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Photoshop Elements Tutorial: Layer Masks for Everyone

by Erin Peloquin on February 1, 2011 · 7 comments

Photoshop Elements 9 has a layer mask button built in.  That is one of the most spectacular upgrades when moving from 8 to 9.  But, it’s not reason to upgrade in and of itself.

For those of you who are just beginning to explore layer masks, this is the tutorial for you.  If you get masking already, these tutorials might give you some quick tips:

Did you know that anyone using Elements can fake a layer mask? I teach this in my classes, but it’s one of those techniques that you have to go through several times before it clicks.  So here it is in black and white for everyone.

First, some background.   People are always asking how to make selections in PSE.  I hardly ever select anything, because layer masks are a much easier way to accomplish the same goal.  Layer masks let you:

  • apply any given effect to only part of an image
  • apply this edit non-destructively
  • retain the ability to make changes to the mask or the edit later

Here is an example:

Say I want to convert this image to a selective black and white – meaning that I want everything except the roses to be B&W.  This example works on any type of image where you want to apply your edit only to PART of your image – removing wrinkles from around eyes, whitening teeth, etc.

I have several options.

  1. I can make the entire image black and white.  But that’s not what I want.
  2. I can use one of the Elements brush tools to select everything except the roses.  Better, but not great.  First off, I suck at selecting.  See how my edges aren’t neat and the color bleeds into the B&W section?  More importantly, once I save the image, those pixels are changed forever.  What happens if I decide that I want to reveal the color on the candy canes also next month?  Too late!  I already destroyed the color info in those pixels.  Note the appearance of my layer mask after this edit:It only has one layer – which doesn’t leave me anything to come back and edit later.
  3. I can apply the B&W conversion to the entire image, but use a layer mask to reveal the effect everywhere except the flowers.  This is ideal.  I am applying the edit selectively without destroying my image.  What’s more, if I decide I want to print this out as a 20 x 30 or something huge like that a few months down the road, I can go back in and touch up the layer mask, to make sure my masking is detailed enough to blow up.See that layer mask in my layers palette?  If I save this file as a PSD, anytime I open it, that mask will be there.  I can use my paint brush with black paint to hide the black and white from other areas, like the candy canes.  Or, I can use white paint to clean up any areas where the color is bleeding over into the B&W area.

So that’s why layer masks are awesome.  But how do you put them on your image?

  • Anytime you add an adjustment layer, like the gradient map layer you see in my layers palette above, a layer mask is already added.
  • If you have Elements 9, you have a button that adds a layer mask to any layer.  Just click it, and you can add a layer mask to any layer that doesn’t have one already.
  • If you have a version of Photoshop Elements prior to 9, you don’t have that handy dandy little button.  But don’t upgrade!  Just follow these steps to fake it:
    1. I want to add a “glamour glow” to the background of this image (everything except the roses).  So, I duplicate my background layer and apply a Gaussian blur of about 20 pixels.   Then, I change the blending mode to Soft Light.  Now, I need a mask so that I can keep the effects of the glow off of the roses.
    2. I add a Levels Adjustment layer by clicking on the half-black half-white circle at the bottom of the Layers Palette and selecting Levels.
    3. If that new levels layer is above my layer with the glow, I click and drag it to move it below the “Glow” layer.
    4. Next, I click on the Glow layer to make it active and type Control+G.  This “clips” the layers together.  Now, whatever I paint on the mask on the “Levels 1″ layer will apply to the Glow layer.
    5. So I will finish by painting on my layer mask in black to hide the “glamour glow” from the flowers. To activate the layer mask for editing, you have to click on it so that the layer is highlighted and active for editing and the mask itself has a white outline around it.  It won’t work if you don’t do this step!
    6. Finally, keeping in mind that white reveals and black conceals, I paint in white on any parts of the background that I over painted and hid the glow from.  And I paint in black to hide the glow from spots on the roses that I missed.

If you don’t use layer masks much, I hope this tutorial encourages you.  They are truly one of the most helpful features in Photoshop Elements.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

cyn August 16, 2012 at 11:45 am

i had no idea layer masks could do so many things- this will certainly help me with my exacting since i’m a bit of a mess 57 year shaky disaster- the other applications will als help me be a lot more creative- thank you cyn

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Peter October 3, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I’m using Elements 8, and am trying to use your method of creating a layer mask. When I get to step 4, the image I’m trying to work with disappears. It seems like anything I try, other than unlinking the adjustment layer, won’t bring any part of the image back. The image I’m working with is a .png graphic of an object on a transparent background. I’d like to have the object fade to transparent (from left to right or vice versa). Have tried so many different tutorials on this, but nothing seems to work. Any ideas?

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Erin October 5, 2012 at 3:25 pm

Peter, is the layer mask black? That’s the only thing I could think of that would hide your image. Try the method on a different file to see if it works there.

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KJsMom March 29, 2014 at 10:40 am

I know this is an older post, but do the layer masks work the same in later versions of PSE? I just purchased my first Elements software PSE12. I’m trying to find tutorials for version 12, but not having much luck finding them for beginners.

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