Spot Sharpening with a Faux Layer Mask in Photoshop Elements

Spot Sharpening with a Faux Layer Mask in Photoshop Elements


One of the features on the wish list of most advanced Photoshop Elements users is Layer Masks. It is one of the key features that separates Photoshop Elements from Photoshop – but it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible to create faux layer masks in Photoshop Elements if you know how – and today, I am going to show you how.

One of benefits of this approach to creating faux layer masks in Elements is that it uses features built into Elements and it doesn’t rely on a third party plug-in so it works with most versions of Photoshop Elements.

A bit of background

While Photoshop Elements doesn’t support layer masks for regular layers, it does provide them for all its adjustment layers. This faux layer mask solution takes advantage of this by forcing an adjustment layer’s layer mask to behave like a layer mask on a regular layer just as it does in Photoshop. The trick is to apply an adjustment layer to the image which does nothing to the image at all – so you get the benefit of the layer mask but without forcing any unwanted change on the image. Once you’ve done this you have a layer mask you can borrow.

In this step by step example, I’ll show you how to use the mask to paint some additional sharpening onto an image. What I’ll do is oversharpen an image – well beyond the level of sharpening which the image should have and then I’ll remove the sharpening with the mask and paint is back over selected parts of the image – again using the mask.

While this technique is shown using Photoshop Elements you can use the same technique in Photoshop – only in Photoshop you won’t need to use the fake mask as you can add a layer mask to the oversharpened layer itself.

Step 1


Finish editing your photo. If you have multiple layers, create a flattened version of image by selecting the topmost layer and press Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E (Command + Option + Shift + E on the Mac). This creates a new composite layer without flattening the layers.

Duplicate this layer by right-clicking it and choose Duplicate Layer. You should now have two identical image layers at the top of the layer stack.

Step 2


Select the topmost layer and choose Enhance > Unsharp Mask and apply excessive sharpening to the image. What you want is an extremely oversharpened image. You don’t want halos, just very heavy sharpening. In this example, I’ve used a radius of 2, a threshold of 0 and the full amount of 500. Click Ok.

Step 3

Add an adjustment layer by choosing Layer > New Adjustment Layer and choose either Levels or Brightness/Contrast or Hue/Saturation – you need an adjustment layer that doesn’t do anything to the image if you don’t alter its settings. Click Ok and don’t make any changes to the adjustment layer settings. Drag the adjustment layer so it sits between the two image layers.

Step 4

To create the fake layer mask, select the topmost oversharpened layer and choose Layer > Group with Previous. This attaches the oversharpened layer to the adjustment layer below limiting the effect of this layer to the area that is white in the adjustment layer mask – right now that is all the top layer.

Step 5


Click on the adjustment layer and click on the layer mask thumbnail which is the white box on the right side of the layer in the Layers palette. You should see a double border around it indicating that it’s selected. Fill this mask using the paint bucket tool with black. The entire oversharpening effect is immediately removed from the image.

Step 6


Select the brush tool and select a soft round brush. Adjust the opacity to around 25 percent and select white as the foreground color. With the layer mask thumbnail still selected, paint over the areas of the image that you want to apply additional sharpening to. In my case, I wanted to oversharpen the eyes on the orangutan.

Step 7

As you paint, the sharpening effect will built up – if you paint somewhere by mistake, set black as the foreground color and paint out the mistake. This is how a mask works – you paint with black to remove the effect on this layer (in our case you paint in black to remove the sharpening effect form the layer above because the two layers are grouped together) and you paint with white to reveal the effect.

When you are done, you can flatten the image or save it as a layered PSD file.

In future whenever you need to use a layer mask in Photoshop Elements, simply apply an adjustment layer to the image, drag it under the layer it should control and group the layers together.

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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

  • Johanna January 30, 2013 04:45 am

    Can't figure out how to group the layers. Am I missing something? I have PSE10 and don't see that option under the layers tab. Can anyone help me out?

  • Darryl Lora January 4, 2013 01:47 pm

    "..Happy New Year.." to all DPS readers. Thanks Darin for all the superb tutorials (specifically using elements) that you have given us over the past year. This tutorial, like all others, has been very instrumental in me learning to use 'Elements'. 10/10!! Darryl

  • Andrew WL November 24, 2010 10:46 am

    @Liz In PS CS2 and up you don't need a faux mask to tone down the sharpening of the unsharp mask layer, you can apply a mask directly. With the unsharp masked layer selected click on the icon at the bottom of the layer's palette that looks like a circle in a square.... that's your mask. Fill the mask with black which conceals the sharpened image then paint with white (opacity about 25%) to reveal the sharpened eyes and features of the face you want to see sharpened.

  • liz October 11, 2010 09:38 pm

    Do you have a tutorial for this that will work for Photoshop CS2 and up? Thanks in advance!

  • Mungo June 11, 2010 11:52 pm

    Thank you, I nearly rejected a photo that I'm hoping I can fix with this method

  • Helen Bradley August 22, 2009 09:14 am

    @spodeworld, Ok, so far so good. Now look in the Layers Palette and see if the white mask box has turned black, if it has you've done exactly what you needed to do. The black fill in the mask hides the sharpening effect from the image. It might be difficult to see that this has happened but it has. You're now ready to move forward a step and paint the sharpening back onto the image where it needs to be added - the eyes.

  • Spodeworld August 20, 2009 11:22 pm

    Thank you. I believe that that is what I have been doing. I clicked on the white box making sure the mask is active, and then used then selected the bucket and the black box at the bottom left of the tools (foreground and background) to bring it forward. Then I place the bucket over the picture and click, but nothing happens. I'm sure I am just making a simple mistake, but at this point I'm just left scratching my head....thank you for your help.

  • Helen Bradley August 20, 2009 05:17 pm

    @spodeworld You are nearly there. You have to select the Adjustment Layer as you have done, then click on the Adjustment layer mask which is the white box on the right hand side of the layer. Then you can fill the image with black and, because you have the adjustment layer selected, the mask will fill with black rather than the image itself.

  • Spodeworld August 20, 2009 10:07 am

    I must be missing something, but in Step 5 ("Fill this mask using the paint bucket tool with black), I can't seem to fill the mask. I have the mask layer selected (the adjustment layer itself). But, when I try to fill it with the Bucket, nothing happens. Any idea what I am doing wrong? Thanks!

  • Mick August 11, 2009 01:45 am

    Excellent article. Unlike so many of the online tutorials I have read, this one was very easy to follow and gave me just the results I was wanting, thank you very much!!

  • BenC July 28, 2009 02:51 am

    Everything worked but I cant figure out how to fill the adjustment layer with black. I did what Jen did but nothing worked. Can someone tell me what I am doing wrong??

  • Igor June 26, 2009 05:12 pm

    Excellent article. Well explained and easy to follow. This technique has helped me enormously to understand how layer masks work. It has also shown me how to sharpen in a very controlled way. Thankyou.

  • Andrea May 16, 2009 03:53 am

    One thing never mentioned in using the faux mask - make sure you have your image exactly where you want it, once you paint over you can't, or at least I haven't found a way to move it intact.

  • Jen May 9, 2009 03:54 pm

    I figured it out.

  • Jen May 9, 2009 03:50 pm

    I got everything to work except filling the adjustment layer with black (step 5). I clicked on the layer and selected the paint bucket (with black as the topcolor) and clicked on the white box, but nothing happened. Am I missing something?

  • pansregnig April 24, 2009 11:40 am

    Too cool,. Thanks for the great idea. I played around doing the opposite, blurring the background, leaving the faux layer white, and blackening in the subject, you can do this:

  • Lucian March 31, 2009 01:19 am

    Without discarding the article - I have learned a lot from it, and I'll pass on the tips to friends with older versions of Elements - you can add easily a layer mask effect to your tool, as Fletch above mentioned. I just wanted to add a link : .


  • Toni March 29, 2009 11:01 pm

    great tip. I just don't have the funds to by a full cs3 or 4. I used gimpshop-an open source gnu image modification program this has quick mask etc but the interface is challenging *** thanks again

  • Jayce March 27, 2009 09:49 am

    Excellent workaround. Thank you.

  • Fletch March 24, 2009 02:51 am

    This works a treat. You can also use the Grants Tools Plug in which adds a layer mask tool to the effects pallet. A few less clicks to add the mask if you use them a lot but in the end exactly the same as this version.

  • sunkid March 21, 2009 10:10 am

    Here is a Photoshop Version

  • approximate March 21, 2009 12:27 am

    Thanks for the lesson. This was not only easy to understand, but it looks easier than using my plug-in for layer masks.

  • William Rackley March 20, 2009 10:20 am

    Great article! I've always tossed unfocues eye shots, but this could save it :)

  • Brett March 20, 2009 09:37 am

    As a student who cannot afford the full version of Photoshop this helped alot. And, it was easy to follow. Thanks.