Basic Masking in Photoshop

Photoshop basic masking

Level: Basic

Finally practical work begins using layers and masks. This tutorial will be written step by step as if you never used Photoshop before. Therefore it is a good opportunity to start into a new level of post processing. All others hopefully don’t mind to have this written up a bit more in detail than generally needed.

Get Started

Take the first step. To work on an image we need an image first.

Let’s start with something simple and open any kind of jpeg in Photoshop, no matter what the photo shows. Make sure to not open the original jpg file but A COPY of it!! If you open a raw file just click away the camera raw dialogue to reach the main part of Photoshop quickly.

Now on the right side you should see a “Background” layer in the layers panel. As noted in the previous tutorials make sure to have your Photoshop workspace set to Photography (Window -> Workspace -> Photography). This brings up the adjustments panel (probably also on the right) with little icons for brightness, curves, saturation, and more.

In case you don’t see that panel look into the Window tab in the top menu bar again and make sure to have “Adjustments” checked there.

Now within the panel search for the adjustment called Brightness/Contrast, looking like a sunshine icon. Found it? When clicking two things will happen: first an adjustment tab will pop up with two sliders, brightness and contrast. Push the brightness slider to the far right (totally overexposing your image). Second a new layer was added on top of your “Background” layer.

Not really difficult yet, right? You should now see two layers, your background one and on top one with a small circle half black half white usually already accompanied by a white rectangle. That’s your brightness/contrast layer including a white mask.

Clicking on the black and white circle in the layer once activates the layer, clicking the circle twice should bring up the corresponding properties menu as a popup. Clicking on the white rectangle once will activate the mask, twice will bring up the mask properties popup.

In case in your version of Photoshop for any reason no rectangle white mask was added to the layer automatically, we’ll have to do manually. No problem. Click on the brightness layer for activating it. In the bottom of the layers menu you should see a couple of symbols: kind of a chain element, the letters fx, and next to it a white rectangle with kind of a hole in the center. Click this one and a white rectangular layer mask is added to your layer activated.

Let’s recall that you should see two layers in the layers menu on the right now (Background and Brightness/Contrast) and that your picture should presently be way overexposed – otherwise something went wrong in the first steps.

Understand the Mask Effect

As long as the mask is white the effect is not blocked. That means, in our case the effect of brightening is applied to the whole image and not blocked at all. Let’s now do the opposite. Click on the rectangular white mask in the brightness layer once for activating it. Press the keys Ctrl+i for inverting the mask. It should now be black – and as a side effect all of the brightening disappeared. Ha! A black mask seems to block the effect.

Ok, we already learned something: White in the mask lets the effect come through, black blocks it. Or simpler: white reveals and black conceals. Both options, a totally white and totally black mask are really sophisticated. The white one actually has the same effect as not having a mask at all and the black one totally blocks our layer’s effect.

But what if we have parts of the mask white and others black?

Painting a Mask by Hand

First make sure to activate the mask in the brightness layer. As far as you did not invert it again, the layer mask should still be black from our testing (no effect applied on the image). Click on the brush icon in the tools panel (Tools have to be checked in the “Windows” menu) or use the shortcut “b” for selecting the brush tool in Photoshop. Now we want to paint into the black mask with white color, to partly take out the effect applied, with a reasonably large brush size.

Excursion: How set my brush for size and painting white? We start with the color: In the tools panel in the lower part you will see two squares, one upper indicating the foreground color and one further in the back for the background color. Don’t care about the second presently.

Double-click the upper of both squares and set the color to white. A faster approach is working with shortcuts again. Pressing “d” will switch the squares back do default black and white. Pressing “x” will swap foreground and background quickly. I highly recommend learning some of those shortcuts; they will save you a lot of time working in Photoshop!

The brush size you can change by either right click into your image when the brush tool is selected or in the menu in the top (right below the main menu line).

Make sure to click on the black mask once (not on the whole layer, click on the mask only!). The upper square in the tools panel is white now? You still have the brush tool chosen? Only the mask is activated in the brightness layer? Then we are ready to start.

With your brush now paint an area in your image you want to brighten. What happened? If everything worked as planned the image is bright now in all areas you painted with the brush. Keep in mind, since we have activated the layer mask we only painted in the mask (even though you cannot see it). It just looks like you have painted in your image directly.

Want a proof? The black mask in the brightness layer should now show some white parts (the areas you painted). Sometimes it is difficult to see the effect on the tiny mask. Holding the Alt-key while clicking on the mask should enlarge it. At all parts which are still black in the mask the effect is blocked. Just in the parts you painted white on the mask the effect of the layer now is applied.

Certainly you could also paint with your brush in the large version of the mask. But then you do not see which areas in the image you are brightening. Therefore we usually activate the mask and make sure to paint the effect in while having clear sight on the underlying image.

Again, since the mask in the brightness layer was activated before painting and not the base layer image, you seemingly painted in the image but actually you painted in the mask.

Well, now we have the overexposure in the area you painted with the brush, and the original image you see in all the areas you did not paint. But overexposure sounds terrible, can’t we scale it down a bit? Nothing simpler than that.

If you want to scale the effect of brightness there are two options. Either you already lower the opacity of your brush strokes before painting (“b” for picking the brush tool and then look for the brush opacity box in the menu in the top). If you paint with 30 percent opacity each brush stroke in the mask will only apply 30 percent of your layer effect.

Another method would be lowering the opacity of the whole layer in the layers menu on the right after you have painted your mask. We will use both techniques over time.

Whenever you dislike a brush stroke undo and redo it by Ctrl+z. Or if you want to undo more than one step press Alt+Ctrl+z a couple of times. Shift+click on the mask will disable the mask. A click on the eye icon next to the layer will make the whole layer effect invisible.

Those are many ways to check whether you like the strength of your effect, knowing all gives you flexibility later. No worries, we will constantly use those steps throughout all Photoshop tutorials.

As long as you have the black mask of the brightness layer activated you will paint in the effect by painting with a white brush on the mask. If you’ve been a little bit too enthusiastic in painting hit the “x” key for making the black square in the tools panels your foreground color of painting. Paint in the overexposed areas and each black brush stroke will take out the effect again (as long as your brush is still set to paint with 100 percent opacity).

Keep in mind, when brushing with black color on the black parts of the mask certainly nothing will happen.

Sometimes we want to do the opposite, apply the layer effect to the whole image but just taking it out in a few little areas. Do you know already? We just add a white mask to the layer we are working with, click on the mask, and paint out the effect with a black brush. The effect is literally painted away with the black brush.

the effect is too strong? Sure, for demonstration purpose we had moved the brightness slider to the far right. We can either lower the opacity of the layer to scale down or double-click on the little black and white circle in the brightness layer to make the properties panel show up again. Move the brightness slider to the left again step by step until the amount of brightness is as you prefer.

Tipp: When you discover to paint black or white lines into your image instead of applying the overexposure effect of the layer then you probably have not clicked on the mask properly but have the whole layer activated instead.

Use Marquee Tools

Sometimes you want to apply an effect to a circle area (pupils), or an oval one (whole eyes, vignette). Painting exact circles by hand will be pretty challenging (especially if painting with the computer’s mouse device instead of using a Wacom tablet). But Photoshop offers us the Marquee tools.

Delete the old mask in the brightness layer by right click with the mouse and choosing “Delete Layer Mask” from the pop-up menu. Add a new black mask to the brightness layer (Alt+click on the mask icon in the bottom of your layers panel, the one next to fx as noted above. Or add a white mask and invert it with Ctrl+i).

Activate your mask with a click on the black mask. Or even better, just for walking a new path of editing, this time Alt+click on the mask. Now you see the underlying image disappear but the full scale mask instead.

In the tools palette click on the Marquee tool (probably the rectangle icon quite in the top is the one you see first). If you hold down the mouse button on the icon just a little bit longer, more Marquee tools will show up.

Excursion: Shortcut for selecting a tool in the Marquee tools group is the key “m”. With Shift+m you can switch from one tool in the group to the next. 

Opt for the Ecliptical Marquee tool and with the mouse pull an oval selection on your black mask (if you want to do a circle hold the Shift key while pulling the oval).

Still nothing happened. We see a black mask with a dotted line (marching ants) as an oval selection. Well, we want to stencil out a white oval area in the mask therefore we have to manage filling the selection with white. In the tools panel select the Paint Bucket tool (which is in the menu of the Gradient tool – don’t ask me why. Again hold the mouse button pressed on the Gradient tool icon a little bit to make the other tools shop up if the Paint Bucket tool is not on top already. Keyboard shortcut is “g” for gradient tool group and Shift+g for jumping from tool to tool within this group).

Make sure your foreground color in the two little squares down the tools palette is white again (otherwise switch by using the shortcut keys “d” and “x”). Then simply click into the oval selection with the Paint Bucket tool filling it with the foreground color white. Here we go, black background with white oval or circle.

Excursion: An alternative way would have been to pull the oval selection with the Marquee tool, to right-click into the selection and and choose “Fill” from the pop-up menu, to opt for foreground or background fill depending whether white is selected as foreground or background color in the two little squares in the tools panel. Same result, the oval is white now and all the rest around is black.

Keep in mind we worked in the full scale mask all time. We have no idea yet how the effect looks like in our image. Therefore click on the brightness layer (this time not on the mask but on the black and white circle left to it to get back to the image view. If the marching ants of your selection are still visible get rid of them with Ctrl+d.

Excursion: We could also have worked in the mask with the image underlying visible, as we did with creating the brush painted mask. Instead of the Alt+click on the mask earlier we would have opted for simply activating it with a click, same as above. 

The effect of the brightening layer should now be applied in the oval center part of the image only, but not in the corners. I agree the sharp edge of effect and no effect looks very stupid. We’ll improve this in the Paragraph “Hide our Tracks” further down.

Tipp: Darkening your image and masking out the center (black oval in the center of the mask) will apply a vignette to your image.

Gradient Mask

Last mask effect for today. What about applying the effect as a gradient, having no effect on the left of the image and getting stronger and stronger the more we go to the right of the image.

We have been really close to this tool already in the Marquee technique but shifted away taking a different path. Ok, we again delete the old black layer mask in the brightness layer (the one with the oval) by right-click on the mask and option “Delete Layer Mask”. Then activate the brightness layer and add a new white mask by simply clicking on the add mask icon in the bottom.

Choose the Gradient tool in the tools panel (it’s in the same group of tools as the Paint Bucket tool you used in the previous chapter). Make sure to have activated the white mask by clicking on it once.

Now start pulling a line from the left of your image to the right of your image with the Gradient tool. When you let it go you’ll see the layer mask has turned into a gradient from left to right. In your image the effect also should be added gradually from left to right.

The gradient is in the wrong direction, left to right instead of right to left? No worries. Click on the mask in the brightness layer and invert it by pressing Ctrl+i. Done.

Tipp: Darkening an image with lots of sky and applying a gradient from top to the horizon line can make the sky more interesting.

Hide our Tracks

Generally we don’t want the viewer of an image to discover our work on the file. Therefore we have to hide our tracks.

Delete the layer mask in the brightness layer again (right-click) and add a new black mask. Either paint in some white areas or use the Marquee tool. We end up with the same effect as reached before, but now we want smoother transitions.

Double click on the mask when it’s created and a properties panel with two sliders called “Density” and “Feather” will show up. Density will define the opacity of your mask (yes, a third option of lowering the opacity).

Feather will blur the edges of our brush strokes or the outline of the marquee tool oval. Just push the slider to the right until you feel your adjustments will not be apparent anymore for a first time viewer of the image.

Personally I tend to feather or blur nearly all of my adjustments in Photoshop, unelss it’s a smooth transition anyway like the gradient.


Beginners today should have (hopefully) learned plenty of new in this tutorial. We looked into using layers and masks, using tools like brushes, marquee, and gradient, using the opacity feature of brushes and layers, inverting masks, choosing a brush color, working with useful shortcuts, and much more. I think that should keep you busy testing for a couple of days.

Whenever testing with your images please, please, please make sure to work with copies of your images and never in the originals!!

Next week we will continue with much more sophisticated masking, automated by Photoshop itself, where we make use of all the techniques learned in this tutorial here.

Stay tuned!



We believe in the value of change.

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