Working with Layer Masks in Photoshop Elements 9

By Barbara Obermeier, Ted Padova

Layer masks have made their arrival in Photoshop Elements. 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.

Think of a layer mask as a sheet of acetate that hovers over your layer. With any of the painting tools, 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. By default, the mask starts out completely white so 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.

    Add a layer mask to gradually blend one layer into another. [Credit: Corbis, PhotoDisc/Getty Images]

    Credit: Corbis, PhotoDisc/Getty Images
    Add a layer mask to gradually blend one layer into another.
  • Adjust your layer mask to selectively show and hide the effects of 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. 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: Just 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.

You can’t add a layer mask to a background layer. You must convert the background into a layer first. Some other things to keep in mind when you use layer masks are:

  • To load the mask as a selection outline, simply Ctrl-click (cmd-click on the Mac) 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 Mac) 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.

Many of the preceding commands are also available in the Layer→Layer Mask submenu.