Photoshop Layer Masks Advanced Tips and Tricks
Unlock the full power of layer masks in Photoshop with over a dozen must-know tips and tricks! Learn how to copy, move, fade and feather layer masks, and more! For Photoshop CC and CS6.
Layer masks are used to show or hide different parts of a layer, by filling different areas of the mask with either white, black or gray. White areas on a layer mask show those parts of the layer, while black areas on the mask hide them. And gray will partially show or hide areas depending on the shade of gray you use. The darker the shade, the more the layer fades from view.
Knowing how to use layer masks is an essential Photoshop skill. And in this tutorial, you'll learn the advanced tips and tricks for working with layer masks that will help you edit and composite images like a pro!
If you're brand new to layer masks, you'll want to first learn the basics by checking out my Layer Masks for Beginners tutorial. I'm using Photoshop CC but any recent version will work. Let's get started!
Photoshop layer mask tips and tricks
Let's start with a couple of tips you can use when adding a layer mask to your document.
Here's an image I've opened in Photoshop:
And if we look in the Layers panel, we see the image sitting on its own layer above the Background layer:
Tip #1: How to add a layer mask that hides the contents of a layer
Normally, to add a layer mask, we click the Add Layer Mask icon:
And by default, Photoshop adds a white-filled layer mask which keeps the entire layer visible:
But you can also add a layer mask that hides the entire contents of your layer. Just press and hold the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key on your keyboard as you click the Add Layer Mask icon. Instead of white, Photoshop fills the mask with black, hiding the layer's contents from view:
Tip #2: How to hide the selected area when adding a layer mask
The same is true when turning a selection into a layer mask. Here, I've used the Elliptical Marquee Tool to draw a circular selection outline around my subject:
I'll click the Add Layer Mask icon:
And Photoshop converts the selection into a layer mask. By default, the area inside the selection remains visible (filled with white on the mask), while everything outside the selection is hidden (filled with black):
But if you'd rather hide the area inside the selection and keep everything outside of it visible, press and hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) as you click the Add Layer Mask icon. This fills the selected area with black on the mask, and fills everything outside the selection with white:
Tip #3: How to invert a layer mask
To invert the colors of an existing layer mask, making white areas black and black areas white, make sure the layer mask itself is active:
Then go up to the Image menu in the Menu Bar, choose Adjustments, and then choose Invert. Or use the faster keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+I (Win) / Command+I (Mac):
With the mask inverted, we're back to seeing my subject, and everything around her is once again hidden:
Tip #4: How to view a layer mask in the document
To view the layer mask itself in the document, press and hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) on your keyboard and click on the layer mask thumbnail. This replaces your view of the image with the mask:
And then to switch back to viewing the image, either Alt / Option-click once again on the layer mask thumbnail, or simply click on the layer's thumbnail beside it:
Tip #5: How to view your layer mask in Quick Mask mode
To view your layer mask in Quick Mask mode as a red overlay, press the backslash key ( \ ) on your keyboard. Press the backslash key again to return to the normal view:
Tip #6: How to disable a layer mask
To disable a layer mask so you can view the entire layer, press and hold your Shift key and click the layer mask thumbnail. A red "X" appears in the thumbnail letting you know that the mask is turned off. Then Shift-click the thumbnail again to turn the mask back on:
Tip #7: How to unlink a layer mask from its layer
By default, a layer and its mask are linked together, so moving one also moves the other. To unlink them so you can move the layer and the mask separately, click the link icon between the two thumbnails:
Moving the layer mask without moving the layer
Then, to move the layer mask, first select the Move Tool from the Toolbar (keyboard shortcut: V):
Click the layer mask thumbnail to select it:
And then drag in the document to move the mask around. As you drag the mask, the image stays in place:
Moving the layer without moving the mask
To move the layer without moving the mask, click the layer's thumbnail to select it:
And then click and drag with the Move Tool to move the image around inside the mask:
How to relink the layer and the layer mask
To relink the layer and the mask, click between the two thumbnails to restore the link icon:
And now when you click and drag in the document, you'll move both the layer and the mask at the same time:
Tip #8: How to switch between the layer and its mask from the keyboard
We've seen that you can switch between the layer and the layer mask from the Layers panel. Click the layer's thumbnail (on the left) to select the contents of the layer, or click the mask's thumbnail (on the right) to select the layer mask.
But you can also switch between the layer and the mask from your keyboard:
- To select the layer, press Ctrl+2 (Win) / Command+2 (Mac).
- To select the mask, press Ctrl+backslash ( \ ) (Win) / Command+backslash ( \ ) (Mac).
Tip #9: How to move a layer mask from one layer to another
Next, let's learn how to move or copy a layer mask from one layer to another. I've added a second image to my document and placed it on a layer above the first one. The second image is blocking the original one from view:
To move a layer mask to another layer, simply click and drag the mask thumbnail onto the new layer in the Layers panel:
Release your mouse button to drop the mask into place:
Tip #10: How to copy a layer mask to another layer
To copy, rather than just move, a layer mask to another layer, press and hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) as you drag the mask thumbnail to the other layer:
Release your mouse button, and now both layers share an identical mask:
You can then use the Move Tool to reposition the masks and the layer contents in the document:
Tip #11: How to delete a layer mask
To delete both a layer and its layer mask, click on the layer in the Layers panel to select it. Here I'm selecting the top layer:
And then to delete it, press Backspace (Win) / Delete on your keyboard. Both the layer and the mask are gone:
To delete just the layer mask itself, right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) on the layer mask thumbnail and choose Delete Layer Mask from the menu:
This deletes the mask but keeps the layer:
How to fade or feather a layer mask
Finally, let's look at two powerful layer mask options in Photoshop's Properties panel. The first option, Density, lets you fade the effect of your layer mask. And the second, Feather, makes it easy to soften your layer mask edges. Let's see how they work.
In this image, I want to use a layer mask to add a vignette effect around the couple:
I've gone ahead and added an initial layer mask around them:
If you're not seeing the layer mask options in the Properties panel, make sure the layer mask icon is selected at the top:
Tip #12: How to fade a layer mask
To fade the effect of a layer mask, use the Density slider. The more you lower the Density from its default value of 100%, the more the areas that were hidden by the mask will show through:
Here we see that at a Density value of 50%, the rest of the image outside of my selection is now 50% visible. And notice in the layer mask thumbnail that the areas of the mask that were once black are now a much lighter gray:
Being able to fade a layer mask can be very useful, but it's not the effect I'm going for with this image. So I'll increase the Density back to 100% to hide the areas around my selection:
Tip #13: How to feather a layer mask
What I want to do instead is soften the edges of my layer mask to create a vignette effect. And I can do that easily using the Feather option in the Properties panel. To soften the edges, drag the Feather slider to the right. The further you drag, the softer the mask edges appear:
And just by dragging the Feather slider, I'm able to quickly create my vignette effect:
And there we have it! That's over a dozen tips and tricks you can use to unlock the full power of layer masks in Photoshop! Check out our Photoshop Basics section for more tutorials! And don' forget, all of our tutorials are now available to download as PDFs!