How to Manage Layer Masks in Photoshop CS6

By Barbara Obermeier

Layer Masks are great tools in the Photoshop CS6 arsenal of editing tools. Here are some tips to help you work with your layer masks. You can do the following:

  • Load a layer mask. Loading a layer mask means getting a selection outline based on the layer mask. Simply Ctrl-click (Command-click on the Mac) the Layer Mask thumbnail. You can also click the Load Selection from Mask icon in the Properties panel.

  • View the mask without viewing the image. Sometimes when you’re editing a layer mask, you may find it helpful to see the mask itself without having to view the image, too. Simply Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac) the Layer Mask thumbnail to view the mask and hide the image on the layer.

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    To redisplay the image, Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac) again or click the eye icon in the far left column.

  • View the layer mask as a red overlay. If you prefer to see your layer mask as a red overlay, Alt+Shift-click (Option+Shift-click on the Mac) the layer mask thumbnail. You can also click the eyeball icon on the layer mask in the Channels panel.

  • Click again with the same keys to remove the overlay. You can change the opacity and color of the overlay in the Layer Mask Display Options dialog box, which you access by double-clicking the layer mask channel in the Channels panel. You can also change it by selecting Mask Options from the Properties panel menu.

  • Paste a copied selection into a layer mask. Simply Alt-click (Option-click on the Mac) the Layer Mask thumbnail. Choose Edit→Paste and then choose Select→Deselect. Click the image thumbnail in the Layers panel to return to the image.

    The copied selection can consist of anything, but this technique comes in particularly handy when you’re copying one layer mask into another.

  • Disable (temporarily hide) or enable a layer mask. Just Shift-click the Layer Mask thumbnail or choose Layer→Layer Mask→Disable or Enable. Or click the Disable/Enable Mask icon in the Properties panel.

  • Unlink a layer from its layer mask. By default, Photoshop links a layer mask to the contents of the layer. This link allows them to move together. To unlink a layer from its layer mask, click the link icon in between the thumbnail and the mask in the Layers panel. Click the icon again to re-establish the link. You can also choose Layer→Layer Mask→Unlink or Link.

  • Delete a layer mask. Just drag the Layer Mask thumbnail to the trash can icon in the Layers panel. Click Delete in the dialog box. Or you can choose Layer→Layer Mask→Delete. Finally, click the Delete (trash can) icon in the Properties panel.

  • Apply a layer mask. When you apply a layer mask, you essentially fuse the mask to the layer, so your mask is permanently applied to the layer. Photoshop replaces all black areas in the mask with transparent pixels and all gray areas with partially transparent pixels; all white areas are unaffected.

    Drag the thumbnail to the trash can icon in the Layers panel. Click Apply in the dialog box. You can choose Layer→Layer Mask→Apply or click the Apply Mask icon in the Properties panel.