Layer masks are a tool that Photoshop users have had available to them for years, but it wasn’t until version 9 that Photoshop Elements users could take advantage of this versatile, non-destructive form of photo editing.
In this tutorial I will walk you through using a layer mask to complete a basic photo edit. Keep in mind that layer masks can be used to do much more than I’m showing here—anything from blending two digital scrapbooking papers together to create a new look, superimposing something from one photo into another, selectively recoloring parts of an element and so much more.
But before we dive into how to do a basic photo edit using a layer mask, it helps to understand the nature of what a layer mask actually is. Essentially, a layer mask is a way of selecting an area of a layer and either making that selected area visible or hidden. The reasons why a layer mask is such a great tool is because it allows you to not only “select” multiple areas of a layer and adjust their visibility, but it also allows you to do this in a non-destructive way that leaves room for corrections or to change your mind in the process of your edit. Layer masks also give you the freedom to use the painting tools, which gives you a superior level of detail and accuracy.
When painting on a layer mask, you may notice that your color swatches no longer display the background and foreground colors you’ve set, and instead display black and white. This is because when you paint with white you are essentially defining the active selected area to be shown. When you flip your swatches and paint with black, you are defining an area outside of the active selection—what is to be hidden.
These explanations may not make much sense right now, but as we move through the tutorial and you see a layer mask in action, they should become much clearer. Let’s move on to the tutorial!
To familiarize you with layer masks, I’ve chosen a task that most every digital scrapper has wanted to do at least once in their scrapping life: display selective colors in a black and white photo.
I’m starting out with a full color photo of a yellow rose.
I open this photo in Photoshop Elements 9 (this tutorial will work for PSE 10 as well).
Then, I duplicate the photo onto a new layer.
With the duplicated layer selected, I do a quick black & white conversion on the photo.
PSE 9 has some handy black & white presets available, so I choose the one that fits my tastes for this particular photo.
With the duplicated layer now converted to black & white, I add my layer mask.
Before I go any further, I make sure the layer mask is selected in my layers palette.
Then I click on my brush tool and choose a brush with a soft edge. The size of the brush isn’t very important because I can always quickly size the brush up and down as I work by using keyboard shortcuts. (Left bracket for sizing the brush down, right bracket for sizing the brush up on both PC & MAC.)
Because I want to remove areas of the black & white layer to reveal areas of the colored photo underneath, I make sure that my swatches are set so that black is the foreground color. You can quickly swap the background and foreground colors by tapping “x” on your keyboard on both MAC & PC.
I then begin to paint the areas of my photo where I want the color revealed. In this case, I want the background of the photo to be black & white, with the rose in color. This is where a pen tablet comes in extremely handy and if you have one that you don’t use often, I suggest giving it a whirl for this part of the tutorial.
As I’m quickly painting, there are a couple of spots where I goofed and revealed more color then I intended. This is OK, because the nature of layer masks lets you quickly make fixes.
To fix my goofs, I swap my color swatches so that white is the foreground color (because it hides, remember?) by tapping “x” on my keyboard.
I then go back and paint the goofed areas again with white active until the mistake is fixed. Notice as I’m painting, the areas I stroke with the brush are returning to black & white again.
Here you will see I made corrections to a point where I feel comfortable.
If we now look at my layer mask in the layers palette, you can see the areas of the top, black & white photo that were “taken away” to reveal the colored layer underneath.
And finally, I have a finished product with a black & white background and the pop of a yellow rose.
As I said before, there are many ways that you can use layer masks for digital scrapbooking. Give these steps a try to familiarize yourself with working with layer masks, then let your creative thinking dream up new ways to use layer masks!