What Lies Beneath - Part 1

 Feb 20, 2014

Free yourself with masking in Photoshop!

But what is a mask you ask? In completely non-technical terms, think of the mask of Zoro or a carnival or Halloween mask. The mask hides the wearers face, yet you see their eyes and sometimes more. In Adobe Photoshop and other graphics programs, we use masks of varying types to hide portions of graphics. This is referred to as a form of non-destructive editing because you can edit what is hidden.

Before masking, many users new to Photoshop engage a more permanent method of editing. Working on your image, you may extract selected contents from layers and place them into new layers. You might delete unwanted content from layers with erasers and other methods. This is fine if you never need to change the area that you are keeping.

What if you do need to make a change? What if, after making a laborious selection, followed by copying the selected contents to a new layer, you realise that you forgot to include something? You will need to go back to the original image layer and either extract the additional contents or completely redo the content gathering operation. All this can be avoided by using layer masks.

Non-destructive editing through masks gives a Photoshop user the agility to quickly edit and re-edit image assets. This flexibility is an essential skillset to aiding the editing of images in Photoshop as may be required for jobs or for non-professional creative endeavours. Thankfully, masks can be used on all the different types of layers (i.e. image, type, adjustment, smart objects and fill).

Below are two ways to create a mask from a selection. Before you begin, be sure to select the image area you wish to keep and make sure the layer you wish to mask is selected. If it is a background layer, double click on its name to convert it to an image layer.

Method 1: Creating a mask with refine edge

  1. Use one of the four ways to launch Refine Edge: a) Select 'Menu' > Refine Edge or b) Ctrl+Alt+R on Windows or c) Command+Option+R on Mac or d) 'Refine Edge Button' on the options bar when the selection tool is active
  2. Modify the selection area in refine edge as desired
  3. Select one of the following from the 'output to' drop down list. a) Layer Mask - this uses your selection as a mask in the currently active layer b) New Layer with Layer Mask - this duplicates the currently active layer and adds your selection as a mask
Layer Masks in Photoshop

Method 2: Using the layers panel or menu to mask the active layer

  1. Make sure you are happy with your selection and that the layer you wish to mask is active.
  2. Click the layer mask button located at the bottom of the layer panel. Alternatively, navigate to the 'Layer' menu bar, choose 'Layer Mask' and select 'Reveal Selection.'

After using either of the above methods, the unwanted image area on the active layer will be hidden. Today, I've gone through two different methods for creating masks in Photoshop. Next week, I'll show you how to edit these layer masks with a number of different Photoshop tools. Stay tuned!

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About the Author:

Katherine Davis  

With over 15 years of experience, Kate is one of New Horizons most knowledgeable and skilled Desktop Applications and Graphic Design trainers. She approaches each training event with an understanding of the student’s perspective and with their learning goals in mind. Her extensive knowledge and dynamic training style enables her to engage users of all varying skills levels and ensure that each student’s learning goals are achieved. Kate is especially well known around the New Horizons office for her creative flair and talent in using the Adobe suite. She takes a genuine satisfaction from helping students solve issues and always makes an extra effort to ensure that students have an enjoyable learning experience.

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