Layers and Masks in Photoshop

Level: Basic

Carnival in Venice is a good time for starting a masking series, isn’t it? Again, if you not yet use photoshop this might be a good opportunity to join the game. The upcoming tutorials will make you feel comfortable with using PS very quickly.

To understand the base concept of masking first we have to understand the theoretical concept of layers in Photoshop – those two go together like twins, since we always want to mask the effect of a layer.

The Base Concept of Layers

Many adjustments in Photoshop are destructive. Once applied to the image the original file will be corrupted forever. Autsch, this does not sound good at all. But there is a solution: working with layers.

Starting with a base file (our plain photo) layer by layer we add our adjustments on top of the original document, virtually, to not harm the base file. One layer we add for brightening the image, then a layer for enhancing the contrast, a third color correction, and so on.

Whenever all layers are deleted we have the original file again, totally unharmed. That is how Lightroom works by nature. In Photoshop we have to take care about the layers ourselves as noted in my previous post. The safest is working in a copy of your original.

A side effect of using layers is having much more opportunities of adjusting the desired effect.

Let’s say we worked on the brightness, and looking on the file tomorrow again we decide to have added a bit too much. We don’t have to redo all the editing, simply lower the opacity of the layer, reducing its effect on the underlying original image.

Furthermore we can decide how to blend in the layer with the underlying image. This is done by choosing different Blending Modes (standard is “Normal”). You can experiment with them, but that’s a quite complicated field, maybe one day a topic for posting.

Let’s now move forward to the essence: masking.

The Base Concept of Masking

Unfortunately an adjustment layer for brightening, sharpening, contrast, or saturation is always applied to the whole image.

Just imagine a photo of a lady in a yellow coat. What if we want to increase the saturation in the coat but neither in the model’s face nor the background?

We will add a saturation layer and increase the saturation of the image. But we want the effect to just be shown on the coat, excluding all the rest. Therefore we take out the effect all around the coat, partly blocking the effect with a mask.

A mask you can imagine like a stencil. If you would first print our made-up photo with the lady wearing a yellow coat, then take a piece of paper, cut out just a stencil of exactly the shape of the coat, put the rest of the sheet of paper back on the photo (having a hole where the coat is) and spray with a strong yellow color across the whole paper. What happened?

As a result the coat will be the color of the yellow you sprayed (having passed the hole in the paper mask you created) and the rest of the photo was protected from the effect by the sheet of paper which still was in place. You have masked your second layer (the paper) to apply an effect (saturated yellow) to just the coat.

No different is the technique in Photoshop. Well, please do not take scissors and start cutting out from your monitor. And please do not spray on your monitor either unless you want to convince your partner from needing a new device. But that’s a different story.

Back to Photoshop. Whenever we add an adjustment layer to a photo we can make the effect show only in a specific are by creating a suiting layer mask.

Sometimes we want to darken just the sky working with a gradient mask. Or we might want to brighten the face of a person painting our mask by hand, or add saturation to a color by using a color mask. All of that and way more will be upcoming. Starting with the most basic masks we will work our way to most sophisticated masking picking just the little details you want to retouch.

Stay tuned!



We believe in the value of change.

Destruction gives place to new.

New mistaken for better.

Nature, monuments, traditions – nothing sacred.

No questions. No balance.

Emotions and senses vanish.

Lost vocabulary: dignity and respect.

Acting today impacts the future.

We shall better preserve.

We shall better take care.

Irreversible destruction is everlasting.

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