Digital Darkroom; Photoshop Basic Masks

The Digital Darkroom is a series of posts aimed at beginners and those interested in Digital Photography and Editing. In previous weeks we have looked at basic adjustments, curves, editing colour with the HSL/Color panels, black and white toning, split toning, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction and Lens Correction and Camera Calibration in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. Moving into Photoshop we have looked at the program’s layout,basic adjustments to light, basic adjustments to colour, basic black and white adjustments, Basic Sharpening, Basic Noise Reduction, Creating Presets and Actions and this week looking at basic masks.
If you wish to check out previous posts in the series you can do here.

As we have covered the basic adjustments in Photoshop I am moving on to something which many people are afraid of in Photoshop; using layers and layer masks.
A layer mask simply hides the content of a layer so that it cannot be seen. A layer mask is a monochrome mask; anything in the mask that is white can be seen and anything black cannot be seen, if something is grey it can be partially seen. Layer masks are useful for applying selective adjustments; for example having a whole image black and white except one area which is colour.

To add or subtract something form a layer mask you can use brushes and gradients as well as selections. Brushes are the usual method for adding or subtracting a layer mask.



In the above gif you can see that I started with a colour image, using the Black and White adjustment I converted the image to Black and White. On the layer mask I used a black brush to trace the letters of the sign, this let the red letters become visible because the black from the layer mask hides the black and white adjustment.

Making an Adjustment Selective

With Layer masks you can make adjustments selective. When an adjustment layer is added a layer mask is already applied, called a “reveal all” layer mask because it is white and the whole adjustment is visible.
For example I add an adjustment layer, lets say a curves adjustment, to darken part of an image. Once i have made the adjustment I change the layer mask to “hide all” (making it black so the adjustment is not visible), this can be done by clicking on the layer mask and inverting it from white to black (Ctrl + I) or by going to Layer-Mask- Hide all. With the brush set to white you can now paint onto the layer to reveal the areas you wanted to darken (white= reveal & Black = hide). If the effect is too strong in certain areas you can lower the opacity of the brush (how much the brush adds) to lessen the effect; opacity can be found when the brush is active underneath the main menu at the top of the window.


As you can see from the diagram above the second curves adjustment has darkened the top and right of the image as well as a less intense reduction on part of the petals.

Merging to Images Together

Layer masks are also good for blending more than one image together. When making composite images masks are used to add elements into picture naturally. Merging two images together can be done simply with the gradient tool, making a transition from one image to another.

Rose merge


To create the picture above I had two rose pictures layered on top of each other. On the top image I added a reveal all layer mask. Adding a mask can be done from the bottom of the layers pallet or using the menu Layer-mask-Reveal all. Clicking on the mask I choose the gradient tool and pulled the gradient across the image to reveal the rose below.

Why Use Masks

Masks simply allow you to control how much or where an adjustment will be visible in an image. On this basic level you can use masks to make an adjustment selective like in Lightroom. This means you can use gradients with a curve to darken skies and then use the brush to remove buildings and trees. If you want to brighten the eyes create a curves adjustment and apply this via a mask with a brush. Although this has only scratched the surface when we return to masks in the coming weeks there are many more creative options with masks.

Do you use masks in Photoshop? Or are you afraid of them? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

If you have any questions or comments please use the comment box below, all are welcome as this series is designed to help people learn how to use Photoshop and Lightroom.

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10 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Photoshop Basic Masks

    • Thank you Andrew, how much you use layer masks is part of your style. Some may need them a lot to create a stylistic tone others may just need to brighten and darken seltove areas. It really is down to taste and what you are doing.

    • Hi Raewyn, one way to look at layers building up an image like painting. Layer masks are then saying where the brush strokes are going. Keep practising and having fun and I am sure you will grasp it. I

  1. This post explained layer masks in pretty easy terms. Have you ever thought of filming your screen when do the examples? I’m asking for purely selfish reasons. I’m a visual learner and seem able to follow steps better when I have real time examples :). You do an amazing job with your written explanations!

    • Hi Kirsten, I have actually been think about that. I did make some videos when I started blogging but I stopped because I ran out of time. I have been thinking about making a video to accompany these posts but I will have to wait till the end of term when I have more time, but is something I am wanting to do.

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