Using Layer Effects with Layer Masks in Photoshop
Using Photoshop's layer effects and a layer mask on the same layer can give you unexpected results. Learn why it happens and the tricks you need to know to get your effects and masks working perfectly together!
Layer effects and layer masks are two of Photoshop’s most powerful and creative features. Problem is, they don’t always work as expected when used together on the same layer. And the reason is because of the way layer masks and layer effects interact, which is different from how masks work with a layer’s normal contents.
In this tutorial, I show you some examples of problems you can run into when combining layer effects with a mask, along with the tricks you need to know to get your effects and masks working seamlessly together.
Which version of Photoshop do I need?
I’m using Photoshop 2023 but this applies to any recent version. You can get the latest Photoshop version here.
The document setup
Notice the white border around the main image. The border was created using a stroke, which is one of Photoshop’s layer effects. And it’s the stroke, not the image itself, that will be our main focus.
In the Layers panel, we see the stroke listed as an effect below the layer.
A preview of the final effect
To show you where we’re headed, here’s the result we’ll be working towards. I’m going to divide the main photo in half (into a left side and a right side) using layer masks. Then I’ll drag the two sides apart, and I’ll finish by adding a drop shadow (another layer effect) behind them.
But as we’ll see, we’re going to quickly run into problems with how the stroke is interacting with the layer masks. And after that, we’ll discover a new problem with how the masks are affecting the drop shadow. But with each problem, I’ll show you the easy solution.
Let's get started!
Selecting the left side of the image
Before adding my first layer mask, I need to select the left half of the image. I’ll do that by selecting the entire image and then resizing the selection outline.
In the Layers panel, I’ll right-click on the layer’s thumbnail.
Then I’ll choose Select Pixels.
This loads a selection outline around the image.
Then to resize the selection outline, I’ll go up to the Select menu in the Menu Bar and choose Transform Selection.
In the Options Bar, I’ll unlink the Width and Height values so I can unlock the aspect ratio of the outline.
Then I’ll drag the right side of the outline inward until it snaps into place in the center of the image.
And I’ll click the checkmark in the Options Bar to accept it.
Adding the first layer mask
Now that the left side is selected, I’ll add a layer mask by clicking the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel.
A layer mask thumbnail appears on the layer.
Problem: The layer mask did not hide the layer effect
And the layer mask hides the right side of the image, keeping only the left side visible.
But here’s the problem. The layer mask did a great job at hiding the image, but it did not hide the stroke.
Instead, the stroke reshaped itself around the part of the image that’s still visible. And now the right side of the stroke is running through what is really the center of the larger image, which is not what I wanted.
Adding a layer mask to the right side of the image
But the problem is about to get worse when I bring back the right side of the image.
To bring it back, I’ll make a copy of the layer, along with its mask, by pressing Ctrl+J on a Windows PC or Command+J on a Mac.
Then I’ll select the layer’s mask by clicking its thumbnail.
And in the Properties panel, I’ll click the Invert button, which turns the white parts of the mask to black and the black parts to white.
Same problem: The layer mask did not hide the effect
The good news is that the right side of the image is back. But the bad news is that I now have not one but two strokes cutting through the middle.
It looks like a single stroke that’s twice as wide as the others. But it’s actually two separate strokes, one for the left side of the image and one for the right.
I’ll hide the left side for a moment so it’s easier to see that the stroke has once again reshaped itself around the part of the image that’s still visible. But again, that’s not what I wanted.
How layer effects and layer masks interact in Photoshop
So what’s going on here, and how do we fix it? How do I get rid of the two strokes in the middle of the image?
What’s happening is that by default, a layer mask hides the layer contents but it does not hide any layer effects that are applied to the layer. Instead of hiding the layer effects, Photoshop reshapes the effects to fit the content that’s not hidden by the mask.
That’s why my stroke initially surrounded the entire image. But when I added a mask to hide one side of the image, the stroke simply reshaped itself around the other side.
How to mask layer effects in Photoshop
Sometimes hiding a layer’s contents and just reshaping the layer effects is what you want, which is why it’s the default behavior in Photoshop.
But in this case, it’s not what I want. I need the two strokes in the middle to disappear. Which means I need a way to tell Photoshop that my layer masks should hide both the contents and the layer effects.
And we can do that using an option called Layer Mask Hides Effects. Here’s where to find it.
Layer Mask Hides Effects
You can only do this on one layer at a time, so I’ll turn off the right side of the image to make things easier to see.
Then to make the layer mask hide your layer effects, double-click on the word Effects below the layer.
This opens the Layer Style dialog box set to the Blending Options. In the Advanced Blending section, look for the option that says Layer Mask Hides Effects and just turn it on.
The stroke along the right instantly disappears because it is now being hidden by the layer mask.
I’ll click OK to close the Layer Style dialog box. Then I’ll hide the left side of the image and turn on the right side.
I’ll do the same thing by double-clicking on the word Effects below the layer:
And turning on Layer Mask Hides Effects.
The stroke on the left instantly disappears, again because it is now being hidden by the mask.
I’ll click OK to close the dialog box. Then I’ll turn the left side of the image back on.
And problem solved. The two strokes in the middle are now being hidden by the layer masks, and I’m back to what looks like a single image with a border around it.
Dragging the two sides of the image apart
Now I can drag the left and right sides of the image apart.
In the toolbar, I’ll make sure I have the Move Tool selected.
And in the Options Bar, I’ll make sure that Auto-Select is turned on so I can select layers just by clicking on them.
Then I’ll click on the left side of the image to select it. I’ll hold Shift on my keyboard to make it easier to drag horizontally, and I’ll drag it over to the left.
I’ll do the same thing with the right side, clicking on it to select it, holding Shift and dragging it to the right. So far so good.
Solving one problem but creating another
The real reason I dragged the two sides apart is so I can show you that by solving the first problem, we’ve actually created a new problem.
I want to add a drop shadow, which is another of Photoshop’s layer effects, behind the two images. Should be easy enough, right?
I’ll start with the image on the left by double-clicking on the word Effects below the layer to reopen the Layer Style dialog box.
And I’ll choose Drop Shadow in the column on the left.
In the Drop Shadow options, I’ll set the Angle to 135 degrees and the Distance to 160 pixels, which should make the shadow easy to see. The rest of the settings are at their defaults.
And yet, where is the shadow? It should be behind the left side of the image, but I don’t see it at all.
Actually, the shadow is there. We just can’t see it. And the reason we can’t see it is because we turned on Layer Mask Hides Effects. So the shadow, which falls outside the layer mask, is being hidden by the mask.
If I turn off Layer Mask Hides Effects:
The shadow appears. But so does the stroke along the right that we don’t want. So... hmm. What do we do?
Applying layer effects to a layer group
We want to see the drop shadow but not the stroke. Which means we need the mask to hide one of the layer effects but not the other. Is there a
Layer Mask Hides This Effect But Not That One option?
Well, no. But we can create something like that ourselves by applying the two effects separately.
We’ll keep the stroke applied to the layer, with Layer Mask Hides Effects turned on. But we’ll place the layer into a layer group and apply the drop shadow to the group itself!
Selecting both layers at once
Now because I have two layers where I want to apply the shadow, I need to add both of them to the group.
So with one of the layers already selected in the Layers panel, I’ll hold Shift on my keyboard and click on the other layer to select them both.
Adding the layers to a group
Then I’ll click the Layers panel menu icon:
And choose New Group from Layers.
I’ll accept the default group name and click OK.
Both layers are now inside the group.
Applying the Drop Shadow to the group
So now I can add the shadow to the group by clicking the fx icon at the bottom of the Layers panel and choosing Drop Shadow.
I’ll again set the Angle to 135 degrees and the Distance to 160 pixels. But I’ll also soften the shadow edges by increasing the Size to around 40 pixels. Then I’ll click OK to close the Layer Style dialog box.
And this time, because the Drop Shadow was added to the group, both layers inside the group have the shadow applied.
While inside the group, my Strokes are still being hidden by the masks on the individual layers.
And there we have it! That’s how to get layer effects and layer masks to work together in Photoshop.
- How to Create a Picture-in-Picture Effect
- How to Add a Border to a Photo
- How to Fill a Shape with a Photo
Don't forget, all of my Photoshop tutorials are now available to download as PDFs!