What Does Masking Mean In Photoshop

By | 10/11/2022

A Consummate Beginner’south Guide to Masking in Photoshop

Several years agone a friend of mine asked me to teach him how masks work in Photoshop. This is my incredibly tardily response.

We’ll go over the basics of what masks are, what they’re used for and how wielding them properly will accept your Photoshop skills to an entirely new level.

What Is a Mask?

Layers are probably the single most important addition to Photoshop since the original version, merely layer masks are a close second. I would posit that until y’all thoroughly sympathise how and why to use masks, you simply don’t empathise the power of Photoshop.

The term “mask” isn’t immediately understandable to someone exterior the realm of graphic design. At its simplest definition a mask is a way to employ something to a very specific portion of an epitome.

There are two chief types of masks: clipping masks and layer masks. These two tools are closely related in concept, but very unlike in application. Let’s offset by discussing layers masks, which are by and large what people are referring to when you hear them discuss Photoshop masking.

Layer Masks

A layer mask is something that you apply to a given layer to control the transparency of that layer. Where
layer opacity
controls the transparency of the unabridged layer at in one case, a
gives you more precise controls over very specific areas. If yous want the entire layer to be at 30%, you lot would lower the opacity, if y’all desire but the left side of a layer to be at 30%, you would employ a mask.

When y’all add together a mask to a layer, it covers the entire affair with an invisible grayscale sheet. In that location are ways to see it that we’ll check out later just simply know that every bit a full general rule, applying a mask to a layer won’t cause whatsoever immediate visual differences unless you have an active selection at the time.

On this invisible canvas, yous can paint white, black or any level of grayness in-betwixt. The color that you lot paint tells Photoshop how opaque to make the pixels at that point. White means 100% opacity and black means 0% opacity.

With this in heed, try to imagine what the mask beneath would do to a layer:


As you can come across, if our mask was all white with the three circles shown above, we would have a completely visible layer where in all the white areas, and spots of transparency in the circles. If we apply this mask to a layer, this is the result:


Clipping Masks

Clipping masks are very similar to layer masks simply they utilise one layer to determine the transparency of some other. In this scenario, yous stack 2 layers on top of each other with the bottom being the determining factor of the transparency of the top.

Instead of using black and white values though, clipping masks simply borrow transparency from the layers used to make them, namely the bottom layer. If the lesser layer has some areas that are opaque and some areas that are transparent, a clipping mask will apply these values to the top layer.

This one is hard to explicate without an example, but becomes crystal articulate when you see it in action. Let’due south utilize the two layers shown below and say that our goal here is to cut or “clip” the woods layer to exist in the shape of the messages. Notice that, at this point, the woods is the bottom layer and the text is the top layer.


To achieve the event that nosotros want, just swap the position of the layers so that the forest is on the top, then go to the Layers menu at the top of your screen and select “Create Clipping Mask” (Command-Option-One thousand). Voila, we now have the upshot we were going for. Where the text layer was opaque, the wood layer is now opaque and where the text layer was transparent, the forest layer is now transparent.


In that location’s some actually interesting functionality here. You can nonetheless position and brand changes to each of the ii layers independently. By dragging around the wood layer, yous move the position of the texture inside the bounds of the messages while the letters themselves stay stationary.

Too, yous can apply layer effects to the compilation via the lesser layer. For instance, hither’southward what happens if nosotros select the text layer and add an Inner Shadow.


Clipping masks fun, functional and underrated, simply the truth is that layer masks are far more than common in every day use. The information in a higher place should be enough to become you off and running with clipping masks so from here on out we’ll focus purely on layer mask functionality.

How Do I Make a Layer Mask?

Now that we have a strong grasp of exactly what masks are and how the two different types of masks differ, let’s see how to create and work with a layer mask.

The first affair we need is two layers. I grabbed the two images below from photographers Adrian Durlea and Erik Soderstrom. The shack image is on the lesser and the fire is on the peak.


The general idea hither is to take some, not all, of the fire and apply it to the shack. The first pace is to stack the two images as we see above and prepare the fire layer’south blending fashion to Screen. This will make all of the black pixels transparent, which blends the two images together nicely.


With that one change, this is already a pretty decent image! Let’s say though that we want to only have fire near the door of the shack. To accomplish this, we’ll demand to add a mask to the fire layer. Select the fire layer and click the mask icon shown in the paradigm below.


At present, with the mask selected in the layers palette, we catch a soft, black castor and paint out the portions of the burn that nosotros don’t desire to see. As we do this, the burn down begins to disappear. To bring it back, we simply paint white.

As you can run into in the paradigm below, with merely a little painting, our burn is now much more centralized to the portion of the epitome that’southward already lit up and therefore looks decently natural.


To come across the actual mask, Choice-Click (Alt-Click on a PC) on the little mask preview in the layers palette (Shift-click to hide the mask completely). After painting out some of our fire, this brings up the following:


Notice that we’re not just constrained to hard edges. The dazzler of masks is that y’all can do anything you lot want with them as long as you can pull it off in values of gray. This means you can paint, clone, create and fill selections, copy and paste, and all kinds of other actions you lot perform on the main canvas.

Why Not Just Erase?

Upon first learning how to use masks, most rookies call up the same thing: “I can already do all of this with the eraser tool.” Incorrect! In fact, as far equally I’m concerned, once you larn to mask, you should literally never pick up the eraser tool again considering it tends to exist and so destructive.

What exercise I mean by destructive? Call back about what happens when y’all use the eraser tool: it erases pixels. Heed you, it doesn’t hide them for a while until you want them back, it “destroys” the pixels. The changes that you make by deleting portions of a layer are permanent and can’t exactly be tweaked subsequently.


This is just a horrible way to work. With every new iteration of Photoshop, Adobe gives us more than and more ways to make non-destructive edits, significant those that don’t truly alter the original pixel data. For case, Filters used to be a permanent and destructive change, if yous blurred a layer, it was stuck that way! Now, with Smart Filters, you tin always get back and adjust or even delete the blur.

This same concept gave birth to masks many years ago. With a mask, you non only take the ability to make remarkably detailed decisions almost the transparency of a layer or group of layers, even better, you take the freedom to go back and refine or scrap those changes at any fourth dimension. If I had erased my fire in the example above, information technology would be gone forever and bringing it back would involve importing the layer all over once again. Nonetheless, because I used a mask, all I have to practise is fill up that mask with white and immediately all of my fire detail returns.

To use the metaphor of an actual mask, imagine that you desire to alter your appearance for Halloween. You have two options: the get-go is to undergo plastic surgery to permanently alter your face to look similar that of a scary brute and the second is to wear a mask. In this scenario, the eraser tool is plastic surgery. It’s simply a bad selection when yous’re not sure that y’all want the changes to be permanent. Become with the mask instead.

Advanced Masking Techniques

The information above is an absolute beginner’s guide to masks. Odds are, if you’ve been using Photoshop for a while, not a single slice of this was news to you lot. In fact, yous may be thinking that masks are then incredibly simple that they barely merit conversation.

Even so, masking techniques go from simple to wickedly complex really fast. It’s easy plenty to paint some broad strokes to erase large portions of an image, but what if yous want to do something more complex? For example, let’south say we want to take the cat below off of its white background.


Furry animals make particularly difficult masking subjects. All of that fine pilus detail means making an authentic choice will be time consuming. The Magic Wand or even the Pen Tool are of no utilize to us here. So how practise the pros start with the image above and create a mask like the one below?


If you lot’re set up to find out, continue reading as we undertake this feat!

Change the Channel

The skilful news about the true cat image is that there is plenty of contrast to work with. The primal to making a adept mask is finding dissimilarity and knowing how to pull information technology out. Here we have a fairly night cat on a bright white background, which means all we have to do is figure out how to leverage our practiced fortune and convert the contrast already nowadays into a suitable mask.

The outset pace in a project similar this is to jump over to the Channels Palette and await for the aqueduct with the most contrast. And then in our case, nosotros want the channel with the darkest cat and the brightest background, which turns out to be the blue channel.


Make a copy of the blue aqueduct, select information technology and hit Command-50 to bring upwardly a Levels Adjustment. Darken the shadows and the midtones then that there is a crazy amount of contrast like in the image below. Be careful to no go too far with this adjustment. You’ll want to zoom in and watch the hair detail on the fringes of the fur to brand sure y’all’re not clipping too much. It doesn’t have to exist perfectly blackness and white at this point, some dark grays are acceptable.


At this point you lot run across one of the trickiest steps of the entire procedure. The goal is to get as much of the cat equally closest to blackness every bit yous tin. This is easy for the confront potions and other random spots nigh the eye, merely grab a black brush and fill them in. But what almost the edge of the pilus?

It turns out one of the best ways to handle this task is to use a couple of unlikely candidates: the Contrivance and Burn down Tools. The reason these piece of work so well is that they tin accurately target sure ranges of gray extremely accurately. I set the Contrivance Tool to target the highlights and the Burn Tool to target the shadows, take hold of a medium size soft brush and make my way around the edges of the epitome, burning shadows and dodging highlights until I like the level of detail that I’thousand seeing.


This may sound like a time-intensive task, and it can be for some images, but in truth the Dodge and Fire Tools experience like magic when you’re using them and take much of the piece of work out. I was able to come with a slap-up looking silhouette in simply a infinitesimal or 2.


Once yous’re washed here, hit Command-Shift-I to inverse the aqueduct so that the cat is white and the background is black like in the image beneath. Remember that, in masking, white is opaque and blackness is transparent.


Converting the Channel to a Mask

Now that we have a aqueduct that accurately represents what we desire from a mask, how do nosotros convert it? At that place are a few ways to do this but the easiest is just to Command-click on the channel to load a pick. With a selection loaded, return to your cat layer and click the New Mask button. That’s all there is to it!


Defringing the Mask

As you can come across, despite a super detailed mask, we still have some white fringing occurring around the edges. Getting rid of this can literally have hours of deadening work if y’all don’t know what y’all’re doing. For starters, we tin can utilize the fantastic new Masks Palette in conjunction with Refine Edge to brand some alive adjustments to our mask.


Utilizing these tools properly takes practice. I won’t comprehend them closely now because it would take so much fourth dimension only I encourage you to dig in and play with all of the controls to get a experience for what they do. Oftentimes, you can patch up a crude border in seconds with these sliders, but with our cat project I wasn’t really getting whatsoever results that I liked so I cancelled out this operation altogether.

Instead, I went to the Layer bill of fare at the tiptop of the screen and selected Matting>Color Decontaminate. This is an near hidden command that has the ability to yield some amazing results. Equally you can come across in the prototype beneath, information technology went a long way toward reducing our halo. Annotation that this control is actually destructive so you should always indistinguishable your layer earlier using it.


From here, the last trick I employ is to expect for problematic areas and really run the clone brush over the fringes. The mask keeps everything looking nice and cloning replaces unnatural colors with those from the actual fur of the cat in other places. Compare the dorsum and head of the true cat in the image below to that in a higher place to see the comeback.


Finishing Up

From hither information technology becomes a factor of how much time you want to spend refining your result. With complicated masks like these in that location is e’er room for improvement but you’ll find that the point of diminishing returns on your time spent becomes easier and easier to spot as your skill level improves.


The technique we just discussed is just to give y’all a taste of how advanced masking can become. There are a ton of different types of images to mask and therefore a one thousand thousand different tricks and techniques to effigy out along the way which can be mixed and matched on a per-project ground. Do makes perfect, simply exist bold and never become intimidated by a masking job that seems also complex. Think through the process one footstep at a time and observe ways to pull out the detail yous demand.


To sum up, at that place are two master types of masks in Photoshop: layer masks and clipping masks. Layer masks use values of gray to assign levels of transparency to specific portions of a layer or group of layers while clipping masks utilize the transparency of one layer to define that of a dissimilar layer or group of layers.

Also, while masking in simple in concept, the bodily art takes considerable time, education and practice to master. Leave a annotate below and let u.s.a. know if yous learned anything from the information above. Also be sure to share any unique masking techniques or tricks you might take!

Photo Credits: Adrian Durlea, Erik Soderstrom, and Sergiu Bacioiu.

Source: https://designshack.net/articles/graphics/a-complete-beginners-guide-to-masking-in-photoshop/