Masking Tips for Adobe Photoshop

  • Thread starter EmeraldHike
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May 10, 2021
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Working with masks in Photoshop is the best way to go in regards to blending photos and manipulating adjustment layers. But, as good as masks are, there come times when it’s challenging to see exactly what you’re doing. For instance, let’s say you’re using an adjustment layer to brighten or darken different areas of a photograph. Let’s also say that the areas you’re working on are rather small and detailed. When painting those detailed areas with either a white brush or a black one, in general, the only locations that visibly show the changes are the photo itself and the small thumbnail in the layers panel. Viewing your changes in these two areas is fine most of the time, but when it really matters, you’ll likely need a better way.

In today’s post, I’m going to cover four power tips for viewing and working with masks super efficiently in Adobe Photoshop. I’ll show you exactly how you can flip between two different masking views that take out any guesswork while painting. Also, I’ll explain how you can quickly turn the working mask on and off. Basically, how you can hide it and then unhide it so you can see your changes quickly. Lastly, I’ll offer a keyboard shortcut that will hasten your hiding and revealing by jumping back and forth between the white and black in your color picker. This is all done by using a few keys on your keyboard.

If you need a refresher on what masks are and how to best use them in Photoshop, please take a look at some of my previous posts. By the time you’re finished with them, you’ll be up to speed and ready to move forward with this tutorial.

What are Layer Masks in Adobe Photoshop?

Using Masks to Colorize Only Part of a Photo in Adobe Photoshop

Using Multiple Color Range Masks in Adobe Photoshop

Example Photo​

If you look at the top of this post, you’ll see the example photo I’ll be working with. Now, I want you to realize that there’s nothing I particularly want to change about this photo, but for the sake of explaining what I need to explain, I’ll apply an adjustment layer to it in. I’ll choose something that’s obvious, such as the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, to help make my point. And in doing so, I’ll deviate from the primary tutorial for just a moment to talk about how to “colorize” a photo in an effort to give it a sepia look.

Giving the Photo a Sepia Look​

If you aren’t aware, sepia is a reddish-brown color associated particularly with monochrome photographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries. I’m sure you’ve seen these types of photos. Some folks call them vintage, antique or rustic, but you can call them whatever you want. And as a matter of fact, I’ll be writing a few posts in the future that talk about this topic in full detail, so stay tuned for them.

Anyway, applying this type of look is rather simple. All I’ll do is head up to the Adjustments panel and click on the Hue/Saturation icon. This will create the appropriate adjustment layer in the Layers panel.


If you take a look at the new adjustment layer that’s outlined in red, you’ll see that the related mask is fully white. This means that any change I make to this layer will be fully revealed, which is what I want right now.

At this point, I’m going to click the Colorize check box that’s located at the bottom of the Hue/Saturation Properties panel. I’ll also push the Hue slider all the way to the left. This will mute all colors except the red/brown that I’m after.


This is the photo after these changes have been made.


Editing the Mask​

Before I can get to the power tips, I have to make a change to the mask. Do do this, I’m going to make sure I have black chosen in the color picker and that my Brush Tool is active. I’ll resize the brush so it can work efficiently and then edit the Opacity up in the options bar. I’ll change the opacity to 50%, so my changes are softer than they would be if I left them at 100%.

Finally, I’ll paint the sky area black to erase some of the sepia coloring. I’d like to bring the sky back somewhat from where it is now.


Okay, I now have a working file that will allow me to move on with the tips I’d like to show.

Tip #1 – Large Mask View​

Even though I didn’t make any intricate or detailed changes via this mask, this tip will still help you out.

Right now, the only way I can see that I made a change to the adjustment layer mask is to look at the photo directly or to look at the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. Those options aren’t very good. What if there was a larger view? Well, there is.

If I move my mouse pointer so it sits right on top of the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel and press Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) and left click on my mouse, the entire photo will be covered by the mask itself.


By having a large mask view like this, I can go ahead and make edits to it that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to make. To change things back to their regular view, all I have to do is repeat the steps I took above. Option or Alt click. That’s it.

Tip #2 – Overlay View​

The tip above is good, but I have an even better one. The issue with having a solid overlay like the one above is that I can’t see what I’m editing. This may be good for filling in solid areas or for changing black to white and vice-versa, but for continuous editing, not so much. Luckily, there’s another overlay option that shows the photo behind the large view of the mask.

If I roll over the mask thumbnail again and click Shift+Option or Shift+Alt and left click, I’ll get an easier view to work with.


In this case, the areas where the mask is hidden (gray or black) have turned to red and the areas where the mask is in effect (white), there is no red. This is extremely handy because it offers the ability to continue working in this mode.

To change things back to the regular view, simply Shift+Option or Shift+Alt again.

Tip #3 – Hide the Mask​

Every application I’ve ever worked with has had a before/after view. I love this because while I’m editing, the original fades from memory. By pushing a key or two, I can jump back and forth between the photo I originally opened to the one I worked on and edited. The great thing is, while editing a mask, I also have this type of option.

Turning on and off a mask is simple. All that needs to be done is to, once again, roll your mouse pointer over the mask thumbnail, hold down the Shift key on your keyboard and left click with your mouse. Once you do this, a red X will appear over the thumbnail and the view of the photo will return as though a mask was never applied.


To turn the mask back on, or unhide it, again, repeat the above steps. Shift and left click.

Tip #4 – Jump Between White and Black​

There are two very important keyboard shortcuts you need to know when working with masks. In this final section, I’ll talk about both of them.

First, we have the left bracket [ and the right bracket ]. If you click the left bracket, the size of the brush you’re working with will get smaller. If you click the right bracket, it will get bigger. This is, how do I say, INCREDIBLY useful. Once you use these keyboard shortcuts for changing the size of your brush, you’ll never ever go back to doing it with your mouse.

Second, we have the X key on your keyboard. As you well know, the colors white and black are extraordinarily important when it comes to working with masks. Without a keyboard shortcut for switching between these two colors, we have to go over and click the little color picker double arrow. This by itself is a shortcut, but there’s an even faster one.


Instead of rolling over and clicking on the double arrow, simply press the X key on your keyboard. It does the same exact thing. It switches the foreground and background colors. So, if you already have black and white set for those two colors, you’re set up for some quick editing.


May 10, 2021
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2 Super Fast Masking Tips for Adobe Photoshop​

When it comes to Adobe Photoshop, masking parts of an image is a very popular task to undertake. In my opinion, the more keyboard shortcuts and clever tricks for this type of thing, the better. When I discover them and stumble over them on the internet, I enjoy bringing them to you.

In today’s post, I’ll reveal two of the more simple, but extremely helpful tricks I recently uncovered that will assist with hastening your masking workflow in Photoshop.

Original Photo​

In order to show you the tips, I think that working through a quick project would be best. I’ll start off by displaying the original image I’ll be using.


The reasons I chose this photo are obvious. First, it’s far too yellow. I want to dampen down the saturation. Next, there is some weird noise in the rear part of the photo, so I’d like to blur that out. After that, I think the record covers in the lower, front part of the photo could use some sharpening and finally, I think the same area needs to be brightened up a bit. During the process of accomplishing these tasks, I’ll use various methods and tools. Like usual, I’ll explain exactly what I’m doing and why.

Blurring the Background​

Since the majority of the image needs to be blurred, I figured I’d begin with that. To do this, I’ll first (after the image has been opened in Photoshop) drag the background layer down to the bottom of the Layers panel and drop it on the Create New Layer icon. This will duplicate the layer, which will allow me to apply a filter to it. I’ll also name the two existing layers. The bottom layer will be named Background – Original and the one I just created will be named Background – Blur. Remember, to rename a layer, simply double-click on its name in the Layers panel and start typing. When finished, hit Enter on your keyboard.


Now that I’ve got the new layer available, I can go ahead and blur it. I’ll click on it and then head up to the Filter > Blur menu and select Gaussian Blur.


After that, the Gaussian Blur dialog box will open, where I’ll push the Radius slider to the right, just enough to remove any of the noise in the photo. I think a value of 5 pixels will be just fine.


To finish, I’ll click on OK to exit out of the Gaussian Blur dialog.

At this point, I’m left with a very blurry image. This isn’t exactly what I want to end up with because I can’t see anything.


I’ll need to make use of a mask to non-destructively erase some of the blurred area. I want the front area – the record cases – to remain clear.

Now, this is very important. When I select the layer I want to apply the mask to (Background – Blur) and then click the Add Layer Mask icon down at the bottom of the Layers panel, the mask will appear white, which means that the entire blurred layer will be visible. Here, take a look:


To erase part of the mask, I’ll need to click on the Color Picker, choose the color black and then use the Brush Tool to erase where I don’t want any blur. I’ll do that now.


And if you take a look at the Layers panel, you’ll see the black and white areas of the mask thumbnail.


The reason I say this is important is because it brings me to the first tip.

Tip #1

When you click on the Add Layer Mask icon, the default mask is white. To reverse that and have the mask appear black, all that needs to be done is to hold down the Alt (Windows) or the Opt (Mac) key on your keyboard and then click that same icon. Instead of white, we’ll get a black mask.

Since I need to do some sharpening to the area of the image that I erased the blur, I can show you how this works.

Sharpening the Record Covers​

To sharpen the area, I’ll follow the same exact method I outlined above. I’ll duplicate the background layer again, rename it to Background – Sharpen and then use the Smart Sharpen filter to add some edge distinction. Since I already when over similar steps, I’ll just go ahead and do it without any screenshots. Well, I’ll give you one to show you the settings I used to sharpen inside the Smart Sharpen dialog box.


At this point, I want you to pay particular attention to the order of the layers I’m creating. Since the blur layer covers everything, except one area, I have that on top. Then comes the sharpen layer. The sharpened area will be visible below the blur layer because some of the blur layer has been erased. This can get confusing with many layers, so it’s important to keep track of things. Any place the blur mask is black, the layer below will be visible.

Here’s a refresher on masks in Photoshop, if you need it:

What are Layer Masks in Adobe Photoshop?

Since I don’t want the sharpen layer initially visible, I’ll press the Alt key on my keyboard and then create a mask. Here’s a glimpse of the Layers panel.


All I want to do is reveal a small area of this layer, so I’ll make sure the color white is selected in the Color Picker and then I’ll paint the front record covers with the Brush Tool. This will uncover the sharpening for this area of the photo.


Remember, any part of a mask that’s white is visible.

Brightening & Desaturating​

The next two tasks I’d like to complete have to do with using adjustment layers. If you’re not that experienced with adjustment layers in Photoshop, you can become more familiar with them by reading this post.

Since I’ve already named the previous layers, I think it would be a good idea to continue naming them. Which brings me to the second tip.

Tip #2

To save a step when naming an adjustment layer, simply press the Alt (Windows) or the Opt (Mac) key on your keyboard and then click on the adjustment you’d like from the Adjustments panel. This will create the layer and display the New Layer dialog box, where you can name the layer.


I named this first Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer Brighten. I’ll click OK to close the dialog and push the Brightness slider in the Properties panel to the right. Then, I’ll click on the mask thumbnail in this new adjustment layer, choose black from the Color Picker and then use the Brush Tool to paint any area I don’t to be brightened. In this case, that would be everything except the front record covers that were previously sharpened.

Next, I’ll follow the same steps I just shared, but this time, I’ll click the Hue/Saturation adjustment and name the new layer Desaturate. Since the default mask appears white in this new adjustment, I don’t need to do anything but push the Saturation slider in the Properties panel slightly to the left. I want this to affect the entire image.

Here is a screenshot of the layers I currently have:


And here is the final image:


I know this post was kind of long, but I thought that showing you these tips, along with a real world example would hammer the point home. I hope you enjoyed. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them in the comments sections below. Thanks!

COMMENT: Thank you. This is very clear and sequential. I have been using LR and now want to learn PS to enhance my b&w photos, using some software from Joel Tjintjnlar (I think that’s his name). I need to be able to use layers and masks. In addition to this post, what others would you recommend that you have made? I suspect I am at an intermediate level with LR and use cc and LR Classic cc now. I export directly from LR into PS and don’t use Bridge. Any suggestions would be really appreciated. Best. Matt

COMMENT: I have written many posts that cover layer masks as well as layers. I would suggest that you use the search box above (on this site) to search for “Layer Masks Photoshop” and “Photoshop Layers.” Not all posts are titled exactly as they are written, so you’ll need to quickly browse through the resulting posts. There are tons of instructions, tips and tidbits available, so you should be able to learn a lot. Let me know if you need anything further.

COMMENT: I loved this article. The way you showed the step-by-step process of retouching is awesome. I’m definitely going to try this in my home.


May 10, 2021
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4 Super Layer Masking Tips for Adobe Photoshop​

I’ve written a lot about layer masking on this blog. Masking in Adobe Photoshop is probably one of the most common tasks you’ll face when editing photos and creating graphics. It’s just one of those things you have to learn about. It’s right up there with layers. Once you understand the concept of layers, your brain will be ready for layer masking. And once you get masking, you can do anything.

I’ll admit that there are certain areas of Photoshop that have given users pause through the years. I can remember trying to teach individuals about what layers represent and only after I broke the concept down into easy to grasp pieces was the person able to fully comprehend what I was referring to. The same thing goes for masks. If I had to guess, I’d say that the idea of painting something white or black makes no sense to a lot of people. Eventually, everyone gets that white reveals and black conceals. It just takes some muscle memory is all.

By the way, if you’d like a primer on layer masks in Photoshop, please take a look at this post:

What are Layer Masks in Adobe Photoshop?

In today’s post, I’m going to take layer masking from level 101 to level 102 in Adobe Photoshop. While nothing I present to you in this post is mind blowing, every tip I share will certainly save you some time if you’re a heavy mask user. I wish I knew these little tips years ago when I worked in Photoshop much more intensively. They could have helped out enormously.

I’ll be using a demo photo to show you four tips. The tips cover the topics of visualizing the current mask over the image in the workspace, how to duplicate a mask in the layers panel, how to go about inverting a mask and how to reduce and increase the mask density, which is sort of like adjusting its opacity.

Demo Photo​

I just picked a random photo for this post. It didn’t matter in the least what I used, as long as it was something. I chose this because it looked cool.


Visualizing a Larger Version of the Mask​

Here’s the scenario. You have layers upon layers and you’re attempting to mask out certain sections of one layer. You use your brush with the color black and paint over what you think is everything you need to disappear. The only issue is that you can’t really see what’s going on. There’s a lot of confusion. I’ll try to give you an example below with the demo photo. I already have the mask applied to the layer and I have the color black active for my brush. I’m using the Brush Tool, by the way.

For this example, I’ll try to hide the left portion of the rear of the vehicle. Basically, anything to the left of the chrome molding. I also added a white background layer to hide the checkerboard pattern that would have been revealed if I didn’t add the white. Here’s what the Layers panel currently looks like. Nothing major.


I’ll use the Brush Tool to paint the left portion of the photo black, which will make it essentially disappear from the visible portion of the photo. Let’s see what I end up with. Please forgive my artwork.


Uh oh. Do you see what happened. In my imaginary “complex” graphic, I missed a few spots with the Brush Tool. Because there was so much going on, I didn’t get everything. If this were a serious project, I’d have problems because of this. I wish there was a better way to see what part of the mask I was painting. Good thing there is.

If I press and hold the Alt key (Option on Mac) on my keyboard and click on the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel once, that mask thumbnail will superimpose itself onto the image in the workspace. I’ll do this now. What you’ll see below is a life-sized mask.


The cool thing is, while the mask itself is overlaying the image, I can use the Brush Tool to paint any area I want. Now, it looks just like a blank canvas that’s clearly visible. It gives me the clarity I was looking for to finish my masking.

To undo the overlay, I’ll simply hold down the Alt key once again and click on the mask thumbnail once more. That will make things go back to normal.

How to Duplicate a Mask​

I cleaned up the masked area a bit for these next few sections. I didn’t like looking at my lousy artwork.

Anyway, let’s now pretend that I have multiple layers of the same photo. For whatever reason, I would like to work on each individual layer for some neat blending effects. The thing is, I’d like to apply the same exact mask to each one, but I would really like to avoid repeating all the energy I expended to create the first mask. Is there a way to duplicate masks in Adobe Photoshop? The answer is yes, there is.

If I visit my Layers panel again, this is what I’ll see.


Do you see the two duplicate layers above? Only one has a mask applied to it. To duplicate the mask, all I need to do is to click the existing mask thumbnail once to activate it and then hold down the Alt key on my keyboard. After that, I’ll need to click and drag the mask thumbnail to the layer I want it applied to and drop. That’s it. Take a look at the effect.


Now, I have duplicate masks that I could work on individually if I wanted to.

How to Invert a Mask​

Continuing on with my example, let’s say that I changed my mind. I’d like to keep what’s masked for the top layer, but I’d now like the reversed area masked for the bottom one. Wow, what a mess I got myself into. How the heck am I going to get the same exact, opposite, area masked? How can I get the lines between the two to match up? Well, there’s an easy answer to that. All I have to do is invert the bottom mask and that will accurately reverse everything the way it should.

The way to invert a mask is for me to click on the mask’s thumbnail once to activate it. Then, I’ll hold down the Ctrl key (Command on Mac) on my keyboard and press the letter I (eye) key on my keyboard. I is for invert. When I do that, I’ll see the mask in question flip so the area that was white is now black and vice-versa. Take a look. I just did this, so compare the two mask thumbnails in the screenshot below.


From here, I can continue on and do whatever I want.

How to Change a Mask’s Opacity (Density)​

If you want to change a layer’s opacity, all you have to do is push the Opacity slider that’s located at the top of the Layers panel back and forth.


This is fairly straightforward. The problem is, what if I don’t want to change the opacity of the entire layer? What if I want to change the opacity of just the effects of the layer mask? Can I do that? Again, the answer is yes, I can.

If I double-click one of the layer mask thumbnails in the Layers panel, the Properties panel for that mask will pop open. As a side note, for this example, I’ll hide the top layer so you can see what’s happening to the bottom layer’s mask. If I didn’t hide that top layer, you wouldn’t see any effect on the bottom.


Inside the Properties panel is a Density slider. Pushing this slider to the left and to the right controls how much of an effect the mask has on the part of the layer it’s currently masking. Pushing the slider to the left lessens the mask’s effect and allows the part of the image being masked to show through and pushing the slider to the right has the opposite effect.


If you look inside this Properties panel, you’ll also see an Invert button, among other things. Pushing this button has the same exact effect as using the keyboard shortcut I introduced earlier does. It inverts the mask. Personally, I use the keyboard shortcut because it’s much faster. I don’t have to take the time to open up the Properties panel every time I want to do this.


There they are. The four masking tips I promised I’d show you. I hope I did a thorough job explaining how to accomplish each one of these tasks. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this post, please leave them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!