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03. Photoshop Elements Tutorial: Layer Masks

Layer masks have got to be one of the most intimidating parts of Photoshop Elements.  They’re one of those tools we hear about from day one, but aren’t exactly sure how to use them or whether the benefit is worth the steep learning curve.

Here’s the good thing about layer masks – once they click, once you get that lightbulb moment, you’re done. There’s nothing complicated about them from that point on.

Today’s the day for your lightbulb to pop.  Ready?

(Oh wait.  Have you conquered masking already?  Here are some articles on advanced topics:

Take a picture like this:

Selective black and white is the classic example for learning layer masks on.  Here’s why:

A layer mask allows you to constrain an effect in Elements to a specific part of your image. If you want part of your image black and white, and part color, a layer mask will let you place the black and white effect only in the area that you want it.

It looks like this in PSE:

This screen shot comes from MCP’s Fusion for Photoshop Elements, by the way.

Every layer in that layers palette from the screen shot above has a layer mask.  It’s the white box just to the left of the layer name.  Notice how the top mask is different – the one on One Click B&W?  That is the layer that creates the B&W effect, and that is the mask that I used to constrain the B&W to the background only.

And how is that One Click B&W different?  It’s got black on it in addition to white.  This brings us to this key point about using layer masks:

Black conceals, white reveals.

In other words, where ever a mask is black, the effect is concealed, or hidden.  Where ever a mask is white, the effect is revealed.  So the black and white conversion is showing only where the mask is white, that is, the background.

Lightbulbs shining yet?

Notice how the black area on the layer mask is pretty much a silhouette of my daughter?  That’s why she is still in color.  I have hidden the B&W from her part of the picture.

So now that you get why you should use layer masks, how do you use them?

  • First off, find the layer whose effects you want to constrain (One Click B&W in this case)
  • Click on that layer to activate it.  See how my One Click layer is darker?
  • If there isn’t a white outline around the mask, click on it.  Once that white outline is there:
  • Select your brush tool and make your paint color either black or white, depending on whether you want to conceal or reveal.

That’s it.  As long as that white outline is around the layer mask, you are painting on it.  However, if that white outline is missing, you’ll actually be painting black and white paint scribbles on your image rather than the mask.  Don’t do that – it will look funny!

I bet some of you can think of other ways to do this same thing in Elements, right?  However, other methods are destructive.

That means that your pixels will be changed forever, once you change them.  But not with layer masks.  For instance, you could add a black and white layer and erase the parts of the B&W that you didn’t want.

Let’s say I did that – I have a black and white layer on top of a color layer.   I used the eraser tool to erase the B&W pixels on top of my daughter, so that the color pixels from the layer below show through.  Ok, fine, the pic looks great, I save it and post it on my blog.  Then I decide that I want to enlarge it and print it to hang up on the wall.  I notice that I painted sloppily and I have color spilling over onto the wood of the rocking chair in several spots.  However, I used my eraser tool on my B&W layer, right?  Those B&W pixels are gone forever and I can’t un-erase them to repair this photo.

But with a layer mask, everything is different. I would pick up my brush tool with white as the foreground color, make sure my layer mask had a white outline on it, and then paint over those areas of overspill on the wood to let the B&W shine through everywhere it should.  As long as I save my file as a PSD to keep the layers, I can make those changes today, tomorrow or 10 years from now.  My pixels will always be there.

Need another reason to use layer masks?

You can vary the AMOUNT of an effect that is applied to various parts of your image. Say that I want to finish by sharpening this image.  However, I don’t want to sharpen evenly across the picture. I’d like my daughter’s face to be the sharpest, her chest sharp, but not as sharp, and I want the rest of the image to retain the nice blur that it has.

So that means that her face needs to be white on the mask (right?) because I want the sharpening effect to shine through.  And the background that I want soft and blurry should be black, because I don’t want any sharpening there.  How about her chest, that I want to be somewhat sharp?  Well, I guess that area should be somewhat white, meaning that a little sharpening is showing.  Or somewhat black, meaning that a little bit a blur is showing.

How about GRAY?

Using the brush opacity slider, which you can see in the tool options bar above, I paint with white as my foreground color at 100% opacity over her face.  That means it’s pure white, and the sharpening is showing through at 100%.  Then, I reduce the opacity of the brush to 50%, which lets 50% of the sharpening shine through.  I paint on her hair and face at 50%, and my resulting layer mask looks like this:

You can see how the mask actually shows where I painted white and where I painted gray, right?  Note that the brush opacity is not the same as the layer opacity at the top right corner of the layers palette.

(That Exact-o-Sharp selective sharpening layer came from MCP’s Fusion also.)

I hope your lightbulbs are all shining brightly now.  Any questions?

If you want more info like this, my March round of Elements classes begins this week.  Check out the topics and schedule here.

03. Photoshop Elements Tutorial: Layer Masks was last modified: June 20th, 2015 by Erin Peloquin


  1. ingrid Says :
    Posted on March 8, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Thanks! I’m pretty comfortable with masks but it always helps to read up on them. I do have one tiny question, in a few of MCP’s actions Jody’s instructions state to “erase details by painting w/white on the black mask”. I follow her instructions and it works but Im curious why for those particular ones it’s different.

    • admin
      Posted on March 8, 2011 at 11:15 am

      Great observation, Ingrid. MCP’s All in the Details has a few masks that work “backwards.” That is due to the unique structure of that action and to give users maximum control over the “details.”

  2. Wendi Says :
    Posted on March 11, 2011 at 9:21 am

    I have often simply made a copy of the background layer, used the effect I wanted (blurred, or black an white, etc) and then used the eraser tool (sometimes at differing opacities) to reveal the parts of the background that I want to. Out of curiosity, and wanting to better my editing, I’m wondering in what ways is using layer masks superior to this method?

    • admin
      Posted on March 11, 2011 at 10:16 am

      Hi Wendi! If you use a layer mask, you can always go back and edit your changes on a PSD file. For instance, if you print the image and realize you erased too much of your blur, you can use the layer mask to bring it right back. But the Eraser tool is destructive – once you erase and save your image, you can never undo. I almost never use the eraser tool, although lots of people do.

  3. Judy
    Posted on March 11, 2011 at 10:33 am

    I use actions a lot. My question is, do I ‘merge down’ or ‘flatten’ when I am done with the action I’m using? What is the difference between the two? Thanks!

    • admin
      Posted on March 11, 2011 at 10:50 am

      Hi Judy. When running actions, I always flatten. I think that Merge Down only Merges 2 layers together. For actions, you generally need to merge them all.

  4. Kari Says :
    Posted on March 11, 2011 at 10:45 am

    OMGosh!! You explain this is in such an easy to understand fashion…. Please, keep doing what ur doing…. ♥ it!!

  5. Lisa Says :
    Posted on March 17, 2011 at 12:53 pm

    How do I get the “One Click B&W” layer. I am using PSE 9, windows 7

  6. How to get those “creamy” skin tones I’m always asked about! » Emily Lucarz Photography Says :
    Posted on March 23, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    […]  Wow my skin looks bad again!  Never never sharpen skin.  Thats why you do all this in layers.  Here is a good place to learn about layers and layer masks. It takes time to learn but it’s […]

  7. Val
    Posted on February 21, 2013 at 10:22 am

    I have Photoshop Elements 11 and I’ve been trying to learn how to use the mask tool. I got it to work a couple times last night but the tool keeps locking and not allowing me to use it. The red mask/selection is also not showing up. I was only able to bring color out to a photo I turned to black and white. And now I don’t even remember how I did that…. How do I make sure the mask tool doesn’t lock and how do I unlock it? I am using a Mac Book Pro.

  8. Richard
    Posted on April 8, 2013 at 11:05 pm

    Speaking as someone just getting to grips with Elements (now version 11) this was very helpful, so thanks for posting.

  9. Timmy Jo
    Posted on April 4, 2014 at 8:16 pm


    I had never really dived into masking at all either with PSE7 or PSE11. However, using PSE11, I lately have been selecting a portion of my photo and then creating a layer for editing just that portion. I notice that in PSE11, you can either “select” or “mask” just by using a check box; in other words, the “selection” tool toggles to a “mask” tool if you want it to. For example, I always brighten smiles by choosing the brush tool which gives me either the selection or mask option. Masking is easier for me (since I only have a mouse to work with), so I choose that, and I can even choose the color to mask with. Once the smile is masked, I switch back to the selection tool. Then I choose “select inverse”, make a hue/saturation adjustment layer for the teeth that are masked/selected and turn the yellow saturation slider way down. Then I turn the master lightness slider up to about 3 or 4. I found this technique online some time back.

    I would really like to learn true masking, though. It must be very similar to what I am doing with the teeth brightening technique described above.

  10. Joe
    Posted on June 21, 2014 at 10:23 pm

    Nice easy instructions, don’t forget you can press the key to highlight the mask area in pink which can sometimes make it easier.

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