Add Layer Masks in Photoshop Elements 10 - dummies

Add Layer Masks in Photoshop Elements 10

By Barbara Obermeier, Ted Padova

One of the best creative tools Elements has to offer is layer masks. Masking is essentially just another way of making a selection. Instead of making a selection with a single selection outline — either it is selected or it isn’t — masks enable you to define your selection with up to 256 levels of gray (from white to black). You can, therefore, have varying levels of a selection.

Here’s how it works. First, think of a layer mask as a sheet of acetate that hovers over your layer. With any of the painting tools (Brush tool, Gradient tool, and others), you apply black, white, or any shade of gray onto the layer mask.

Where the mask is white, the image on the layer is selected and shows. Where the mask is black, the image is unselected and is hidden. And where the mask is gray, the image is partially selected and therefore, partially shows. The lighter the gray, the more the image shows. By default, the mask starts out completely white so that everything is selected and shows.

Here are some things you can do with layer masks:

  • Creatively blend one layer into another. If you want one image to gradually dissolve into another, using a layer mask is the way to go. Try using the Gradient tool with the black to white gradient selected to create a soft dissolve. You can use layer masks to blend images together in a realistic manner.


    You can see where the figure is painted with black to completely hide the original background of the fish image. On the fish is painted with gray to make it appear as if it is truly “swimming” in the green liquid. In other words, some of the liquid of the underlying bottle image will show through to the fish layer.

  • Adjust your layer mask to selectively show and hide the effects of the adjustment layer.

  • Apply a filter to your layer mask to create an interesting special effect.

    One of the best aspects of layer masks is that you can endlessly edit them. Unlike just making a feathered selection, you can keep adjusting how much of your current layer or underlying images show.

    Or you can adjust how gradually one image blends into another: Simply change the areas of white, black, and gray on the layer mask by painting with any of the painting tools. Just make sure you select the layer mask and not the image. When you select the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel, you see the appearance of an outline around the thumbnail.

    You can’t add a layer mask to a background. You must convert the background into a layer first.

Here are some other things to keep in mind when you use layer masks:

  • To load the mask as a selection outline, simply Ctrl-click (Command-click on the Macintosh) the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel.

  • To temporarily hide a mask, Shift-click the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. Repeat to show the mask.

  • To view the mask without viewing the image, Alt-click (Option-click on the Macintosh) on the Layer Mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. This can be helpful when editing a layer mask.

  • To unlink a layer from its layer mask, click the link icon in the Layers panel. Click again to reestablish the link. By default, Elements links a layer mask to the contents of the layer. This link enables them to move together.

  • To delete a layer mask, drag its thumbnail to the trash icon in the Layers panel.

  • To apply a layer mask, drag the mask thumbnail to the trash icon in the Layers panel and be sure to click Apply in the dialog box. When you apply a layer mask, you fuse the mask to the layer so editing is no longer possible.

Note that many of the preceding commands are also available in the Layer→Layer Mask submenu.