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Layer Masking in Photoshop – What is it and how do you use it?

In a previous article I did a video tutorial covering Photoshop layer blend modes and I had a request to explain masking in more detail.

So in this tutorial I've split it into two parts:

  • Part one: What is masking? In this section I explain what is a layer mask in simple terms you can understand and see visually
  • Part two: How and when do you use layer masks? I go through four different examples of scenarios where you might use a layer mask to create a certain effect for your image.

Let's dig in and learn more!

Part one – What is layer masking?

In this video I demonstrate and talk about the following:

  • How to add a layer mask, two ways
  • How to hide or reveal your whole layer
  • Non-destructive editing
  • Painting away parts of your images you want to hide or reveal using the brush tool
  • Brush tool settings such as hardness and opacity
  • How to edit an existing mask
  • How to fix mistakes if you mess up

Example images:

Before no mask
Two layers with no masking – the top layer only is visible.
With mask hidden
Top layer has a black mask applied which hides its contents completely.
Masked hard brush 100percent
A layer mask has been applied with one large brush stroke (painted at 100% opacity with a brush set to 100% hardness) painted in black to conceal or hide the car layer in that area.
Remember, write this down: black conceals – white reveals. A black mask will hide parts of the layer it applies to (letting the one below show through), a white mask will reveal it.
Masked soft brush
A layer mask has been applied with one large brush stroke (painted at 100% opacity with a brush set to 50% hardness) painted in black to conceal or hide the car layer in that area.
Masked faded brush 50percent
A layer mask has been applied with one large brush stroke (painted at 50% opacity with a brush set to 100% hardness) painted in black to conceal or hide the car layer in that area.

Watch the video now and follow along with two of your own images.

Part two – How and when to apply layer masking?

Now that you know what a mask is, you might want to know when to use it, what are the applications of layer masks? So, in part two I go through four real-world examples where you might use masking to make image corrections and adjustments, for tone control, and for creative effects including:

  • Using layer masking for tone control
  • To blur and control the background
  • Adding a photo filter to part of your image
  • To create a black and white image with selective colouring

Watch part two of the tutorial below, then scroll down to see the sample images created in the video.

Masking for tone control

Masking before 03
Original image
Masking before 03 darken
Darkening layer added using a duplicate layer and the Multiply blend mode. No mask applied here, it is affecting the entire image.
Masking after 03 darken
Darkening layer after masking has been applied. Notice the men and oxen are not being affected here.
Masking before 03 lighten
Lightening layer added using a duplicated layer and Screen blend mode. No mask applied here, it is affecting the entire image.
Masking after 03 lighten
Lightening layer after mask has been applied and only the farm workers and animals are being affected now.
Masking after 03
Final image after darkening and lightening layers and masks have been applied.

For more on tone control check out: How to Use Adjustment Layers in Photoshop for Tone Control where I give you a copy of my image so you can try it and follow along with that lesson.

Blur and control the background

Masking before 01
Original image, notice how bright and distracting the background is here.

Masking after 01
After adding a layer to blur, darken, and lower the color saturation and a mask applied so it only affects the background areas.

Now notice how much less distracting the background is and the man under the car is more of a focal point in the image.

Add a photo filter

Photo filter original image
Original image.
Photo filter before masking
Sepia photo filter applied as an adjustment layer.
Photo filter after masking
After masking out the car and a few areas I did not want the filter to affect.

Create a black and white image with selectively colour

This is a popular effect and one that has been done for decades dating back to the 1940s. My grandmother's wedding photo is in black and white and was hand painted to have her flowers in color. In those days it was done with actual dye or paint on the photo, now with digital there are a few ways you can do it – here is one method that's fairly easy and you can practice your new masking skills.

Cuba Jan14 1143 original
Original image in color

Masking before 02
Black and white adjustment layer applied, affecting the entire image.

Masking after 02
After masking the adjustment layer so it only affects part of the image.

Combining light painted images

One other use of masking which I didn't cover here is when you are combining multiple light painted images into one final shot. Sometimes you need to hide bits of some of the layers, so once again masking is a handy tool to understand and have in your arsenal. See How to combine multiple light painted images in Photoshop for a complete how to on that technique.


Like anything, and you hear me say this all the time, it takes practice to understand masking and know when to use it. So pick an image and open it in Photoshop and just play around. Remember to use layers and non-destructive editing and save your working files as PSDs so you can open them again later and still have all your layers available.

It doesn't hurt to just play around and see what you can come up with. You can't wreck anything if you use layers and always save as a new file. So what are you waiting for?

Share in the comments if you have any suggestions, questions and I'd love to see what you come up with using masking.


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