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Photoshop Elements Tutorial: 5 Uses for Clipping Masks

by Erin Peloquin on August 3, 2012 · 6 comments

Clipping masks in Photoshop Elements were used in a tutorial I did a few weeks back about an advanced layer masking feature.  Today, we’re going to dig deeper into the clipping mask – it’s one of those features in Elements that doesn’t make a lot of sense until you actually need it.

A clipping mask is a stack of 2 or more layers that the same layer mask is applied to.  The bottom layer in this stack, called the base layer, controls the mask, blend mode and layer opacity of the entire stack.  It also controls whether all the layers in the group are visible (turned on) or not.

You can identify a clipping mask by these three features:

  1. Base layer is underlined
  2. Top layers are indented
  3. Top layers have arrows pointing down to base layer.

To create a clipping mask, you have several options.

  • With the layers you want to clip directly above the base layer, highlight them and go to the Layer Menu/Create Clipping Mask OR
  • Hold down the Alt/Option button, hover your mouse over the line between the base layer and the layer to be clipped, and click when the cursor changes to a chain link OR
  • With the layer to be clipped highlighted and directly above the base layer, type control/command G (this is probably the easiest)

Ok, so that’s all pretty easy.  We know what a clipping mask looks like, and how to make one.  But now for the important questions.  What do they do?  When should we use them?  These are the 5 most frequent situations where I use clipping masks.

    • Use the same layer mask and opacity on several layers.  In my example from the gradient tool/layer mask tutorial, I wanted to add a sunbeam overlay and warm up the color of the sun beams only.  Because the Color Fill layer is clipped to the Sunlight layer, the Sunlight mask and opacity are applied to Color Fill as well.  This lets me control the entire warm sunlight effect as one unit.
    • Constrain the effects of an edit to only the base layer.  Say that I didn’t need a mask on the Sunlight layer.  I want the beams to spread over the entire photo.  However, I only want the warming color to hit the sun, not the face below the beams.  Clipping Color Fill to Sunlight ensures that only the sun is warmed, not the entire image.
    • Compare looks.  When I’m playing with a couple of different looks for an image enhancement, I’ll put each look into its own clipping mask.  In the screen shot below, I’m comparing a Color Popped look to a B&W.  Turning each layer off individually would be slow, plus you would lose the effect of seeing the entire look disappear at once.  In full Photoshop, we can use folders for this (put several layers into one folder so that you can turn them all on or off with one click), but like so much with Elements, we can easily work around the limitations.
    • Actions.  Those of you who use actions might have noticed that actions makers often put effects in clipping masks to make it easier for you to adjust them.  In the screen shot below (from MCP’s Fusion), you’ll see that some effects are in folders.  In PSE, you can’t open those folders.  However, you can use their layer masks, adjust their opacities and blend modes, and turn them off or on using the eyeball.  However, the layers with the pink box on the left are all clipped to the main “Adjust Fusion” layer.  This allows you to increase the opacity of that one layer (rather than all of them) if you want to strengthen the effect..  You could also paint on the layer mask and apply that painting to all the layers above.  And because they aren’t in unopenable folders, you can adjust each layer individually, as needed.
    • Frames, graphics, text.  I think clipping masks are most useful for digital scrapbookers.  Take a deep breath, you’re fixin’ to see some major cheesiness.  If you wanted to take the letter A and fill it with an A+ pattern, you could use a clipping mask to do that.

      Ok, but I don’t want to do that!  Just wanted to show you an example.  I know that you digital scrapbookers have better ideas in mind!  Other applications?  You could clip a photo to a heart shape or oval shape, so that the photo only appears inside that heart or oval.  Once you’ve clipped it there, you can move it around using the move tool so that just the right area is showing.  You can also resize it using Free Transform (control/command T).
 

There are lots of other uses for clipping masks in Photoshop Elements – these are just my favorites.  What do YOU do with them?

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