Layer Masks are one of the first steps in advancing your skills as a photo retoucher. They are quick, simple, and rather intuitive once you get the hang of them. So let’s begin…
To create a Layer Mask you will usually need to have at least two layers. You can use a layer mask on an adjustment layer, a copy of the background layer, or a new image above the original. Let’s begin by working on an adjustment layer.
Select an adjustment layer of your choice. For learning purposes, we will be converting our image to black and white, and then painting one element in color. To do this, make sure your color palette is set to the default black and white by hitting Ctrl+D (Cmd+D on a Mac). Now select the the Gradient Adjustment Layer, indicated by the gradient icon (see below).
Click on the Gradient Map Bar. When the window pops up, click “OK”.
When selecting adjustment layers, the layer mask will automatically pop up next to it. By default it will be a white layer mask. White is opaque. It makes everything on that layer visible . As you can see, my entire image was effected by the adjustment layer because the layer mask is white.
Black is the alternative color when working with adjustment layers. A black layer mask is transparent, which means everything on a layer with a black layer mask will not be visible. (I like to think of a black layer mask as a hole, revealing all the contents below it.) You can switch your white layer mask to black by hitting Ctrl+I (Cmd+I for Mac users).
Now, we can use a combination of black and white layer masks to reveal certain elements of each of our layers. (I’m going to keep my layer mask white for this tutorial.) Making sure your brush is set black, select a fuzzy brush and paint on your white layer mask to reveal the color below. (Be sure your layer mask is selected and not the layer itself.) Everywhere you paint in black, you will be revealing the color on the layer below it.
The color in the apple is revealed by the black on the layer mask above it. As stated above, it is as though we created a hole in the b&w layer where we painted in black on the white layer mask.
Layer Masks on a New Layer
If you are working on a new layer rather than an adjustment layer, you can access your layer masks by clicking the icon at the bottom of your layers palette as indicated below. It will give you a white layer mask by default. If you would like a black layer mask, hold down the Alt (Opt on a Mac) key as you click the icon, or you can hit Ctrl+I (Cmd+I) after the layer mask has already been applied.
It’s that simple. Play around with layer masks (practicing with black and white masking, different layers and adjustment layers). You’ll be amazed what you can come up with!
Sonya Adcock is a fine art photographer based in the beautiful state of Pennsylvania. She specializes in artistic child photography. Sonya’s artwork has been featured in Photography Monthly Magazine, Digital SLR Magazine, and Redbook Magazine. In the hectic pace of a digital era, her artwork encourages you to slow down and remember the joys and magic of childhood.
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