Photoshop Masks 101

Photoshop Masks 101

Photoshop masks 101 before after

When it comes to fixing images in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements the ability to use masks to do your edits is invaluable. By using a mask instead of, for example, the Eraser you get an edit which can be changed or even removed any time in the future.

However masks aren’t easy to use or even understand when you first get started. In fact they can be downright scary. To help you get started here is a quick and easy technique that can be achieved using masks. Doing it will show you a situation in which a mask is a good editing choice. You will see how to add a mask to a layer and how to use it to edit the image. By the end of the process you will be on your way to understanding how to use masks in your photo editing workflow.

The effect that I’ll be creating is one that you see in a lot of wedding albums and advertisements. It is an element of color in an otherwise black and white image. It can be achieved using masks and that’s what we’ll do here.

Start by opening an image that has some colorful element of interest that you can show in color while you turn the remainder of the image into black and white. Here I’ll turn this graffiti image black and white and leave the bike in color.

Photoshop masks 101 step1

Make sure your Layers palette is visible. If not, choose Window > Layers to display it.

Photoshop masks 101 step2

Right click the Background layer in the Layers palette and choose Duplicate Layer and click Ok. This makes a duplicate of the image layer.

Photoshop masks 101 step3

With this layer selected, choose Image > Adjustments > Desaturate to turn the image into black and white.

Photoshop masks 101 step4

Notice that the Layer palette contains a black and white layer and a color layer. The black and white layer is at the top of the stack which is why you are seeing a black and white image.

At this point we’ll add the mask so we can use it to bring back the color in a specific are of the image. To do this with the Background Copy layer still selected choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All.

Photoshop masks 101 step5

This adds a white filled layer mask to the layer – notice the white box which appears in the layer palette next to the image thumbnail – that’s the mask.

Photoshop masks 101 step6

A word about masks

Right now all you need to know about masks is that you can paint on them with black, white or shades of gray.

When you paint with white on a mask you reveal any content on the current layer – in our case that is the black and white layer.

If you paint with black you’ll reveal the content on the layer below the current layer – in this case the color layer. You might like to think of it as poking a hole in the top layer so that you can see part of the layer below.

If you paint with a shade of gray you’ll be seeing part of the layer below and part of the current layer. The hole that you’re punching through the top layer will be semitransparent.

Bring back the color

To work on this image, select the brush tool and select a small brush with a hardness of around 75%. Make sure black is set as the foreground color and click on the white mask thumbnail in the Layers palette to target the mask. It should have a border around it as in this image:

Photoshop masks 101 step7

Now paint on the photo over the areas that you want to bring back color in. Instead of seeing black paint on your image as you might expect to see, you will see the color coming back.

Photoshop masks 101 step8

Look at the mask thumbnail in the Layers palette and notice it has some black markings in it where you painted on the image.

If you make a mistake and paint back too much color, switch the paint color so that you are painting with white and paint out the areas that you want to return to black and white.


If you are working with a mask and find that the brush is painting black or white paint on your image it is because the image thumbnail is selected in the Layers palette and not the mask thumbnail. When you select the mask thumbnail it will have a small white border around it so you can tell it is active and selected.

The benefit of using a mask for this type of effect is that you can paint the effect on or off the image as desired. This gives you a lot more flexibility in editing your image. While this is a very simple example it does give you a starting point for learning to use masks in your photo editing.

When you save this photo, save it as a psd format file if you want to be able to come back later and adjust the mask – the psd format saves layers and layer masks.

If you are familiar with using Adjustment Layers in Photoshop you could apply this effect using an adjustment layer to desaturate the image and paint on the Adjustment Layer’s mask to bring the detail back. If you are not familiar with using Adjustment Layers then the process that I have outlined will give you the same results but just a different way of achieving it.

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Matt Photodocumentarian February 7, 2013 02:35 am

    Great tutorial on masks. Nicely written.

  • mike November 29, 2012 02:12 am

    To Jake
    She is not altering El Macs work. She is altering her OWN work. It is obvious that there is more in the photo than just El Mac's work, the real subject is the Bike. El Mac's work is just a nice background nothing more. Nor did she actually go up and change the original on the wall. I really doubt El Mac would have a problem with this photo and if he did he would seriously need to get over himself.

  • marcello November 22, 2012 07:23 pm

    selective desaturation is EVIL! ;)

  • Tory Burch Outlet November 17, 2012 11:19 am

    Thanks a lot for writing this, it was quite helpful and showed me a ton

  • Rex November 17, 2012 07:50 am

    I use masks to sharpen just parts of a photo, eg the eyes. I have 2 copies of the photo on different layers. I turn off the top layer and sharpen the bottom layer so the eyes have the sharpness I want. I then turn on the top layer, add a white layer mask to the top layer and then use that to reveal only the sharp eyes from the layer below. When finished I can merge these two layers.

    At times I do the same thing to tone down some too-bright colours in the background. I again have copies on different layers. I desaturate the top layer using Hue and Saturation (it can be done for all colours, or for a single colour, eg only desaturate yellow). I then add a white mask to the top layer and use that to bring back the parts of the photo that I don't want desaturated. If I make a mistake, I change it to a black layer mask and undo the bits that are wrong.

  • Tyler November 16, 2012 01:28 pm

    Thanks for this post! I've actually been looking into doing this with some of my pictures and didn't know how. Thanks for the help!

  • Chitra Sivasankar Arunagiri November 16, 2012 11:35 am

    This one is sweet!!! RIght article at the right time. I tried something with the layers recently in Photoshop and I got an end result which I really liked. That is a bit of novice work but I did it with a great pride. I am just starting out photography and Photoshop is not really my cup of tea. I am just learning it and each and every time I find out something new in it, I am super excited. That way of learning is awesome. This one about masks is really great. Simple and to the point. Thank you!!!

  • Jake November 16, 2012 05:37 am

    I wonder how El Mac feels about you altering his work like that.