Layer Masks in Photoshop Elements 11 - dummies

By Barbara Obermeier, Ted Padova

A layer mask is one of the most helpful and powerful creative tools at your disposal in Photoshop Elements 11. A layer mask is similar to a second sheet of acetate that hovers over a layer. You can use layer masks with image layers and adjustment layers.

  • For an image layer, the layer mask allows you to selectively show, hide, or partially show portions of your image.

  • With adjustment layers, the layer mask lets you selectively apply the adjustment to the layers below it.

You do this by painting on a layer mask with black and white and various shades of gray. Any black areas on the mask hide the image or the adjustment; any white areas show the image or adjustment; and anything between them (gray) partially shows the image or adjustment. The darker the shade of gray, the less it shows the image or adjustment.

Note that if you have an active selection border in your image before you add an adjustment layer, the adjustment is applied to only that area within the selection border. The resulting layer mask also reflects that selection: The selected areas are white, and the unselected areas are black. By default, the mask is completely white. This allows the image or adjustment to be fully applied to the layers.

[Credit: © Image #478144 and kaisersosa67 Image #186601]
Credit: © Image #478144 and kaisersosa67 Image #186601

Layer masks are excellent for blending layers of images and creating soft transitions between elements. You can gradually brush in transparency and opacity on a selective-pixel basis. You can even apply gradients and filters to your layer masks to create interesting special effects.

Masking is just another way of making a selection. Rather than make a selection with a single selection outline (it’s either selected or it isn’t), masks let you create a selection with up to 256 levels of gray — from white to black.

Follow these steps to create a layer mask:

  1. In the Photo Editor, in Expert mode, open or create a layered image.

  2. In the Layers panel, select the layer that you want to hide portions of.

  3. In the Layers panel, click the Add Layer Mask icon (circle on a square) at the top of the panel.

    You see the appearance of a second thumbnail, directly to the right of your image thumbnail, in the Layers panel.

  4. With the painting tool of your choice (we recommend the Brush tool), paint on your layer mask.

    Make sure that the mask is selected, not the actual layer. You see black brackets around the thumbnail in the Layers panel.

    • Apply a foreground color of black where you want to hide the portions of the layer. Leave the mask white where you want the layer to show.

    • Adjust the Opacity setting in the Tool Options to paint with a less-opaque black, which is essentially like painting with gray. The higher the opacity, the darker the gray and the more it partially hides the layer. If you want subtle blending between layers, use a large, feathered brush tip and vary your opacity settings accordingly.

    If things start to run amok, just choose Edit→Fill and fill the entire layer mask with white to start again. As you can see from the figure, we painted some of the background of the girl with black.

You can also use the Gradient tool on the layer mask. Using foreground and background colors of white and black, you can create a nice transition from showing and hiding the layer. The darker areas of the gradient gradually hide the image, whereas the lighter areas gradually show the image. This is a helpful way to creatively and subtly blend one layer into another.

[Credit: © Image #13699329 and shaunl Image #2008511]
Credit: © Image #13699329 and shaunl Image #2008511

You can also use layer masks to selectively show and hide the effects of an adjustment layer.

Here are some other things to remember when using layer masks:

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

  • Feel free to edit your layer mask at will. Unlike simply making a feathered selection, you can continue adjusting how much of the current layer or underlying images show — or, how gradually one image blends into another. Just change the areas of white, black, and gray on the layer mask by painting with any of the painting tools.

  • To load the mask as a selection outline, Ctrl-click (Command-click on the Mac) on 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 seeing the image, Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac) on the Layer Mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. This action can be helpful when editing a layer mask.

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

  • To delete a layer mask, drag the layer mask thumbnail to the trash icon in the Layers panel and click Delete in the dialog box.

  • To apply a layer mask so that it’s fused to the layer and can no longer be edited, drag the mask thumbnail to the Trash icon in the Layers panel and click Apply in the dialog box.

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

Note that many of these commands are also available from the Layer→Layer Mask submenu.