Clipping Masks In Photoshop And How They Work

Written by Steve Patterson.

In this tutorial, I'll show you how to use clipping masks in Photoshop to show and hide different parts of a layer and fit images into shapes. We'll learn the basics of how to create a clipping mask, and we'll explore the concept behind them in more detail so that by the end of this lesson, you'll have a solid grasp on how clipping masks work. I'll be using Photoshop CC but everything is fully compatible with Photoshop CS6 and earlier. Let's get started!

What Are Clipping Masks?

Clipping masks in Photoshop are a powerful way to control the visibility of a layer. In that sense, clipping masks are similar to layer masks. But while the end result may look the same, clipping masks and layer masks are very different. A layer mask uses black and white to show and hide different parts of the layer. But a clipping mask uses the content and transparency of one layer to control the visibility of another.

To create a clipping mask, we need two layers. The layer on the bottom controls the visibility of the layer above it. In other words, the bottom layer is the mask, and the layer above it is the layer that's clipped to the mask.

Where the bottom layer contains actual content (pixels, shapes, or type), the content on the layer above it is visible. But if any part of the layer on the bottom is transparent, then that same area on the layer above it will be hidden. That may sound more confusing than how a layer mask works, but clipping masks are just as easy to use. Let's create a clipping mask ourselves so we can better understand how they work.

How A Clipping Mask Works

To really make sense of clipping masks, we first need to understand the difference between content and transparency on a layer. To follow along with me, you can open any image. I'll use this photo of my little friend here who's also trying to understand, in her own way, what this clipping stuff is all about (photo from Adobe Stock):

Open a photo to learn how clipping masks work
The original image. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

A Mask Layer And A Clipped Layer

If we look in the Layers panel, we see the photo on the Background layer, which is currently the only layer in the document:

Photoshop Layers panel showing the original photo on the Background layer
The Layers panel showing the photo on the Background layer.

We need two layers to create a clipping mask, one to serve as the mask and one that will be clipped to the mask, so let's add a second layer. We'll add the new layer below the image. First, unlock the Background layer. In Photoshop CC, click the lock icon to unlock it. In Photoshop CS6 or earlier, press and hold the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key on your keyboard and double-click on the Background layer:

Unlocking the Background layer in Photoshop
Unlocking the Background layer.

This unlocks the Background layer and renames it "Layer 0":

The Background layer has been unlocked in Photoshop
Unlocking the Background layer lets us add a new layer below it.

Then, to add a new layer below the image, press and hold the Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) key on your keyboard and click the Add New Layer icon:

Adding a new layer below the image to create a clipping mask
Adding a new layer below the image.

A new layer named "Layer 1" appears below the photo, and we now have two layers in the document. We'll turn the bottom layer into the mask, and the image above it will be clipped to the mask:

The second layer needed for the clipping mask has been added to the document in Photoshop
The second layer needed for the clipping mask has been added.

Understanding Clipping Masks: Content vs Transparency

Hide the original image for the moment by clicking the top layer's visibility icon:

Clicking the layer visibility icon to hide the image
Clicking the visibility icon to hide the photo.

With the top layer turned off, we see the layer we just added. By default, new layers in Photoshop are blank, meaning they have no content at all. A layer with no content is transparent and we see right through it. When there are no other layers below a transparent layer, Photoshop displays the transparency as a checkerboard pattern, as we see here:

The layer on the bottom is transparent, indicated by the checkerboard pattern in Photoshop
The checkerboard pattern means the bottom layer is transparent.

Turn the top layer back on by clicking again on it visibility icon:

Clicking the layer visibility icon again in the Layers panel.
Clicking the same visibility icon.

The top layer contains actual content. In this case, it's pixel-based content because we're looking at a digital photo, but in Photoshop, content could also be a vector shape or even text. Really, anything that isn't transparency is considered content:

The layer on top contains content, in this case a pixel-based image
The top layer contains actual content.

How To Create A Clipping Mask In Photoshop

Clipping masks use the content and transparency of the layer below to control the visibility of the layer above. Let's create a clipping mask using our two layers and see what happens.

Step 1: Select The Layer That Will Be Clipped

When creating a clipping mask, we first need to select the layer that's going to be clipped to the layer below it. In this case, the top layer ("Layer 0") will be clipped to the bottom layer ("Layer 1"), so make sure the top layer is selected:

Selecting the layer that will be clipped to the layer below
Selecting the top layer.

Step 2: Choose "Create Clipping Mask"

To create the clipping mask, go up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar and choose Create Clipping Mask:

Selecting the Create Clipping Mask command from the Layer menu in Photoshop
Go to Layer > Create Clipping Mask.

And that's all there is to it! With the layer mask created, the Layers panel now shows the top layer ("Layer 0" ) indented to the right, with a small arrow pointing down at "Layer 1" below it. This is how Photoshop tells us that the top layer is now clipped to the layer below:

The Layers panel showing the clipping mask, with the top layer clipped to the mask layer below
The Layers panel showing the top layer clipped to the bottom layer.

But the problem is, all we've accomplished so far by creating a clipping mask is that we've hidden the image from view, and that's because our mask layer ("Layer 1") contains no content. It's completely transparent. With a clipping mask, any areas on the top layer that are sitting directly above transparent areas on the bottom layer are hidden. Since the bottom layer contains nothing but transparency, no part of the image above it is visible:

Creating a clipping mask from a transparent layer hides the image above it from view
With no content on the mask layer, the image on the clipped layer is hidden.

How To Release A Clipping Mask

That wasn't very interesting, so release the clipping mask by going up to the Layer menu and choosing Release Clipping Mask:

Choosing the Release Clipping Mask command from the Layer menu in Photoshop
Going to Layer > Release Clipping Mask.

In the Layers panel, the top layer is no longer indented to the right, which means it's no longer clipped to the layer below:

The Layers panel showing that the clipping mask has been released.
The layer mask has been released.

And in the document, we're back to seeing our image:

The image is visible again after releasing the clipping mask.
With the clipping mask released, the image returns.

Adding Content To The Clipping Mask

Let's add some content to the bottom layer. Click the top layer's visibility icon to hide the image so we can see what we're doing:

Hiding the image on the top layer before adding content to the layer below
Clicking the top layer's visibility icon.

Then click on the bottom layer to make it active:

Selecting the bottom layer to add content
Selecting the bottom layer.

To add content, we'll draw a simple shape. Select the Elliptical Marquee Tool from the Toolbar by right-clicking (Win) / Control-clicking (Mac) on the Rectangular Marquee Tool and choosing the Elliptical Marquee Tool from the fly-out menu:

Selecting the Elliptical Marquee Tool from the Toolbar in Photoshop
Selecting the Elliptical Marquee Tool.

Click and drag out an elliptical selection outline in the center of the document:

Drawing an elliptical selection outline on the bottom layer
Drawing a selection with the Elliptical Marquee Tool.

Go up to the Edit menu in the Menu Bar and choose Fill:

Choosing the Fill command from the Edit menu in Photoshop.
Going to Edit > Fill.

In the Fill dialog box, set the Contents option to black, and then click OK:

Choosing Black in the Fill dialog box in Photoshop
The Fill dialog box.

Photoshop fills the selection with black. To remove the selection outline from around the shape, go up to the Select menu and choose Deselect:

Choosing the Deselect command in Photoshop
Going to Select > Deselect.

And now, instead of a completely transparent layer, we have an area with some content in the center. Notice, though, that the area surrounding the content remains transparent:

The clipping mask layer now contains both content and transparency
The bottom layer now contains both content and transparency.

Back in the Layers panel, the preview thumbnail for the bottom layer now shows the black shape. What's important to note here is that if you compare the preview thumbnails for both layers, you'll see that some of the image on the top layer is sitting directly above the content (the shape) on the bottom layer. And, some of the photo is sitting above the transparent areas on the bottom layer:

The Layers panel showing the content and transparency on the bottom layer
The preview thumbnail showing the content and transparency on the bottom layer.

Creating Another Clipping Mask

Now that we've added some content to the bottom layer, let's create another clipping mask. Again, we first need to select the layer that will be clipped to the layer below, so click on the top layer to select it. Then, click the top layer's visibility icon to make the image on the layer visible:

Selecting and turning on the layer that will be clipped by the mask
Selecting and turning on the layer that will be clipped.

Go back up to the Layer menu and once again choose Create Clipping Mask:

Selecting the Create Clipping Mask command from the Layer menu in Photoshop
Go again to Layer > Create Clipping Mask.

In the Layers panel, we see the top layer clipped to the layer below it, just like we saw last time:

The Layers panel showing the top layer clipped to the bottom layer after creating the clipping mask
The Layers panel again showing the clipping mask.

But in the document, we now see a very different result. This time, the section of the photo that's sitting directly above the shape on the layer below it remains visible! The only parts of the photo that are hidden are the areas surrounding the shape, since those areas are still sitting above transparency:

Photoshop clipping mask after adding content to the mask layer
The content on the bottom layer keeps part of the top layer visible.

Moving Content Within A Clipping Mask

Of course, the result might look better if our subject was centered inside the shape. With clipping masks, it's easy to move and reposition content within them. Just select the Move Tool from the Toolbar:

Selecting the Move Tool in Photoshop.
Selecting the Move Tool.

Then click on the photo and drag it into position. As you move the image, only the area that moves over the shape on the layer below it remains visible. And that's the basics of how clipping masks work:

How to create a clipping mask in Photoshop tutorial
The clipping mask after centering the photo within the shape.

When To Use A Clipping Mask

While layer masks are best for blending layers with seamless transitions, clipping masks in Photoshop are perfect when your image needs to fit within a clearly-defined shape. The shape may be one you've drawn with a selection tool as we've seen. But a clipping mask can also be used to fill a vector shape with an image, or to place an image inside text. As another example of what we can do with clipping masks, let's quickly look at how a clipping mask can be used to place a photo inside a frame.

Placing A Photo In A Frame With Clipping Masks

Here I have a document containing two images, each on a separate layer. The photo on the bottom layer contains the frame:

An image of a photo frame.
The image on the bottom layer. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

And if I turn the top layer on by clicking its visibility icon:

Clicking the visibility icon to show the top layer in the Layers panel
Turning on the top layer.

We see the photo I want to place inside the frame:

The image that will be placed inside the frame using a clipping mask
The image on the top layer. Photo credit: Adobe Stock.

I'll hide the top layer for the moment by once again clicking its visibility icon, and then I'll click on the Background layer to select it:

Hiding the top layer and selecting the bottom layer in Photoshop
Hiding the top layer and selecting the bottom layer.

Drawing Or Selecting The Shape

I mentioned that clipping masks work best when your image needs to fit within a shape. In this case, the shape is the area inside the frame. Since the area is filled with solid black, I'll select it using Photoshop's Magic Wand Tool:

Selecting the Magic Wand Tool from the Toolbar in Photoshop
Selecting the Magic Wand Tool from the Toolbar.

I'll click with the Magic Wand Tool inside the frame, and now the area is selected:

Selecting the area that will be used for the clipping mask
Selecting the area that will be used for the clipping mask.

Then, I'll copy the selected area to a new layer by going up to the Layer menu in the Menu Bar, choosing New, and then choosing Layer via Copy:

The New Layer via Copy command in Photoshop.
Going to Layer > New > Layer via Copy.

Photoshop copies my selection to a new layer between the Background layer and the photo I'll be placing inside the frame. I now have the shape I need to create my clipping mask:

The shape of the area inside the frame has been copied to a new layer
The area inside the frame appears on its own layer.

A Faster Way To Create A Clipping Mask

To create the clipping mask, I'll select the top layer, and I'll turn the layer back on by clicking its visibility icon:

Selecting and turning on the top layer in the Layers panel
Selecting and turning on the top layer.

We've seen that we can create a clipping mask by choosing Create Clipping Mask from the Layer menu. But a faster way is to press and hold the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key on your keyboard as you hover your mouse cursor between the two layers. Your cursor will change into a clipping mask icon:

Creating a clipping mask in Photoshop
The clipping mask icon appears.

Click on the dividing line between the two layers to create the clipping mask:

The clipping mask has been created from the two layers
The image is now clipped to "Layer 1" below it.

With the clipping mask created, the photo now appears only inside the frame, since that's the only part of the image that's sitting above actual content on the layer below it. The rest of the photo is hidden because it's sitting above transparency:

The clipping mask places the photo in the frame.
The photo is now clipped inside the frame thanks to the clipping mask.

Resizing Content Within A Clipping Mask

Finally, we've seen that we can move content around inside a clipping mask using the Move Tool. But we can also resize content within a clipping mask just as easily using Photoshop's Free Transform command. At the moment, my photo is too big for the frame, so I'll resize it by going up to the Edit menu and choosing Free Transform:

Selecting the Free Transform command in Photoshop
Going to Edit > Free Transform.

Photoshop places the Free Transform box and handles around the image, including the area outside the frame that's currently hidden by the clipping mask:

The Free Transform handles appear around the areas of the image hidden by the clipping mask
The Free Transform handles appear around the entire image, including the hidden areas.

To resize it, I'll press and hold my Shift key as I click on the corner handles and drag them inward. Holding the Shift key locks the aspect ratio of the image so I don't distort it:

Resizing the photo inside a clipping mask in Photoshop using Free Transform
Resizing the photo inside the clipping mask.

To accept it, I'll press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on my keyboard to close out of Free Transform. And now, thanks to the power of clipping masks, the photo fits nicely within the frame:

Photoshop clipping mask tutorial effect
The final clipping mask result.

And there we have it! That's how clipping masks work in Photoshop and how to use a clipping mask to show and hide different parts of a layer! Visit our Photoshop Basics section for more Photoshop tutorials!