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Learn how to mask layers to hide and reveal parts of your composite
Topics in this article:
Create layer and vector masks
Add layer masks.
- Create layer masks for detected objects
Unlink layers and masks
Select and display the layer mask channel, change the layer mask color or opacity, adjust mask opacity and edges.
Add a mask to a layer and use the mask to hide portions of the layer and reveal the layers underneath.
Masking layers come in handy when combining multiple photos into a single image or when removing a person or an object from a photo.
You can create two types of masks:
- Layer masks are resolution-dependent bitmap images that are edited with the painting or selection tools.
- Vector masks are resolution independent and are created with a pen or shape tool.
Both layer and vector masks are nondestructive, which means you can go back and re‑edit the masks later without losing the pixels they hide.
In the Layers panel, both the layer and vector masks appear as an additional thumbnail to the right of the layer thumbnail.
For the layer mask, this thumbnail represents the grayscale channel that is created when you add the layer mask. The vector mask thumbnail represents a path that clips out the contents of the layer.
Follow these steps to create a layer or vector mask over the Background layer.
Convert your Background layer into a regular layer by navigating to Layer > New > Layer from Background .
Use the Add layer mask icon at the end of the Layers panel to add a Layer Mask .
Use the Density and Feather sliders to make adjustments to your composite.
You can edit a layer mask to add or subtract from the masked region. A layer mask is a grayscale image. The areas you paint in black are hidden, the areas you paint in white are visible, and the areas you paint in shades of gray appear in various levels of transparency.
A vector mask creates a sharp-edged shape on a layer and is useful anytime you want to add a design element with clean and defined edges. After you create a layer with a vector mask, you can apply one or more layer styles to it, edit them if needed, and instantly have a usable button, panel, or other web-design element.
The Properties panel provides additional controls to adjust a mask. You can change the opacity of a mask to let more or less of the masked content show through, invert the mask, or refine the mask borders, as with a selection area.
When you add a layer mask, you can hide or show all of the layer, or base the mask on a selection or transparency. Later, you’ll paint on the mask to precisely hide portions of the layer, revealing the layers beneath.
Add a mask that shows or hides the entire layer
- Make sure that no part of your image is selected. Choose Select > Deselect.
- In the Layers panel, select the layer or group.
- To create a mask that hides the entire layer, Alt-click (Win) or Option-click (Mac) the Add Layer Mask button, or choose Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All.
Add a layer mask that hides part of a layer
- Alt-click (Win) or Option-click (Mac) the Add Layer Mask button in the Layers panel to create a mask that hides the selection.
- Choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection or Hide Selection.
To directly edit layer transparency, do the following and create a mask:
- In the Layers panel, select the layer.
- Choose Layer > Layer Mask > From Transparency.
Photoshop converts transparency into an opaque color, hidden by the newly created mask. The opaque color varies greatly, depending upon the filters and other processing previously applied to the layer. This technique is helpful for video and 3D workflows.
Apply a layer mask from another layer
Do one of the following:
- To move the mask to another layer, drag the mask to the other layer.
- To duplicate the mask, Alt-drag (Win) or Option-drag (Mac) the mask to the other layer.
Create layer masks for all detected objects in a layer
Layer masking is a nondestructive way to hide parts of an image or layer without erasing them. They're great for making image composites, modifying background colors, removing or cutting out objects, and targeting your edits so they affect only certain areas, rather than the entire layer.
Mask All Objects is a quick and easy way to create layer masks for all detected objects in a layer. It will auto-generate mask layer groups, on separate layers, for every object detected on the selected layer with one command.
Mask All Objects is great for creating selections from the auto-generated masks, targeting the layer, then applying edits such as Generative Fill , adjustments, or filters. For example, if you have six people in an image, each person will be masked on their own separate layer group, as well as one mask for the entire group of people.
Follow these steps to learn how to use Mask All Objects in the Layers tab in Photoshop:
Mask all objects
Select a single layer, either go to Layer > Mask All Objects , right-click on the layer in the Layers panel, or go to the Layers panel flyout menu and select Mask All Objects .
Add an Adjustment to the Masked Layer
In the Layers panel, find the mask associated with the object you would like to adjust.
Select a layer mask group - you can now add any adjustment or filter you want to the masked object.
Select Adjustment > Hue Saturation at the end of the Layers panel and move the color slider until the selection is green. The adjustment is applied to the layer mask group.
- To view on canvas what is being masked, CMD + click on the layer mask to select with marching ants,
- Select Move tool and turn on Show Transform Controls in the Move tool options bar + select the layer mask to view the masked object.
- Turn on smart guides, select a layer, hold down the CMD key and the mask will be highlighted on canvas with smart guides.
After your masking work is complete, go to File > Scripts > Delete All Empty Layers to remove groups or layers that contain no or empty data.
To unlink a layer from its mask, click the link icon in the Layers panel.
To reestablish the link between a layer and its mask, click between the layer and mask path thumbnails in the Layers panel.
Disable or enable a layer mask
- Shift-click the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel.
- Select the layer containing the layer mask you want to disable or enable, and choose Layer > Layer Mask > Disable/Enable.
A red X appears over the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel when the mask is disabled, and the layer’s content appears without masking effects.
Apply or delete a layer mask
You can apply a layer mask to permanently delete the hidden portions of a layer [ * ] . Layer masks are stored as alpha channels, so applying and deleting layer masks can help reduce file size. You can also delete a layer mask without applying the changes.
[ * ] Pixels are hidden, not deleted when applying layer masks with discontiguous areas.
- In the Layers panel, select the layer containing the layer mask.
- To remove the layer mask without applying it to the layer, click the Delete button at the bottom of the Properties panel, and then click Delete.
You can also apply or delete layer masks using the Layer menu.
You cannot apply a layer mask permanently to a Smart Object layer when deleting the layer mask.
For easier editing of a layer mask, you can display the grayscale mask by itself or as a rubylith overlay on the layer.
In the Layers panel, do one of the following:
- Hold down Alt+Shift (Win) or Option+Shift (Mac), and click the layer mask thumbnail to view the mask on top of the layer in a Rubylith masking color. Hold down Alt+Shift or Option+Shift, and click the thumbnail again to turn off the color display.
Double-click the layer mask channel in the Channels panel.
- To choose a new mask color, in the Layer Mask Display Options dialog box, click the color swatch and choose a new color.
Both the color and opacity settings affect only the appearance of the mask and have no effect on how underlying areas are protected. For example, you may want to change these settings to make the mask more easily visible against the colors in the image.
Use the Properties panel to adjust the opacity of a selected layer or vector mask. The Density slider controls mask opacity. Feather lets you soften mask edges.
Other options are specific to layer masks. The Invert option reverses masked and unmasked areas. The Mask Edge option gives you various controls to modify the mask edges, such as Smooth and Contract/Expand. For information on the Color Range option, see Create and confine adjustment and fill layers .
Change mask density
- In the Layers panel, select the layer containing the mask you want to edit.
In the Layers panel, click the Mask thumbnail. A border appears around the thumbnail.
In the Properties panel, drag the Density slider to adjust the mask opacity.
At 100% density, the mask is opaque and blocks out any underlying area of the layer. As you lower the density, more of the area under the mask becomes visible.
Feather mask edges
Feathering blurs the edges of the mask to create a softer transition between the masked and unmasked areas. Feathering is applied from the edges of the mask outward, within the range of pixels you set with the slider.
Refine mask edges
Click Select and Mask in the options bar. You can modify mask edges with the options in the Select and Mask workspace and view the mask against different backgrounds.
Click OK in the Select and Mask workspace to apply your changes to the layer mask.
More like this
- About masks and alpha channels
- Merge and stamp layers
- Load selections from a layer or layer mask’s boundaries
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Make bold edits with layer masks.
Discover the difference between layer and vector masks. Then use both to enhance your workflow in Adobe Photoshop.
Photoshop layer masks overview.
Layer masking is a nondestructive way to hide parts of an image or layer without erasing them. They’re great for making image composites , modifying background colors, removing or cutting out objects , and targeting your edits so they affect only certain areas, rather than the entire layer.
Feather, adjust, repeat.
Layer masks use an overlay that can be adjusted to work with people and objects that have irregular edges. Use feathering and refining tools to realistically select hair and fur.
Paint on edits to your masks.
Adjust your masks by painting on black and white. White areas will be affected by edits and black areas will not. Play with opacity and grayscale to change the degree to which your edits are applied.
Use vectors for precision.
Unlike a layer mask that’s manually painted on, vector masks use math to create pixel-perfect lines and edges for your selections. They’re great for architecture and areas that have straight lines.
Ease of editing.
To edit the selections you make with your masks, you can use any of the Photoshop tools you’re used to — such as Brush tools, Gradient tools, and Eraser tools.
Masks for fine-tuned editing.
Masking can help you make precise edits to an image so you can create a result that matches your vision.
Target elements of layers.
Adjustment layers include layer masks, allowing you to change the contents of the layers beneath them, so you can selectively alter parts of an image without having to edit layers individually.
Adjust hue and saturation.
Apply a Hue and Saturation Adjustment layer to a masked area to make selective changes to the color and vibrancy of a certain part of a layer.
How to add a layer mask to a layer.
Adding a mask to an image layer is simple. Just follow these steps.
1. Select it:
Select your layer or group in the Layers panel.
2. Reveal it:
For a revealing mask, click the Add Layer Mask button in the bottom of the Layers panel.
3. Conceal it:
For a concealing mask, Alt-click (PC) or Option-click (Mac) the Add Layer Mask button.
4. Adjust it:
In the Channels panel, double-click your mask to adjust its edges and opacity. Or right-click the layer mask thumbnail. To completely invert your mask, press Command I on Mac (or Control I on Windows).
Do more with Adobe Photoshop.
Learn professional photo editing skills with masks.
Masking can be a powerful skill to add to your graphic design repertoire. These tutorials will help you master this tool.
Discover fill layers.
Along with masks, fill layers allow you to nondestructively add color.
Quick edits for masks.
Learn to make quick edits to your layer masks.
Frequently asked questions.
There are a few keyboard shortcuts for selecting mask tools in Photoshop, but which shortcut you use depends on the type of mask you want to select. To create a Quick Mask, you can press the Q key. To create vector masks, you can press Command + Click the “Add Layer” mask button at the bottom of the layer palette. Active paths will then create masks.
There are five different mask types in Photoshop:
1. Pixel Masks: These masks determine opacity based on raster image with grayscale values. These values correspond pixel for pixel to the original layer. They’re great for a model’s hair or leaves on trees.
2. Vector Masks: Vector masks use paths to provide superior flexibility. Users often choose them when they need shapes with crisp lines, like interface elements.
3. Quick Masks: Quick masks use pixel editing tools versus primitive selection tools.
4. Clipping Masks: Clipping masks give layers the opacity of an underlying layer.
5. Clipping Paths: These work like vector masks, except they apply to whole documents versus layers or layer groups.
Each mask offers pros and cons, and choosing the right one is essential if you want flexible, properly masked layers.
If you want to add a clipping mask, hold the Option key while clicking between the two layers in the Layer palette when the clipping mask cursor appears. You can also press Command + Option + G to clip a layer to one below it.
You can clip several layers to one master layer, but you cannot use clipped layers as clipping masks.
Quick Mask mode lets you create selections using pixel editing tools instead of primitive selection tools. You can press Q to access Quick Mask mode.
Yes, you can do this by using a layer mask. In the menu, choose Layer > Add Layer Mask > Hide All. Then reveal the drop shadow in the places where you want it seen. Use Command + click on Mac or Control + click on Windows on the Layers palette thumbnail for the mask.
Once the selection is active, fill it with white to reveal those areas on the shadow’s layer. Finally, select and transform the parts of the drop shadow you haven't adjusted yet.
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Home > Photoshop Basics > Photoshop Layers > Understanding Layer Masks
Understanding Layer Masks In Photoshop
Before we begin... This version of our Understanding Layer Masks tutorial is for Photoshop CS5 and earlier. If you're using Photoshop CC or CS6, please see our fully-updated Understanding Photoshop Layer Masks tutorial.
In this Photoshop tutorial , we're going to look at one of the most essential features in all of Photoshop - layer masks . We'll cover exactly what layer masks are, how they work, and why you want to use them. If you've been staying away from using layer masks with your Photoshop work because you thought they were somehow beyond your skill level, well, if you know the difference between black and white and can paint with Photoshop's Brush Tool, you already have all the skills you need!
A wise man once said, "Nothing worth doing in life should be done without layer masks". Apparently, the wise man was a big Photoshop user who may have spent a little too much time alone on top of the mountain. But enough about him. Layer masks are right up there at the top of the list of things you really need to know about when working in Photoshop because without them, your work, your creativity and your flexibility all suffer. It's that simple. It's a good thing for us, then, that layer masks are so incredibly simple and easy to understand!
Before we continue, if you're unsure of what a layer is, you may want to read our tutorial on Photoshop layers before learning about layer masks.
So what are layer masks then? Well, if the term "mask" is what's confusing you (and who could blame you), replace the word "mask" in your mind with "transparency", because that's exactly what a layer mask does. It allows you to control a layer's level of transparency . That's it, that's all. There's nothing more to them than that. Now, you may be thinking, "But... I can already control the transparency level with the Opacity option, can't I?", and yes, you certainly can. The Opacity option in the top right corner of the Layers palette also allows you to control a layer's transparency.
But here's the difference. The Opacity option changes the transparency level for the entire layer at once . If you lower the Opacity level down to, say, 50%, the entire layer becomes 50% transparent. That may be fine for some situations, but what if you want only part of a layer to be transparent? What if you want the left side of the layer to be completely transparent, the right side to be completely visible, with a gradual transition between the two through the middle of the layer? That's actually a very common thing to do with a layer in Photoshop, allowing you to fade from one image to another. But you can't do that with the Opacity option since as I said, it's limited to controlling the transparency of the entire layer at once. What you would need is some way to control the transparency of different areas of the layer separately. What you would need is a layer mask.
Let's look at an example. Here I have a couple of wedding photos that I think would work well blended together. Here's the first one:
And here's the second one:
In order to blend them together, whether I'll be using a layer mask or not, I need to have both photos inside the same Photoshop document, so with each photo open in its own separate document window, I'm simply going to press V on my keyboard to select my Move Tool and then click inside one of the documents and drag that photo into the document containing the other photo:
Now both photos are in the same Photoshop document, and if we look in the Layers palette, we can see that each one is on its own separate layer, with the photo of the couple facing towards the camera on top and the photo of the couple walking away from us into the woods below it:
So far, so good. Now, how am I going to blend these two photos together? Well, let's see what happens if I simply try lowering the opacity of the top layer. I'm going to lower it to about 70% just to see what sort of effect I end up with:
Here's my result:
Hmm. After lowering the opacity of the top layer (which again contains the image of the couple facing towards the camera on the right), the image on the bottom layer of the couple walking in the woods is now showing through the image above it. This effect may work if I was trying to turn the wedding couple into a couple of ghosts, but it's not really what I was hoping for, so I'm going to raise the opacity of the top layer back to 100% to make the top image fully visible once again. Let's try something else.
So far in our quest to blend our two photos together, we've tried lowering the opacity of the top layer with disappointing results, since all that basically did was fade the entire image. What I really want is for the couple in both images to remain fully visible, with the blending of the two images happening in the area between the bride walking away from us on the left and her looking towards us on the right. I know, why don't I just use Photoshop's Eraser Tool ! That's what I'll do. I'll use the Eraser Tool with nice, soft edges to erase the part of the image on the right that I don't need. Yep, this should work.
I'll press E on my keyboard to quickly select the Eraser Tool. As I said, I want soft edges for my Eraser, so I'm going to hold down my Shift key and press the left bracket key a few times, which softens the edges. I can also increase or decrease the size of the Eraser as needed using the left bracket key on its own to make the Eraser smaller and the right bracket key to make it larger (the same keyboard shortcut works with any of Photoshop's brush tools). And now that I have my Eraser at the right size and with soft edges, I'll go ahead and erase away parts of the left side of the top image so that it blends in with the image below it:
After finishing up with my Eraser, here's my result:
Things definitely look much better now than they did when we tried lowering the opacity of the top layer. The couple is still visible in both images with a nice transition area in the middle, which is what I wanted. The Eraser Tool worked great! Who needs layer masks! I'm happy with this, I think my client is going to be happy with this as well, so I'll email a copy of the image off to my client, save my Photoshop document, close out of it, shut down my computer and go enjoy the rest of my day while I wait for the client to call me and tell me how awesome I am.
A couple of hours later, the phone rings and it's my client. They like the image overall, but they think I've removed too much of the bride's veil from the photo on the right and they'd like me to bring some of it back into the image, at which point they'll be happy to pay me for my work. "No problem!", I tell them. I head back to my computer, open my Photoshop document back up, and all I need to do now is bring back some of the bride's veil on the right by.... by....... hmm.
Uh oh. How do I do that when I've gone and erased that part of the image?
Simple answer? I can't. Not without doing the whole thing over again, anyway, which would be my only option in this case. There's nothing else I can do here because I've erased that part of the image and when you erase something in Photoshop, it's gone for good. If I look in the top layer's preview thumbnail in the Layers palette, I can see that I have in fact erased that part of the image:
And if I click on the eyeball icon to the left of the bottom layer to temporarily turn it off, leaving only the top layer visible in my document, it's very easy to see that the section I erased from the left of the top image is now completely gone:
The checkerboard pattern in the image above is how Photoshop represents transparency in an image, as in there's nothing there anymore. As in I've messed up and now I have to do the work all over again from the beginning. Stupid Eraser Tool.
So now what? I've tried lowering the opacity of the top layer and that didn't really work. I've tried erasing parts of the top image away with the Eraser Tool and while that did work, I ended up permanently deleting that part of the image and now if I need to bring some of it back, I can't. I guess all I can really do then is set the number of undo's in Photoshop's Preferences to 100 and never close out of my Photoshop documents until after the client has paid me.
Or... What about these layer masks I keep hearing so much about? Would they work out any better? Let's find out!
The Opacity option left us disappointed. The Eraser Tool did the job but also caused permanent damage to our image. Wouldn't it be great if we could get the same results we saw with the Eraser Tool but without the "permanent damage to our image" part? Well guess what? We can! Say hello to Photoshop's layer masks.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, layer masks allow us to control the transparency of a layer, but unlike the Opacity option which controls overall transparency, layer masks allow us to set different levels of transparency for different areas of the layer (although technically, you could use them to control the overall opacity as well, but the Opacity option already handles that very well and layer masks are capable of so much more).
How do layer masks work? Well rather than talking about it, let's just go ahead and use one to see it in action. Before we can use a layer mask though, we first need to add one, since layers don't automatically come with layer masks. To add a layer mask, you first want to make sure that the layer you're adding it to is selected in the Layers palette (the currently selected layer is highlighted in blue), otherwise you'll end up adding it to the wrong layer. I want to add a layer mask to the top layer, which is already selected, so I'm good to go. Now if you're getting paid by the hour or you simply enjoy taking the scenic route through life, you could add a layer mask by going up to the Layer menu at the top of the screen, choosing Layer Mask , and then choosing Reveal All . If, on the other hand, you value your time and no one is paying you for it, simply click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette (it's the icon that looks like a filled rectangle with a round hole in the center of it):
Once you've clicked on the icon, nothing will seem to have happened in your document, and that's because by default, layer masks are hidden from view. After all, the whole point of them is to show and hide different parts of the layer and it would be pretty difficult to do that if the mask itself was blocking our view of the image. So how do we know, then, that we've added a layer mask if we can't see it? Easy. Look back over in the Layers palette, to the right of the preview thumbnail on the layer you added the mask to, and you'll see a brand new thumbnail. This is your layer mask thumbnail , and it's how we know that a layer mask has been added to the layer:
Notice that the layer mask thumbnail is filled with solid white. That's not just some random, meaningless color that Photoshop users to display layer mask thumbnails in. The reason why the thumbnail is filled with white is because the mask itself is currently filled with white, even though the mask is currently hidden from view. If you want proof that the mask really is there in your document and really is filled with white, simply hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click directly on the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers palette:
Doing this tells Photoshop to show us the layer mask in our document, and sure enough, there it is, filled with white:
The layer mask is now blocking our image from view though, so once again hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click on the layer mask thumbnail to hide the mask.
So, why is the layer mask (and it's thumbnail in the Layers palette) filled with white? Why not red, or green, or yellow? It's because of how layer masks work in Photoshop. Layer masks use only white, black, and all the shades of gray in between , and they use these three colors (white, black and gray) to control the transparency of a layer. White in a layer mask means 100% visible. Black in a layer mask means 100% transparent. And gray in a layer mask means some level of transparency depending on how light or dark the shade of gray is . 50% gray will give us 50% transparency. The lighter the shade of gray, the closer it is to white and the less transparent that area of the layer will be. The darker the shade of gray, the closer it is to black and the more transparent that area will be.
The reason layer masks are filled with white by default is because usually, you want to see everything on your layer when you first add the mask, and white in a layer mask means 100% visible. What if instead, you wanted to hide everything on the layer when you add the mask, so that as soon as the mask is added, everything on that layer disappears from view? Well, we just learned that black on a layer mask means 100% transparent, so we would need a way to tell Photoshop that instead of filling the new layer mask with white, we want it to be filled what black. You'll most likely come across situations where it makes more sense to hide everything on the layer when you add the mask rather than leaving everything visible, and fortunately, Photoshop gives us a couple of easy ways to do that. First of all, I'm going to delete my layer mask by simply clicking on its thumbnail and dragging it down onto the trash bin icon at the bottom of the Layers palette:
Photoshop will pop up a message asking if you want to apply the mask to the layer before you delete it. "Applying" the mask basically means telling Photoshop to erase all the pixels on the layer that were hidden from view by the layer mask, as if you had erased them yourself with the Eraser Tool. This way, you can delete the mask without losing the work you've done with it, although you'll lose the ability to make any changes later. In my case, I haven't actually done anything with my mask so there's nothing to apply, so I'm simply going to press "Delete". Most times, if you find yourself deleting your mask, it will be because you're unhappy with it and want to start over, in which case you'll just want to click "Delete" as well:
Now that I've deleted my mask, both the mask itself and its thumbnail in the Layers palette are gone:
This time, I want to add a mask to the top layer and have Photoshop hide everything on the layer as soon as the mask is added, which means the mask will need to be filled with black instead of white. The "getting paid by the hour" way to accomplish this would be to go up to the Layer menu at the top of the screen, choose Layer Mask , and then choose Hide All (remember last time, we chose "Reveal All"). The faster and easier way though is to hold down your Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key and click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette:
Either way you choose to do it, Photoshop adds a new layer mask to the currently selected layer, just as it did before, but this time, it fills the mask with black instead of white. We can see this in the layer mask thumbnail which is filled with solid black:
And, unlike the first time we added a layer mask where nothing seemed to have happened to our image, this time the top layer (the photo of the couple facing the camera) is completely hidden from view, leaving only the image below it visible:
Once again, the layer mask itself is hidden from view, but if you want to see it in your document, hold down Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and click directly on the layer mask's thumbnail in the Layers palette, which will tell Photoshop to show you the mask in the document window. This time, the mask is filled with black:
Hold "Alt/Option" and click again on the layer mask thumbnail to hide the mask in the document when you're done.
This is where the important difference between the Eraser Tool and layer masks comes in. Remember when we used the Easer Tool to blend the images together by erasing away part of the left side of the top image? The Eraser Tool physically deleted that part of the image and it was forever gone at that point, and if we looked in the top layer's preview thumbnail, we could see that large chunk of the image missing on the left. This time though, we've used a layer mask to hide not just part of the left side of the image but rather the entire image, yet if we look in the layer's preview thumbnail, the image is still there, completely intact:
Where the Eraser Tool deleted the contents of the layer, the layer mask simply hides it from view! To prove that the photo on the top layer is still there, I'm going to fill the layer mask with white. To fill a layer mask with white, or do anything at all with a layer mask, you first need to select the mask so that you're working on the mask itself and not the actual layer, and to select it, all you need to do is click directly on the mask's thumbnail in the Layers palette:
You can switch between selecting the layer itself and its layer mask by clicking on the corresponding thumbnail. You can tell which one is currently selected by which thumbnail has the white highlight border around it, as we can see around the layer mask thumbnail in the image above.
To fill the mask with white, I'll go up to the Edit menu at the top of the screen and choose Fill , which brings up Photoshop's Fill command dialog box. For Contents I'll choose white:
With white chosen as my fill contents, I'll click OK in the top right to exit out of the dialog box and have Photoshop fill my layer mask with white. I can now see in the Layers palette that the mask thumbnail is filled with white:
And with the mask now filled with solid white, my photo on the top layer is completely visible in the document once again, proving that even though the image was hidden from view a moment ago when we filled the layer mask with black, it was always there, untouched and unharmed:
And that's the basics of how Photoshop's layer masks work! When the mask is filled with white, the contents of that layer are 100% visible in the document, and when the mask is filled with black, the contents of the layer are 100% transparent - hidden from view but not deleted as was the case with the Eraser Tool. Layer masks don't physically alter or affect the contents of the layer in any way. All they do is control which parts are visible and which are not. The contents of the layer are always there, even when we can't see them.
"Okay," you're wondering, "We've seen how we can hide a layer completely by adding a layer mask to it and filling it with black, and we've seen how we can show the layer completely once again by simply filling the layer mask with white. And we know that whether the contents on the layer are visible or not, they're still always there. The Eraser Tool deletes parts of the image but layer masks simply hide them. That's all great. But is this all we can do with a layer mask, either show the entire layer or hide it? How do we use a layer mask to blend these two images together like we did with the Eraser Tool?"
Excellent question, and the answer is, very easily! We'll do that next.
To blend the two images together using the layer mask, we don't use the Eraser Tool. In fact, while the Eraser Tool still has its place, you'll find yourself using it less and less as you become more comfortable with layer masks. Instead, we use Photoshop's Brush Tool , and with our layer mask filled with white as it currently is, which is making the entire layer visible, all we need to do is paint with black on the layer mask over any areas we want to hide. It's that simple!
To show you what I mean, I'm going to select my Brush Tool from the Tools palette:
I could also press B on my keyboard to quickly select it. Then, since we want to paint with black, we need to have black as our Foreground color, and by default, whenever you have a layer mask selected, Photoshop sets white as your Foreground color, with black as your Background color. To swap them so black becomes your Foreground color, simply press X on your keyboard. If I look in the color swatches near the bottom of my Tools palette, I can see now that black is my Foreground color:
I'm going to resize my brush to the same general size I used with the Eraser Tool by once again using the left and right bracket keys , and I want my brush to have nice, soft edges so I get smooth transitions between the areas of the layer that are visible and the areas that are hidden, and I can soften my brush edges by holding down Shift and pressing the left bracket key a few times. Then, with my layer mask selected (I know it's selected because the layer mask thumbnail has the white highlight border around it), I'm going to do basically the same thing I did with the Eraser Tool, except this time I'm painting with black on the layer mask over the areas I want to hide rather than erasing anything:
After spending a few more seconds painting away the areas I want to hide, here's my result, which looks pretty much the same as it did after I used the Eraser Tool:
If we look at the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers palette, we can see where I've painted with black, which are now the areas of the top image that are hidden from view:
Let's say I'm happy with this, and I think my client will also be happy with it, so just as before, I email the image to the client for their approval, save my Photoshop document, close out of Photoshop and shut down my computer. The client calls back a couple of hours later and says they like it but they want some of the bride's veil on the right brought back in. When I faced this situation after using the Eraser Tool, I was out of luck because I had deleted that part of the image and had no choice but to start all over again. This time though, I was smarter! I used a layer mask, which means that the entire image on the top layer is still there and all I need to do is make more of it visible!
I was able to hide parts of the layer initially by painting on the layer mask with black, so to bring back some of the image that's now hidden, all I need to do is press X on my keyboard to swap my Foreground and Background colors, which makes white my Foreground color, and then I can simply paint with white over the areas I want to bring back into view, again making sure that my layer mask, not the layer itself, is selected, otherwise I'll be painting directly on the photo itself, and I'm fairly certain the client wouldn't approve of that. I think I'll use a smaller brush this time with harder edges so there isn't such a large transition area between the two images, and I'll use the bride's veil, along with the tree trunk above her, as the dividing point between the two images, which will look more natural. As I paint with white on the layer mask, the areas I paint over that were hidden become visible once again:
If I make a mistake as I'm painting and accidentally show or hide the wrong area, all I need to do is press X to swap my Foreground and Background colors, paint over the mistake to undo it, then swap my Foreground and Background colors once again with X and continue on. And here, after a couple of minutes worth of work painting the veil and the tree trunk back into the image, is my final result:
Thanks to the layer mask, I didn't have to redo everything from scratch because nothing was deleted! The mask allowed me to hide parts of the layer without harming a single pixel, Not only does this give you a lot more flexibility, it also gives you a lot more confidence when working in Photoshop because nothing you do with a layer mask is permanent.
Where to go next...
And there we have it! That's the basics of how layer masks work in Photoshop! Check out our Photoshop Basics section for more tutorials on layers and other essential Photoshop skills!
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How to Use Layer Masks in Photoshop
Layer masks in Photoshop are an incredibly useful tool. Unfortunately, some folks get scared off because they don’t understand how they work.
But, I get it. Masks were intimidating to me at first, too. It takes a bit to wrap your head around the concept. But, once you do, you’ll be awed by the magnificent mask as well.
Masking is one of the most essential techniques used in Photoshop, and every experienced image editor has their own favorite method of how to use it.
Masks give you the ultimate degree of control over your layer contents while still preserving all your original image data, which makes them an essential part of any non-destructive editing workflow.
For those of you who are totally new to masking and want a detailed explanation of how it all works, I’ve got you covered. First, we’ll take a quick look at how manual masking works for readers who are in a rush to get started, and then I’ll explain how masking works in much more detail, and give you some helpful tips to speed up the process.
Let me show you how they work!
Note: the screenshots below are taken from the Windows version of Adobe Photoshop, if you’re using the Mac version, the navigations may look slightly different.
Table of Contents
Why Use a Layer Mask in Photoshop?
The colors of the layer mask, painting with the layer mask, inverting the layer mask, painting with gray, creating masks with selections, advanced masking using the select and mask workspace, vector masking, manual masking quick tips:, bonus method: quick mask mode, a final word.
One of the best reasons to use layer masks is that they allow you to make non-destructive edits. For example. Take a look at these two turtles I have in this image. For example, let’s remove part of the image on the left so that it isn’t covering up the turtle image on the right.
You could crop the layer using the Marquee tool or another selection tool (see detailed explanation here). However, that would be a destructive edit because it irreversibly deletes the pixels. In other words, if you make a mistake, you can’t go back and adjust it later.
(I know you can undo it, but I’m talking about after you’ve made other edits, then notice the mistake. Photoshop only tracks a certain number of adjustments so you might not be able to get back to it. Plus, you would have to undo everything you did in between).
You could also use the Eraser tool , which people like because it is a simple tool to understand. It works just like a pencil eraser and we can wrap our heads around that.
But, it has the same problem. Just like a pencil eraser, the edit is destructive. Once you’ve erased the pixels, they’re gone and you can’t get them back.
Using a layer mask, however, is a non-destructive edit. Let’s look at how it works.
Understanding the Layer Mask
Let’s set up a demonstration so you can see how this works.
The term “masking” originally comes from painting, when painters would cover sections of their canvas, hiding the sections or ‘masking’ them, to control where their paint was applied.
Of course, painters originally got the term from the theatre where actors used masks to transform their identities, but we don’t need to go too far down the etymology rabbit hole.
The Photoshop concept is derived from the painting technique, except that Photoshop masks are often referred to as “layer masks” since each mask only applies to a single layer within your overall document.
A layer mask is linked to another existing layer, and the mask acts as an invisible guide that controls which parts of the layer are visible using black, white, and gray pixels.
Now, layer masks work in grayscale. White reveals, black conceals, and gray does something in between. The darker shades of gray are more opaque whereas lighter shades of gray are more transparent.
On the left side of Photoshop, you’ll see two colored boxes. By default, they should be black and white. If they’re not black and white, click the smaller black and white boxes directly above them to reset.
Remember, white reveals and black conceals. So when the white box is in front, you’ll reveal the image as you paint. When the black box is in front, you’ll conceal it.
Don’t worry if you’re lost, this will make sense in a minute.
To switch between the two colors you can press X on the keyboard or click the 90-degree arrow above the boxes.
Here’s an example.
With the top image layer selected, in this case, the green turtle, click the layer mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel. It looks like a rectangle with a circular hole in the center.
A white layer mask appears linked to the green turtle layer. In a minute we’ll talk about how a black layer mask works.
If you add pure white pixels on a layer mask, the corresponding section of your layer becomes opaque and visible. If you add pure black pixels, the corresponding section of your layer becomes transparent. You can also get partial opacity by using grayscale tones, which allows you to create soft transitions.
This means that you can show and hide parts of your layers without actually deleting any of the pixel data!
If you decide that you’ve hidden too much of the layer, you can just tweak the layer mask to refine your edit instead of going back to the beginning and starting the entire editing process all over again.
Things get really exciting when you add layer masks to adjustment layers since this allows you to completely alter the contents of specific parts of your image without destroying the original image data – but we’ll get to that later!
Terminology Tip: Protected Vs Unprotected
The “protected” area of a mask is the part that is hidden or preserved in its current state, while the “unprotected” area of a mask is visible and affected by any adjustments that you make.
So we’re working with a white layer mask. Let’s start painting to understand what happens.
Hit B on the keyboard to switch to the Brush tool.
White reveals and black conceals. We want to remove parts of the green turtle image so we need to conceal them. Make sure the foreground color is set to black (the black square needs to be in front).
Now, start painting your image with a brush. Everywhere you pass the brush, the image is erased.
Let’s say you make a mistake and remove part of the image that you don’t want to remove.
No problem! Simply hit X to switch the foreground color to white. White reveals, so when you start to paint you’ll be bringing back the image.
You can do this at any point, even after you’ve made dozens of other edits and can no longer undo your moves. It even works if you’ve closed the image as a PSD and reopened it later. There’s no information to undo, but you can still bring back the image with the layer mask.
Layer masks also work in reverse, which is helpful in some cases.
Remember I pointed out earlier that we were working with a white layer mask? Now it’s time to see what happens with a black one.
Here’s what we’re looking at with a white layer mask on the green turtle. White reveals, so the green turtle image is visible.
Hit Ctrl + I ( Command + I on a Mac) to invert the layer mask and turn it to black.
Black conceals, so the green turtle image disappears. You can make it reappear by painting the layer mask white.
Notice the white appears on the layer mask thumbnail in the layers panel.
Remember what I said about how masks work in grayscale? White reveals and black conceals and gray does something in between.
Try it out. Click right on the colored squares so the color picker appears and choose a shade of gray. Darker shades will be more opaque and lighter shades will be more transparent.
For this example, we’ve chosen a lighter shade of gray. Check out what happens when we paint the image with a black layer mask.
See how the effect is more transparent?
If you’ve got a part of your image selected using one of the selection tools and you want to convert it into a mask, click the Add a mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel. When the layer mask is created, Photoshop will use your active selection as the visible unprotected area.
As you’ll see in the next section, Photoshop treats masks and selections very similarly, since from a technical standpoint they’re almost identical. This makes it easy to switch back and forth between the two (see the Manual Masking Quick Tips section below for more!)
Since masking plays such a large part in Photoshop editing processes, Adobe developed a specialized workspace just for creating selections and masks: the imaginatively-named Select and Mask workspace. This workspace is complex enough that it deserves its own article, but I’ll give you a quick overview of how it works here.
To launch the Select and Mask workspace, open the Select menu and click Select and Mask . You’ll also see a Select and Mask button in the tool options bar at the top of the document window when using any of Photoshop’s selection tools such as the Rectangular Marquee, Magic Wand , and so on.
The Select and Mask workspace is a streamlined interface that allows you to focus on the task at hand while maintaining the same general Photoshop interface layout that you’ve come to know and love: tools on the left side, tool options along the top of your main document window, and document-wide settings on the right side.
While using Select and Mask, it looks like you’ll be creating a selection around your object, but don’t worry – when it’s time to output the result, you can tell Photoshop to create a new layer mask instead of keeping the result as a selection. Once again, masks and selections are very closely related in Photoshop!
To create your selection/mask, it’s often a good idea to try using the Select Subject button at the top of the workspace. This doesn’t always work perfectly, especially with complex scenes full of details, but it can be a huge timesaver by automating the more basic masking sections and giving you a good place to start working from.
Use a combination of the Quick Selection tool and the Brush tool to create your selection. By default, using those tools will add to your already selected area, but you can hold down the Option key (use the Alt key on PC) to subtract from your selected area.
You can also use the Refine Edge tool to help overcome tricky object edges such as hair, fur, branches, and other fine details that are difficult to mask by hand.
To finalize your mask and exit the Select and Mask workspace, find the Output Settings section on the right side of the interface. Change the Output To setting to Layer Mask and click the OK button.
Up until now, I’ve only discussed pixel-based layer masks. Pixel masks are by far the most common type of mask in Photoshop, but it is possible to add a mask that uses a vector shape instead. I tend to avoid them because Photoshop’s vector tools are extremely basic, but they do have their uses.
To add a vector mask to your layer, there are a couple of options:
- If you’ve already got a pixel mask attached to your layer, simply click the Add a mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel for a second time, and Photoshop will add a vector mask.
- You can also add a vector mask without adding a pixel mask. Select your layer in the Layers panel, then open the Layer menu, select the Vector Mask submenu, and click Reveal All .
I’m not sure why Photoshop switches back and forth between the “add” and “reveal” terminology for layer masks, but it seems unnecessarily confusing from a user experience perspective, and I bet that Adobe will adjust this at some point.
Instead of using the Brush tool the way you did with a standard layer mask, use the Pen tool to place anchor points to create shapes within your vector mask.
Switch to the Pen tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut P . With your vector mask selected in the Layers panel, click to set the first anchor point on your outline, and then continue clicking to add additional anchor points until you’re satisfied with your mask.
You can click and drag while placing a new anchor point to create a curve, and you can hold down the Command key (use the Ctrl key on PC) to temporarily convert the Pen tool into the Direct Selection tool which lets you reposition each anchor point and adjust the curve handles.
You’ll see the Pen tool cursor change when you hold down the Command / Ctrl key for visual confirmation.
- Option + Click (use Alt + Click on PC) on your layer mask thumbnail to see your mask in the main document window
- Shift + Option + Click (use Shift + Alt + Click on PC) on your layer mask to see your mask in a 50% transparent red overlay, or use the \ key
- Command + Click (use Ctrl + Click on PC) on your layer mask thumbnail to create a selection around the unprotected areas of your mask
Before the Select and Mask workspace was introduced, and even before there were object-based automatic selection tools, there was Quick Mask mode. Quick Mask does more or less what it says on the tin: use one keyboard shortcut and you can use brush-based tools to draw a mask with a temporarily-visible overlay.
A bit confusingly, Quick Mask actually creates a selection, but those of you who took the time to read this post carefully will already know that Photoshop handles masks and selections almost identically. Once you’ve created your selection, there’s only one more step to turn it into a permanent layer mask.
To enter Quick Mask mode, use the keyboard shortcut Q . You’ll see that your selected layer turns red in the Layers panel, and a new History state is created.
You can also launch Quick Mask mode by opening the Select menu and clicking Edit In Quick Mask Mode , or by using the toolbox icon located just below the color swatches (see below).
Set your foreground and background colors to the default with the keyboard shortcut D , and then switch to the Brush tool using the toolbox or the keyboard shortcut B .
In Quick Mask mode, protected areas are shown with a red overlay. Painting an area with black pixels tells Photoshop to protect that part of the image, and it can be a bit disorienting at first to know that you’ve got black selected as your foreground color and have it come out as 50% transparent red, but you’ll quickly get used to it.
If you want to tweak your mask, you can paint using white to reverse the effect and designate an area as unprotected.
Remember, you can use the keyboard shortcut X to quickly switch your foreground and background colors, which is a real timesaver when masking!
As you might have begun to realize, masking plays a huge part in any good Photoshop workflow. The basic idea is simple, but it will take a lot of practice for you to get comfortable working with masks, so the best advice I have is to load up your copy of Photoshop and start using the tools!
I hope this explanation has helped you wrap your mind around how layer masks work. But, you might not fully understand the implications until you put layer masks into practice.
Grab some images and start playing around. I promise, play with them long enough and you’ll hit an aha! moment where your mind will be blown by the awesomeness of layer masks.
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Hi Cara Thanks for a wonderful tutorial on PS.Your jargon free simple approach to this complex subject is genius itself I came upon your tutorials today and found them an answer to prayer.Why did Adobe in their early PS manuals do so much to alienate the potential users of their product and consequently limit demand? Teachers like you are needed to make photography accessible to all who have an interest in the subject PFC
Photoshop Buzz has truly created a valuable resource for anyone who wants to elevate their design game. Whether you’re retouching photos, compositing images, or creating stunning digital art, mastering masks will undoubtedly amplify your creative possibilities.
I highly recommend this tutorial to both aspiring and seasoned designers. Take the time to delve into the world of masks in Photoshop, and you’ll unlock a powerful toolset that can drastically enhance your design workflow.
Kudos to Photoshop Buzz for providing such informative content, and I eagerly look forward to exploring more of their tutorials in the future.
Thank you Cara. Your article was very on-point and useful without too much detail. Excellent work.
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Learn How to Layer Mask in Photoshop in 4 Simple Steps
Mastering the art of creating layer masks will allow you to switch between different layers, choose to add or subtract and make quick reversible changes.
Photoshop | Software | By Judyth Satyn
Layer masking in Photoshop is considered to be an exclusive tool only to be used by those proficient in black-belt Photoshop.
Exclusive as the layer mask skill may seem, this layer mask tutorial will show you that layer masking is an easy-to-learn skill.
Mastering the art of creating layer masks in Photoshop will allow you to switch between different layers, choose to add or subtract and make quick reversible changes.
Read on to learn how to use layer masks to hide or make visible specific areas of a selected layer within an image file.
(You should also learn how to use the clipping mask in Photoshop .)
Download the latest version of Adobe Photoshop to follow along with this simple tutorial.
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Table of Contents
How to Make Your First Layer Mask in Just 4 Steps
Step 1 – open the image.
Select the image you wish to add a layer mask to in Photoshop.
Click the lock icon to make sure the image is unlocked.
Step 2 – Add a Layer Mask
When you have chosen the layer in the layers panel to which you wish to add a layer mask, navigate to the top menu bar and select Layer.
In the drop-down menu, scroll down and select Layer Mask > Reveal All .
Alternatively, create a layer mask by clicking the Layer Mask Button in the Layer Panel .
The Layer Mask button is a white rectangle with a circle inside located at the bottom of the layer panel.
After clicking Reveal All or the Layer Mask Button, a layer mask thumbnail will appear beside the layer thumbnail in the layers panel.
The layer mask thumbnail indicates visible areas in white, invisible in black, and grey areas indicate opacity.
The lock symbol between the layer mask thumbnail and layer thumbnail in the layers panel indicates they are locked together.
If you unlock the layer mask from the layer, the layer mask will no longer be active.
- Read more: How to save a PDF file in Photoshop
Step 3 – Select a Tool
Use The Eraser Tool
The Eraser Tool or the Brush Tool can be used in tandem with the layer mask to make areas of the image visible or invisible.
Select the Layer Mask Thumbnail in the layers panel to make it the active layer.
The two squared icons at the bottom of the toolbar sets the foreground and background colors.
When black is set in the foreground of the icon, the eraser tool will reinstate hidden areas of the layer mask.
When the white box is set in the foreground, the eraser tool will hide areas of the layer mask.
Select the Eraser Tool from the toolbar.
In the Eraser Tool Options Bar, choose the size and hardness of the eraser.
Hide or recover areas of the image by painting on the image with the Eraser Tool.
Alternatively, Use The Brush Tool
Select the Brush Tool from the toolbar.
In the Brush Tool Options Bar, choose the size and hardness of the brush to use on your layer mask.
The Brush Tool can be used in a similar way to the eraser tool.
When the black square of the icon is positioned in the foreground, the brush tool will conceal areas of the layer mask.
When the square is switched to white, the brush tool will reinstate hidden areas of the layer mask.
You can experiment with different brush tool settings to achieve different effects when layer masking.
A brush tool with a hard edge will create a defined line on the layer mask.
A soft-edged brush will create a faded line represented by grey in the layer mask thumbnail.
Shortcut – When editing layer masks, you can switch the background color by pressing X.
Select Grey from the Colour Palette and paint with your brush tool to blend layers between layer masks.
When grey is used when you want to make areas of the layer mask partially visible or faded.
Use darker grey to make areas of the layer mask more transparent or lighter to make them less transparent.
Example of an unfinished Photoshop layer mask edit.
What is the purpose of masking a layer?
You might wonder why anyone would use a layer mask. Why not use the eraser? Isn’t it essentially the same?
There are many advantages to using a layer mask. Layer masks allow you to stack and combine layers to reveal or conceal areas of a design.
When using layer masks, you can modify background colors without permanently altering any of the layers.
Layer masks give you the flexibility to remove or cut out objects and later add them back.
You can target your edits to work on specific areas of the layer mask and not the entire layer.
One of the priceless aspects of a layer mask is being able to easily reverse edits without having to delete other edits or backtrack through a hundred previous edits.
Layer Masks are the perfect tool for designers or editors who love creating compositions. You can read more about them in this Adobe article .
Why not give it a shot and use layer masks in Photoshop to create interesting compositions?
(If you prefer using Lightroom over Photoshop, you can learn more about the new mask tool in Lightroom .)
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Judyth is an experienced studio photographer and glass artist. When she isn’t Photoshopping comedians into the bellies of sharks, you can find her cooking delicious treats for her guests.
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Table of Contents
- 01 - Layer Masks 10:18m
How to use layer masks in photoshop.
- Add to favorites
- Difficulty Easy
- Software Photoshop
In this tutorial, learn to use one of the most powerful features in Photoshop – the Layer Mask. Hide and Show areas of a layer simply by painting black or white on the mask!
What are Layer Masks?
In the early days, Photoshop was “destructive” since it made changes to the actual image itself. Once you made a change, it couldn’t be undone. It was important to save multiple versions of your work often since you had to go back to a previously saved version if you needed to make adjustments to an older version of your image. Today, however, Photoshop is “non-destructive,” which means it preserves the original image and any alterations can be “layered” on. If you don’t like what you’ve done, you can simply delete a layer and try again. One helpful tool for working in layers is the Layer Mask tool, which allows you to work on only a certain part of an image while keeping the rest intact. Here is a brief overview of what layer masks are, how they are used and why they are helpful.
What They Are
When you make any alterations, changes or additions to a photo in Photoshop, it’s generally wise to create a new layer. Your original photo may be the first layer, then you may add on a text layer and then a logo or other image as a third layer. You can also play with each layer’s transparency to make certain elements more visible than others. But, what if you didn’t want to do this to the whole layer?
The Layer Mask tool allows you to control the transparency of a certain portion of just one layer instead of the layer as a whole. For example, if you wanted to merge two images together in a panorama, but the panorama’s images don’t blend together seamlessly, you can hide the imperfections without having to lose any of the component images. If you mess up applying the mask, you can just try again without permanently jeopardizing the original image.
Why Layer Masks Are Useful
Layer masks are incredibly useful because they’re essentially the eraser tool without the loss of data. When you want to undo something you erase, you would need to keep hitting “undo” over and over again until you restored the image to what it was. Not to mention, this is only if you are working in the same session. With a mask, you can just repaint the area you want to restore, and it will be visible once again no matter how far into your project you are. Regardless of what you do to a layer mask, the original image is always pristine.
When You Would Use Layer Masks
Let’s say a client sends you a logo that consists of the logo itself with a city name beneath it. In this example, you want to keep the logo the same but change the color of the city name. You could select the logo and then apply a layer mask that would allow you to make changes to the name of the city without affecting the actual logo at all. A layer mask is also helpful when you want to keep one element of a photo the same but make changes to another element. You can use the quick selection tool to highlight the section you want to work on or the section you want to protect, then use a layer mask to make changes to only the part of the picture you’d like changed. If you’re not happy with the changes you’ve made, you can simply delete the layer mask and start over again since the original image is still completely untouched.
For more tips and tricks for using layer masks in Photoshop, check out our helpful tutorial video.
How to Use Layers in Photoshop
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How to Use Levels in Photoshop
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