Photoshop is an amazing tool, but when you are just starting out it can be overwhelming. I know when I first started using it, I tried and shut it down shortly after, only going back to it a year later for another shot, thinking surely it can’t be that hard. One of tools you need to master is using layer masks. Layer masks allow you to make targeted adjustments without affecting the whole image.
How to make adjustments using Layer Masks
When we add a layer in photoshop you will see a white box come up on the layer. These are called layer masks.
The layer mask will be white. You can change it to black by inverting it.
A white layer mask REVEALS and a black layer mask CONCEALS.
When you make an adjustment, the whole image changes. This is where a layer mask comes in, and allows you to change parts of an image without affecting the whole image.
In the example image above, if I wanted to lighten the hull of the ship, but not lighten the sky, the steps I would take are:
- Add a curves layer.
- (1.) Pull the curve up to allow the hull to become lighter. (2.) If you cannot see the curve layer in (1.) Click the curve layer – a little white box will appear and you will then be able to see the curve in the properties tab.
As you can see in the image above, the curves adjustment has been applied to the whole image. We only want the brightness to affect the hull of the ship.
- INVERT the layer. (click on the layer mask and then push Command + I or Control + I) or click the “Invert” box.
The layer mask will now turn black, and your curves adjustment will now be gone, temporarily. This is CONCEALING.
- Get the brush tool. (1.) Change it to WHITE (2.) Set the hardness to 0% (3.)
My goto settings to paint on layer masks are Opacity 50% (4.) and Flow 50%. (5.)
- To start REVEALING the curves adjustment we made, we click again on the ‘black’ layer mask and using a white brush, we paint the parts of the image we wish to lighten. (6.)
You will need to lift the brush and re-apply as much as you like to certain areas of the image to lighten more. If you feel you want to lighten an area more, add another curves layer and repeat the steps.
As you can see – Anywhere we have painted white on the layer mask has REVEALED the curves adjustment.If you make a mistake and go outside the line (its kinda like colouring in) its as simple as changing your brush back to black and painting over the part you wish to CONCEAL or hide again. To REVEAL you would switch back to a white brush.
Layer Masks can be used for every layer you wish to use in Photoshop. The same principles apply.
White – Reveals your adjustment and Black – Conceals your adjustment.
Click here to see how you can use Layer Masks on your sunrise or sunset photos.
You can also use a layer mask the opposite way by making an adjustment to the whole image and then painting with a black brush on the white layer mask to conceal the part of the image you do not want adjusted.
In the very top photo of this post you will see the image is quiet contrasty and almost 3D like – This is done using loads of curves layers, by both lightening and darkening different parts of the image using the layer mask technique described in this tutorial.
I hope this tutorial was helpful learning how to use layer masks in Photoshop. Any questions? Leave a comment.
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