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Understanding Masking in Photoshop



Masking is one of those techniques that will change the way you use Photoshop. Understanding this technique can help you to jump from being a beginner level Photoshop user, to a more advanced one. In this article, I will explain how masking really works in Photoshop, its few key concepts, and how Masking helps you to perform non-destructive editing.

The skills you need to get started masking in Photoshop are being able to use the brush tool to paint color, understand two colors black and white, and knowledge of how layers work in Photoshop, which I assume you have very sound knowledge on.

What is masking what does it do in Photoshop?

If you can relate the word masking with the mask, it may make some sense. Why do we use a mask, to cover the face, right? So why would we use masking on a layer, to cover or uncover the content of any layer. With a mask you can control the transparency of a layer. But that is what opacity and fill is for, right? Yes, opacity and fill do control the transparency, but it works for whole layer. What if you would like to have only the right part to be transparent and the left part to be completely visible? That’s when masking comes into play.

Masking works in two ways. First, you simply add a mask on any layer by clicking the third option on the bottom of layer palette. The other way is by using adjustment layers, which always comes with a mask.

Background without mask

This image shows a layer with no mask applied. I have highlighted the third option on the layer palette. That is where you add a mask.

Adding mask white

Clicking on the mask option will create a white layer mask on the layer selected.

Adjustment layer

This image shows an adjustment layer. They help you to perform non-destructive editing, and every adjustment layer created this way, comes with a white mask.

Adjustment layer with white mask

This shows that a new curve adjustment layer has been applied with the white mask.

While working with masking please remember that white shows the content where as black hides. If your mask is white, the mask is transparent and the layer is fully revealed, whereas if the mask is black it is opaque and the layer below will show through. Below are a few examples that will help you to understand masking better.

A handy saying to help you remember: white reveals, black conceals

White mask

The image above shows, that the white mask reveals the content of the layer it is affecting. I duplicated the background layer and desaturated it with Shift+Command+U on a Mac (Shift+Control+U on PC).

Black mask

With Ctrl/Cmd+I, you can invert the white mask into a black one. Since black hides the effects, the image has now been changed from back and white to color, from its original state (the layer below is now visible)

When you first add a mask it will initially be white, but you can change it into black either by inverting the mask, Cmd/Ctrl+I, or you can fill with black or white. Alternately, by simply pressing Alt while clicking to create the mask would also result in a black mask.

Creating black mask

Additional tip

  • Step 1. First click D on your keyboard (default), which will fill your background color with white, and foreground color with black.
  • Step 2 Select the mask
  • Step 3 Press ALT+Backspace to fill with the foreground color (black) and Ctrl+Backspace for to fill with the background colour (white). You can use X to swap the foreground and background colors.

You can now paint on the mask with the brush key selected. Make sure your foreground color is opposite to the color of the mask. If you are painting with black on a white mask, the content of that part of layer is becoming transparent while the white parts remain as is. If you are painting white over a black mask, then that part would be back to its original form. You can play around with the percentage of fill and opacity to get more control over your workflow.

Painting with black on mask

Here I painted the guitar with a black brush over the white mask, resulting in the visibility of color from the layer below.

Additional tip

Simply press your number on the number pad and your opacity will change as per. If you press shift plus the number, then its fill will change.

  • 4=40%
  • 4+9= 49%
  • 0+4 = 4 %

Do you have any other masking tips and tricks? Please share in the comments below if you do, or if you have any questions.

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Anup Ghimire is a23 year old Nepal based self-learned photographer, retoucher and blogger. He does mostly landscape and fashion photography and writes about them. He has completed a bachelor in Information Technology with major in multimedia. He also make videos and edits them and has been doing tutorials on YouTube mostly about Photoshop and Lightroom. He's a founder and blogger of Pixel Tut and World's Most Beautiful Places which is deeply related to his passion for photography and travel.

  • keepntch

    Thank you, good explanation.

  • Martz Hotwheels

    Thank you.

  • David Blacker

    but why use such a complicated method? the simplest way to achieve what you have done (have a colour guitar in a BW pic) is like this:

    1. duplicate the original colour layer.
    2. desaturate it to BW.
    3. use the eraser tool as a brush and erase the guitar portion of the BW layer to reveal the bits of the colour layer below.

    i’ve never used masking layers in my life. just unnecessarily complicated. the eraser tool is exactly the same as the paint brush.

  • Hi David – the reason is you can’t “undo” the eraser you can with a mask because you aren’t changing the actual pixels you’re just hiding them. Let’s say do use the eraser method and go ahead and make a print of the result. You then notice that a piece of the guitar was missed and it’s still in b/w – OR an area outside where you wanted color was erased. If you have done that as a mask you can open up the layered file, and just brush on the mask to correct it. If it’s been erased it’s permanent. It’s called non-destructive editing.

  • David Blacker

    good point. i generally keep the original background layer untouched and only work on copied layers. so in the event of you noticing something that has been missed, you just copy the original colour bg layer onto a third layer beneath the first two layers, merge the first two, and erase whatever bits you need to from the now merged layer. if you’ve erased away too much in the first place, you convert the third layer to bw and just do the above. in all my years as an art director i have never once needed to use masks.

  • J Public

    Do you not even use a “luminosity” or black & white mask to work on the bright or dark bits?

  • I actually re-edit all the time. I find that you learn and grow and pick up new tips and sometimes, not often, but sometimes I need an old image for something and am glad I have the layers and masks to “fix” what I did before. It’s just easier and with storage being so cheap now I have no excuse really. I find the mask method actually easier and quicker – it’s all what you get used to and at the end of the day – do what works for you!

  • David Blacker

    haha no. in fact i watched a couple of tutorials this year on luminosity masks ‘cos i thought i might be missing out on something, but then realised i could just do the same thing with the eraser.

  • David Blacker

    fair enough. if you do go back to old PS files it might be useful, but again (sorry to be repetetive) as long as you’ve saved an unedited layer, you can undo anything the eraser has done.

    i’m not suggesting that my way is better than your way at all. whatever works for the individual. i just disagree that using masking takes you from being a beginner at PS to an advanced user. i’m an advertising art director and i’ve been using PS since around 1998. i often see people forcing themselves to do overly complicated things just ‘cos someone says “this is the better way”, or “now you can roll like an expert”, when most of it is just a different way of doing the same old stuff.

  • Another example using the very same method:


  • David with such long years of experience, you must know very well the difference between destructive editing and non destructive editing right? So masking is a nondestructive editing. Now you may say, you can always perform non destructive editing by keep a background copy untouched, but like u mentioned “copying the original colour bg layer onto a third layer beneath the first two layers, merge the first two, and erase whatever bits you need to from the now merged layer” would not it be way easier to just apply a black and white adjustment layer swap the color with ‘x’ key re paint on masking. ” here the image above is just one example, if you can really understand the masking technique , you can perform a lot of stuff faster and in a much more efficient way.

    So since you have not used the masking in such a long career as an art director, i guess you have not fully exploited the potential of adjustment layer? Do u use adjustment layer. Adjustment layer comes with a mask, now you cant use eraser on adjustment layer. I wonder how would u person the follow requirement

    Imaging you have to increase the contrast of only part of image lets say only the right part, if i have to do it, i would either get the curves adjustment and do S curves or even use contrast adjustment layer and increase it and then paint on my masking. How would u do it. make a copy of background layer, apply the contrast from image>contrast and then use an eraser tool. And if smith goes wrong u undo and again use eraser right? So now if u use masking u don’t have to take any trouble of regularly copying ur bg layer and erasing it every time u make mistake with masking u just swap ur foreground color and repaint it. Your three steps can be now performed with one.

    You applied a yellow color tone in an image, if you have to decrease the intensity what would u do it with, you may say u would use opacity, but do u know what with masking you can always control the opacity but additional you get an option of control density of the effects applied, See the double control. If you are not getting it, its probably u have never used masking, which i sincerely request you to try. it would change your whole work flow and making ur task even faster.

    i have this landscape image which i need to darken only my sky , how would u do it. Make a duplicate layer, darken it and use opacity and eraser, u knw what i would use my curves adjustment brush, darken the whole image and use my gradient with black and white and drag my gradient on my mask. This would also help me to achieve the transition i would need to make my image look more natural. If you didn’t understood it, its probably because you haven’t used masking in such a long career of yours.

    I can give u hundred of such example where eraser tool would be so much limited to perform such task, masking is really the key. And yes masking will help you to take ur level of using Photoshop to next level. I know i did mine. And it did to more than my 100+ students whom i have taught editing and retouching here in country. A lot of my students has given me the same logic as yours but only when they tried to learn this technique and experimented a lot they realize there are lot more advance stuff you wont not even think of doing with eraser tool.

    You know you can use masking with gradient, with brush . Can use gradient tool with eraser. if u haven’t used gradient tool with masking then you should seriously give it Try. I m not trying to tell you that the masking is the only keep to perform task in Photoshop, but what i m telling you is , once you start working with masking a lot of doors on editing gets opened to you. Please don’t just look at the examples above there are really few basic examples . I have not mentioned a lot of advance thing you can do with masking since i wanted to write this for a basic user. I will certainly come up with more advance article in future.
    I hope this explains and if you still think masking is a way more complicated and smth that is not really used much, i have nothing to say. Cheers

  • awesome work Pierre 🙂

  • David Blacker

    using layers and an eraser seems complicated to you because you haven’t done it that way. i can do with layers and an eraser everything that you have done with adjustment layers and masking, and just as fast.

    your argument is as ridiculous as saying “my religion is better than yours”. i never said my way was better. what i disagreed with was this article’s claim that if you didn’t learn how to do something differently from another way, you will be classed a beginner. it’s as absurd as saying “unless you learn to type instead of writing with a pen, you will not be a great author”.

    i repeat, i can do EVERYTHING you have described, just as easily with layers and an eraser. and in answer to your loaded question, no, i haven’t bothered exploiting the potential of adjustment layers because so far in my career i haven’t seen the need to. i’ve never learned to walk on my hands either, but that’s because i have feet.

  • J Public

    Thanks for that, I’ve used your method and learned a couple of useful bits about PShop (fairly new to it). Can’t quite manage to get the same result as with masks though, which I mostly use to try to balance out exposures.

  • David Blacker

    you should stick to what’s working best for you, ‘cos in PS almost everything can be done in multiple ways (eg: you can change a colour pic to b/w by (1) desaturating it (2) using the Black & White conversion menu (3) switching the mode to Greyscale); why does PS have these multiple options? ‘cos no single person is the same, and we have our preferences. so if masks work well for you, great; don’t stress out trying to learn my way, ‘cos it’s really all the same, which was my point — no one’s a beginner just ‘cos they prefer one way over another 😉

  • Nice work there.

  • Great article – i sometimes get really confused when using masks – but am getting there slowly:-)

  • aydin

    Wow thank many nice Azmtalb……

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  • awesome tips and tricks here for masking easily in Photoshop.your post is very informative and step by step described.i have impressed to see your post and learned lots .thanks for sharing …!!

  • Sarjit of India


  • ramzanul hasan

    Nice tutorial thank you very much for share it . Can show advanced hair masking tutorial Please visit our business site for image editing service :

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