks for your tutorial,I have some drawing and I want to change the colore and make them symmetrical ,any idea or what should I learn thanks

  17. susan ramos

    awesome tutorial – thanks so much – looking forward to seeing more!

  18. nikki peacock

    Thankyou so much, even i can understand this and can’t wait to get started on my own stuff!

  19. loulou

    thanks alot that’s very useful …but i kinda have a problem, the white brush doesn’t restore anything , it does nothing, though it’s documented in the history panel, and the white fil works , but the brush doessn’t i dunno why, & i’m pretty sure i was on the mask not the layer, plz reply if u can help :)
    thanks alot again :D

  20. loulou

    heeey thanks alot , very useful….
    but the white brush doesn’t seem to work , it doesn’t restore the pixels back it does nothing, though it’s mentioned in the history panel ”brush” but i can’t see the effect at all, & i’m sure i was on the mask not the layer, i dunno what to do , plz help if u can :D:D
    thanks again

  21. Mil Gracias! Cada vez me encanta mas esta pagina! :)

  22. Isabel

    Thank you for that very clear tutorial.I took a paying one and could not understand, found that one and…I can do layers in photoshop now!I’m grateful!

  23. Nicely written tutorial! I’ve been using Photoshop for more than five years already and only now did I understand layer masks. Thank you! :)

  24. Sara

    Thank you, I’m a photoshop noob and this has been very helpful! finally learned how to use masks :)) Thank u Sebastiano :)

  25. minmin

    i like useful for basic leaner. Thank you..

  26. minmin

    i like it. These are so useful for basic learner. Thank you…

  27. All you suck this is a nasty ass toutorial!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. cj

    hi, i hope you can help me. i was advised to use layer mask so I can crop a picture into a circle. but what i am trying to achieve is a full circle image without the square background. any idea how to do that?

  29. Daisy

    Thanks for such an easy to understsnd tutorial for begginers as this is very helpful in my learning process these days..hope 2 learn from u a lot more.

  30. I had a look at this site because the title said it was for beginners which I completely am. I tried everything you said to the letter, several times, but always got a different result than you for each one. I must have been doing something wrong but I am still none the wiser, Others seem to have found this site very useful so that’s good but I will have to search other sites to see if they can be of some use. If others found it useful I must be less than a beginner, whatever that is. Thanks for trying to be helpful anyway.

  31. Mike B

    This was extremely helpful!

    Thank you,

  32. Phil

    The lion is no longer available so I used my own image. the process worked except when I used the white brush the checkerboard pattern still shows through, maybe 20% on the eyes. The Gaussian blur project worked well, so I came away with something.

  33. SG

    Brilliant ! Easy to follow !
    Thank you so much !

  34. elvis

    great work! keep it up!

  35. It helpfull for photoshop begginer..!!! Nice!

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  37. You explained layer masks beautifully. I never got it but the samples with your explanation was perfect for a new photoshop user. This is the very basics and I just now got it!!
    Thank you!!
    Crazy Grandma Laura

  38. Useful tutorial. It will be helpful if you show the lady’s photo after the mask is applied.

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  41. srsh

    thank u!!!!its very use full n i like tilt shift effect

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  46. Silvia

    Finally, a good tutorial! I will bookmark webgraphics.

  47. Michael

    step 1

    download this image

    file not found


  48. As an amateur photographer I don’t see why I should use layer masks. I can’t tell any difference between before & after pictures. I went to a session last night on it and a lot was said on how to use it, but not why. I use Photoshop to edit my pictures, like cropping, enlarging, changing saturation, etc., but don’t see the significance of layer masks. I have a Canon 70 D & try to take good pictures to minimize editing later. Is it more for images posted on the web or am I missing something here? I have a book on PS and a lot of time is spent on layer masks without saying why.

  49. hilary cosper

    Thought-provoking commentary , I am thankful for the insight , Does someone know where my business would be able to find a fillable a form example to fill out ?

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