In this post we are all about masks and secret identities! Well, maybe not secret identities but we’ll definitely do masks. Many of the incredible visual effects that you create in Photoshop depend on them, so we’ll be asking all the important questions about masking and make it all easy for you to follow.
Before moving on, this post is based on one of my Photoshop Essentials training classes, available at Bring Your Own Laptop learning platform and community. Visit us after this and find out how you can supercharge your design skills to Hero level.
Time to suit up and get started!
First, and to make it clear, there is no huge secret behind masks. Like the ones worn by heroes and villains, they hide or reveal certain details. In other words, when it comes to image editing, masks control transparency.
Second ground rule to remember: black hides, white reveals (and gray is somewhere in the middle). It will make perfect sense a few paragraphs below, don’t worry!
Pro Tip #1: As I often mention in my classes, the best editing is the non-destructive editing. You can radically edit an image, colorize it, remove or add parts of it, do anything your imagination brings up, all of this without compromising its original source. Non-destructive is also great because you can adjust some or all your changes at any time, keeping that first image intact, all in one Photoshop file, no risks taken. Masks are key for this, learn and use them plenty!
You can apply two different types of masks in your projects in Photoshop: Layer Masks and Clipping Masks. Let’s quickly understand how they can influence your work.
Layer Masks are added on top of a layer to allow control over its transparency. To do their work, they need to be painted on, but only in grayscale, from white to black or shades of gray.
Remember the second ground rule?
A full white mask reveals its layer completely. A full black mask will hide it. A gray filled mask will make it partially transparent.
It’s easier to grasp with this example. We have two layers in a Photoshop file: a lemon over a soda can. We need to combine them in a non-destructive way. For now, let’s only observe how using white, black, and gray in our Layer Mask will influence the composition – we learn how to do it a bit down the road.
How the solid colors white, black and gray affect a Layer Mask’s hide and reveal behavior.
And now let’s look at some different blend states with solid colors and gradients.
Blending with Layer Masks using solid color, gradient and brush strokes.
Amazing, right? And remember the non-destructive side of it? All we need to do is disable the mask and there it is! A whole lemon, fresh and untouched! Fun and safe!
If you disable a Layer Mask the original image is shown unchanged.
A professional and skilled designer creates and edits without risking their source images, and there are many skills and tools that help you in this task. This is vital for keeping your projects organized and safe, and allows for fresh starts or quick iterations. Include this practice in your work methods, the rewards will be huge.
Clipping masks also control transparency but in a different way: they feed from the transparency of the layer beneath them. Check it out! Let’s go back to the lemon, our can is gone for recycling, and we need to add that lemon texture to the text “LEMON”.
Text placed over the lemon layer. Clipping Mask will blend them together and deliver a fully editable cropping effect.
Could it be done with a Layer Mask? Sure, it could, but Clipping Mask makes it easier and faster.
Finished result. Clipping Mask is active and you can adjust both text and background.
See? By placing a Clipping Mask on the lemon, Photoshop uses the transparency from the text layer set below and blends them seamlessly. Cool!
Always allow for the project’s details and the desired effects to decide what’s the best selection and masking methods for your design. Plan before you go hands-on. It will pay off.
Now we’ve covered the basics, let’s go and learn how to do this in Photoshop!
Let’s start by selecting our images and plan how we want them to blend together. For this post, we’ll use some clouds and a relaxing photograph where you can see a cup of coffee. We will be serving today’s special: a cup of swirling clouds!
First, we open both images in Photoshop and start with the clouds. With our Elliptical Marquee Tool, you can use the “M” key shortcut to activate it or click on it on the left toolbar, we create a quick selection of the detail we need to move into our coffee cup picture. We know our selection is ready because of the “marching ants trail” that surrounds it.
Create your selection with the Marquee Selection tool.
Copying and pasting the selection into the second file wouldn’t destroy the original clouds photo but you’d end up with a destroyed copy of that image. Imagine that you need to return to this project because, let’s say, the selection wasn’t properly aligned and you no longer have the original file. How can you fix it? Well, you can’t, it’s destroyed. How do we keep the copied selection safe and editable?
Instead of copying the selection, let’s mask it. In other words, let’s tell Photoshop that we want to hide everything that’s around our selection. At the bottom of the Layers panel, to the right of your workspace, you can click the Add Layer Mask.
The Add Layer Mask feature is featured on your Layers Panel.
Photoshop understands that you want to keep your selection, so everything else gets removed. Is it really gone?
Layer Mask is active and the selected area was preserved visible.
No, as you can see, your clouds layer now has a mask applied to it and, if you remember from earlier, there’s a black fill around the selected ellipse, which in turn is painted white – black hides and white reveals! We have successfully created a Layer Mask and our original image is unharmed. Awesome!
Time to place our selection in your second file and complete our composition and check out some more perks that Layer Masks can offer.
With the Move tool selected, shortcut key “V” or click on it on your left toolbar, click and drag our masked clouds into the coffee cup file. Photoshop will place it as a new layer.
Your clouds are now inside your second image, ready to fit in and transform the composition.
To fit the clouds inside the coffee cup we need to scale them down. Let’s do this by selecting Free Transform, shortcuts Command + T on a Mac or Control + T on a PC, and clicking and dragging from a corner while holding Shift to keep the scaling proportional.
Free Transform allows you to adjust the size of your Layer Mask to fit the coffee cup.
Adjust until the cloudy ellipse fits the inside of the coffee cup and move it there. Next, we tune it up even more!
Now let’s see why the non-destructive editing is so great. Let’s see if our original image, nested inside a Layer Mask, needs some kind of adjustment to better fit its new context.
If you look in your Layers panel, the cloud selection layer is linked to its Mask, as you can see from that link icon between them. If we click on that icon, we break the link and both image and mask will become independent.
Breaking the link icon between the image and mask thumbnails will allow for separate adjustments.
Clicking on the image thumbnail on the Layers panel, you will be able to adjust the image’s position inside the mask while the mask itself stays fixed in the composition.
Select the Image thumbnail to adjust the image from inside the Layer Mask.
If you click on the mask thumbnail, you’ll be fixing the image in the composition and adjust the mask’s position over it. It’s that great and it’s only possible (I don’t get tired of saying it) because we didn’t destroy our original source.
Select the mask thumbnail to adjust it over the image’s full dimensions.
Click between both thumbnails to link the image and mask back together.
Editing with Layer Masks doesn’t stop with moving and aligning elements. Let’s see more possibilities that they bring along.
With the Layer Mask selected, it’s ok if it’s already linked with the image, we can find on our properties panel some more amazing options available to further transform our work. Let’s have a quick tour, one by one:
The Properties panel presents additional Layer Mask options to optimize your results.
Density: this option defines the strength (or visibility) of the hidden parts of your Layer Mask. 100% stands for completely invisible, full black, and 0% means fully white, with shades of gray between them.
Feather: Softens the mask’s edge so it blends more naturally with the other elements.
Select and Mask and Color Range: These will assist you in fine tuning your selection. You won’t always be working with basic selections like ellipses and rectangles. You could be trying to blend a dog into the image and need to select complex shapes like ears, a tail, or hair.
Invert: Explains itself, it inverts your selection. Hides what used to be visible and reveals what was hidden in the mask.
In this case, we’ll just adjust Feather (not too much, only enough to make it feel natural) and we are done! Layer masks are quick, easy, and incredibly flexible!
Using the Layer Mask feature, you can add new images to your compositions and always come back for updates, even if you lose the original sources.
Theory is great and practicing while learning is even better, right? But how do we think and apply acquired knowledge in the real world? Reading and listening to experts and professionals helps us create our own views and ideas, so look for their stories and tips online, in articles and podcasts, or in books - they are sharing their wealth, use it for your own development and, one day, share your own experiences with newcomers.
Let’s use a Clipping Mask to add extra flare to the text in your compositions. It’s just as easy as Layer Masks and they also have great benefits over copying, cutting, and pasting stuff.
Let’s start with a cool background like the one you see in the image and then type some text. I’ll just type my name, you can type yours, whatever you prefer. Photoshop places it in a separate layer.
Type text over the background and Photoshop will place it in a new layer.
Next, we must place the background layer over the text. Why? Remember from before? Clipping Masks look for any transparency on the layer placed below the one that’s being masked and “eat it up”.
With Clipping Mask, the layer you want to see cropped must always be on top of the one that defines transparency.
Now we apply the Clipping Mask and find out if we can have the same flexibility that Layer Masks display.
Time to make it work. From the Layer menu at the top menu bar, select Create Clipping Mask, or use the shortcut Command + Alt + G on a Mac or Control + Alt + G on a PC, and that’s it!
Select Create Clipping Mask from your Layer menu.
Your background layer is now masked with your text. If you look at your Layers panel, you’ll find that both text and background are still visible and that little arrow that points down to the layer below lets you know that they’re connected.
The arrow icon next to your Clipping Mask thumbnail points down to the connected layer below.
Final touches and we are set to go – and come back!
You can make changes to your Clipping mask and align them to perfection in your composition. If you select the background layer, you’ll be able to adjust it inside the fixed text. By selecting the text layer, you can move it over the fixed background. It’s great!
Pro tip: Clipping Masks affect only the layer that’s connected to them. We can add a new layer and fill it with some color or any other cool background and arrange it to the back – it won’t be influenced in any way.
Clipping Mask only affects the layer connected to it. Additional layers won’t be influenced.
Another great perk with this technique is that your typed words remain fully editable! So, let’s say I’ve got it wrong and I really meant to write Jan. It’s as easy as this: select your Type tool again and edit the text.
Editing text inside a Clipping Mask is easy: use the Type tool and edit it directly inside the Mask.
I’d like to wrap up by letting you know that there is much more to learn about Masks and Selections, skills that you can develop to Master level in my Essentials and Advanced Photoshop courses at Bring Your Own Laptop. Don’t miss them out, and earn your certificates!
I’m sure that you feel more comfortable with Layer Masks and Clipping Masks, how they work and help keep your originals safe, leading you through new and improved work methods that will make you stand out from the crowd!
Change your life in a small decision! Join me at Bring Your Own Laptop and become an active member in our growing community. Learn more about Photoshop and many other Abode tools and go for a Hero’s portfolio with our 30+ courses and benefit from dedicated support for just $7 a month with an annual plan. Of course, cancel anytime (I will never reveal your secret identity to the world).
See you in class! - Dan
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