How to Blend Photos by Painting Masks in Adobe Photoshop

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May 10, 2021
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A few posts back, I mentioned that I was going to soon write about some of the more intricate details of how masking and the Brush Tool work together. Well, today’s the day. I know that I’ve already covered some topics related to masking, so I won’t bore you with all of them again. What I’d like to do is dive a bit deeper into some features found in the options bar for the Brush Tool. I’d also like to compare some opacity settings with various shades of gray and explain how they can oftentimes produce the same effect in a mask.

In today’s post, I’ll be working with two photos. I’ll use a mask, along with the Brush Tool to clear away some of the top photo to show through to the bottom. As mentioned above, I’ll work with different attributes of each tool to accomplish my desired goal. Once finished masking, I’ll use a blend mode to bring both of the photos together so they appear as one.

Original Photos​

Below, you’ll find both of the original photos I’ll be using for this project. I think they’ll work well together because I really like the sunset shot and I think the hands will work perfectly for what I have planned.

original-hands-heart-photo.jpg original-sunset-photo.jpg

Resizing & Layer Order​

Before I begin any real work, I have to be sure both images are set to the same pixel dimensions. Since one was larger than the other, I shrunk the larger one down to almost the size of the smaller. I say almost because I noticed that the hands in the one photo aren’t exactly centered. Since I want them centered (vertically) in the final product, I’ll keep that one a bit wider and taller than the other because I have to nudge it a hair to the left.

Also, since I’ll be adding the mask to the photo with the hands in it, I’ll need that image on top in the Layers panel. This is what the current Layers panel looks like:


Adding a Layer Mask​

This step is very simple. I’m going to add a layer mask by first selecting which layer I’d like the mask applied to and then by clicking on the small Layer Mask icon found at the bottom of the Layers panel.


By default, Photoshop applies a layer mask to a layer in white, so the layer remains visible. If you hold down the Alt key on your keyboard, you can have the mask applied in black, but remember, if you do this, your layer will disappear until you use a tool to apply white to it.

Selecting the Brush Tool & Setting Options​

Next, I’ll select the Brush Tool (currently the 8th tool down in the left vertical toolbar) and set the size and the edge softness.


Since these photos have pixel dimensions of 4873×3248, I chose to set the brush to 1600 pixels. I also set the edge hardness to 50% because I do want some softness, but I also want some control.

Now, before I continue, I want to cover one interesting detail. I’m going to set the brush Opacity to 50% as well. I’ll be working with pure black as my color, so what we should see when I apply a brush stroke down the left side of the photo is a half transparent stripe. I’ll then set the opacity back to 100% and change the color in the color picker to 50% gray. I’ll make a brush stroke down the right side to see what happens.


Well isn’t that interesting. They look like identical stripes to me. Let’s take a look at the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel.


Hmmm…inside the layer mask, I see two identical gray stripes. It seems to me that if I work with black at 50% opacity, it’s the same exact thing as working with 50% gray at 100% opacity. I’m not sure if this is obvious or not, but I felt that I should mention it. Oftentimes, folks go way overboard looking for the perfect colors in the color picker when all they have to do is change the opacity of their current, fully saturated, color. This applies to much more than working with masks too, so play around with this if you’re interested.

I’ll set the color back to black at 100% opacity.

Using the Brush Tool​

For this next step, I’m going to use the brush to paint away what I would like to disappear. Basically, I’d like to keep the hands and arms, but remove everything else. I don’t want a hard edge or an exact selection since I’ll be using a blend mode later on. What I’m going for is some softness so it appears as the hands and arms are glowing in the final photo.


I’m going to be writing an entire post that covers how to get smooth lines when drawing with the brush tool. If you use Photoshop at all, you know that the brush sort of jerks as you progress with it. If you head up to the Window > Brush menu item and select it, you’ll see the Brush panel (the Brush Tool needs to be currently selected).


Inside this panel is a setting for brush Spacing. High spacing will make the brush very choppy and if you go high enough, you’ll see each individual dot the brush makes. For smooth lines, lower is better. If you go all the way down, you’ll have the smoothest lines available. This is a wonderful feature that editors and photographers have been trying to find forever, so go ahead and explore it.


Applying a Blend Mode​

Now that most of the work has been completed, I’ll go ahead and apply a blend mode. As it stands, the image looks a bit weird. I want both of the photos to merge together as one. To apply the blending mode, I’ll click the relevant drop-down box in the layers panel (while the appropriate layer is selected) and choose Overlay.


After that, I can check out the final image. I like it.