Clipping Masks in Adobe Photoshop

  • Thread starter EmeraldHike
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May 10, 2021
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In Photoshop, masks are wonderful things. They allow us to non-destructively edit layers and they give us tons of flexibility. They’re so versatile, I’m tempted to say that editors, if they really tried, would be able to find an unlimited amount of use for them. In short, general masking does one thing in Photoshop. It shows and hides pixels in a way that’s totally correctable and changeable at any time.

As cool as regular layer masks are, they have a really big gaping pitfall about them. They affect every layer underneath them in the Layers panel. I know I’m simplifying this greatly and I’ll explain what I’m talking about down below, but just know this; there’s a difference between layer masks and clipping masks and when you discover what it is, you’ll love what clipping masks can do.

What is a Clipping Mask?​

Out there on the internet, you have the opportunity to spend countless hours reading horrible definitions of what layer masks and clipping masks are. I have no idea why people complicate things so much. Just a few moments ago, I read an entire (long) thread where people attempted to explain which type of mask does what. They accomplished one thing for sure. they thoroughly confused the person who asked the initial question. They went into crazy explanations about shapes and pixels and all sorts of stuff. All they needed to say was this:

Clipping Mask: A clipping mask is a group of layers to which a mask is applied. The bottommost layer, or base layer, defines the visible boundaries of the entire group.

This is from Adobe’s mouth, not mine. In my own words, this is what a clipping mask is – it’s a mask that has the ability to limit where it’s applied. Instead of having three images take up equal parts of a canvas in Photoshop where one mask is applied to all three layers equally, you can have those same three layers take up the same space, but have a clipping mask only affect two of those layers. Don’t worry, once you’re finished reading what I have to share below, you’ll be telling yourselves this is stupidly easy.

In today’s post, I’m going to use the example I just mentioned above to demonstrate how a clipping mask can isolate changes to a layer or layers in Adobe Photoshop. I’ll use the same image that I used for yesterday’s post and will briefly and clearly exemplify what one type of mask can do over the other.

This is something like what my final result will look like below.


Arranging the Images​

To start things off, I’ll open an image into Photoshop and duplicate its layer twice, so there are a total of three duplicate layers. After that, I’ll keep the bottom layer where it is and then nudge over the top two layers so each layer takes up a third of the image.

duplicate-layers.jpg thirds.jpg

Now, the file is perfectly set up for me to begin explaining how these different types of masks work.

Applying the Gradient Map Adjustment Layer​

I’m going to build off of yesterday’s post in that I’ll use the Gradient Map adjustment layer to show how things are done. So, to do this, I’ll make sure the top layer is selected and then I’ll go ahead and click on the Gradient Map adjustment layer icon in the Adjustments panel.


Just like yesterday, this will add an adjustment layer on top of the other layers and will open up the Properties panel for this particular adjustment.

Next, I’ll click on the current gradient inside the Properties panel, which will open up the Gradient Editor.


I’ll randomly click on one of the gradients I imported yesterday. Since this is just an example, I don’t really care which one I click on. I just need things to look much different than the original. When I’m happy with my choice, I’ll click the OK button.


Ahh, that looks pretty good. We can definitely see that an adjustment has been applied.

Current Status​

At this point, I need to talk about where I am in this process. Basically, I applied a mask (as an adjustment layer) that sits as the top layer in the Layers panel. Like I mentioned above, this mask affects every visible layer underneath it. So, if I used the Rectangular Marquee Tool to fill black into some of the mask, the part of the mask would be erased across all visible layers. I’ll do just that as an example.


There’s a full color rectangle at the center of all three images. Basically, I erased a rectangle’s worth of mask inside the file.

For better or for worse, when you apply a mask that sits above all visible layers, that mask will affect those layers. Any change made to the mask will change the layers underneath. At times, this is desirable and at other times, it isn’t. Next up, I’ll show you how to circumvent the issue of overall application with the use of a clipping mask.

Creating a Clipping Mask​

Remember up at the top of this post when I mentioned that we can control which layers a mask affects? Well, in this section, I’m going to show you how we can apply the same gradient as an adjustment layer, but have that gradient only apply the two top layers and ignore the bottom one. It’s simple to accomplish.

I’ll start back at the point where all images have a red gradient applied to them equally. After that, I’ll select both of the top two image layers by clicking on one and then holding the Shift key on my keyboard and then click on the other one. Once both layers are selected, I’ll drag them down to the Create New Group icon that sits at the bottom of the Layers panel. Once there, I’ll let go of my mouse.


This action will place the two selected layers into a Group inside the Layers panel. Take a look.


The funny thing is, even though I grouped the two layers I’d like the mask to be applied to, it’s still affecting all three of them. This is because I have yet to transform the regular mask into a clipping mask. I’ll do that now.

To create a clipping mask, I’ll select the mask I’d like to change. In this case, it’s the very top layer in the Layers panel. After that, I’ll head up to the top menu and click Layer > Create Clipping Mask.


Once that’s done, the mask layer will house a small downward facing arrow inside of it. It’s sort of tough to see, so I circled it in red. This arrow indicates that the mask in question only affects what’s directly below it.


More importantly, the mask now only affects the two layers in the group, leaving the bottom layer that’s not in the group completely untouched.


Really, that’s all that’s necessary in this case. Since I only wanted the mask to touch certain layers, I grouped them and turned the mask into a clipping mask. Hopefully, you can see the value in doing this and will be able to use something like this in the real world. Like so many other things when learning Adobe Photoshop, what I explained in this post is merely a concept. It’s how you apply this concept in your own projects that matters.

I hope you enjoyed today’s post. If you have any questions or concerns, please leave them in the comments section below. Thanks for reading!


May 10, 2021
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Using Clipping Masks for Cool Text Effects in Adobe Photoshop​

One of the most common Photoshop questions I see floating around out there on the internet looks something like, “How do get an image you show through text?” Or maybe it’s something like, “How do I turn text into an image?” Either way, whoever is asking these questions basically wants to know the same thing; they would like to know how to set up a clipping mask. Now, I know I already went through this in a post I wrote a while back that had to do with video, but I’m not sure I ever discussed the much more common and straightforward application of one of these things with static elements. I think I’ll do just that today.

Combining Vector Shapes with Clipping Masks for Video in Adobe Photoshop

How to Use Type with a Clipping Mask in Adobe Photoshop

What are Clipping Masks in Adobe Photoshop?

In today’s post, I’m going to demonstrate how to go about making a photograph show through some text inside of Adobe Photoshop. To accomplish this, I’ll make use of the two-step clipping mask process. This is a super simple technique that can definitely assist you through your entire design career, so please read on below. I’ll first set up the mask with a photo and then I’ll set it up with some additional text.

The Setup​

Okay, I’ve already gone ahead and set up an empty document in Photoshop. I then used the Horizontal Type Tool to write the word LION in its own layer.


Here’s the output of that.


As you can see, I created a document with a white background and black text, although, the colors of these things don’t matter. I just chose them because they were clear.

I also have a photo of an actual lion in another tab in Photoshop. Before dragging that over to the text document, I’ll resize it so the image is only 700 pixels wide. When I do this, the width of the photo will match the width of the text document. Here’s the resized photo of the lion.


At this point, I’ll go ahead and click and drag the layer from the Layers panel of the lion image tab and drag it up and over to the tab of the text document. When the visible file changes from the lion image to the text document, I’ll continue dragging the lion image down and drop it on top of the text. And finally, I’ll align the photo so it matches the edges of the text document. Here’s what I’ll have in the Layers panel of this all encompassing document.


So, as you can see, I have the lion image layer, the text layer and the background layer. That’s all I need.

Applying the Clipping Mask​

You’re going to love this because it’s so easy. As I mentioned above, making the text look like it’s a cutout of the photograph takes only two steps. The first one is actually finished already. Basically, it has to do with ordering the photos. In this case, since I want the text to be the primary player and the lion photo to show through the text, the lion photo needs to be on top, above the text layer. The second step actually creates the clipping mask. To do this, I’ll hover my mouse pointer over the divider between the lion and text layers. Then, I’ll press the Alt key on my keyboard. When the pointer changes into an arrow, I’ll click. That’s it. It’s that simple.

How do I know if it worked? Well, the lion image thumbnail will be indented and there will be a visible arrow to the left of it. Take a look.


Also, the file now looks like it should. A really cool layer effect.


How cool is that?

Working with Text on Text​

I’ve seen some pretty neat stuff out there and when people create clipping masks that include text on text, I think it’s the neatest. So, in case you’re interested, I’ll show you how to do something like that right now. It requires exactly the same steps.

The first thing I’ll do is to hide the lion image layer by clicking on the small eye icon to the left of the thumbnail in the Layers panel. Then, I’ll use the Horizontal Type Tool again to paste in a paragraph of random text. I’m using random because this is only a demonstration. Obviously, if I were creating a real graphic, I’d be more careful. I’ll make this pasted text black.

Finally, I’ll change the color of the LION text to white. I’ll end up with something that looks like this:


I’ll also arrange the layers so the random text is on top, the LION text is beneath that and then the background layer is on the bottom. The Layers panel looks like this:


Again, I made it so the lion image isn’t visible, so just ignore that layer.

So, to make it so the random text appears as a cutout in the shape of the word LION, I’ll simply follow the instructions I gave earlier. I’ll hover my mouse pointer over the area between the random text layer and the LION text layer and press the ALT key on my keyboard. When I see the arrow appear, I’ll click. This is what I’ll get:


Now that’s pretty neat.


I hope I clearly explained how clipping masks work in Adobe Photoshop and gave some entertaining examples along the way. If you have any questions or concerns regarding this post, please leave them in the comment section below. Thanks for reading!