All about Masks in Photoshop

23 Jan 2013

At the beginning of December I shared some Photoshop Layers tricks and shortcuts that I collected over the years. Today I'm doing something similar in a post that is all about masks in Photoshop. Hopefully this post will be as interesting as the layers one. That one worked its way up quite nicely. Enjoy!

Tips & shortcuts for (Layer) Masks

Targeting the Layer Mask
  • Targeting the Layer Mask: "Command (Mac) / Control (Win) + ‘\’ (backslash) targets the layer mask in the Layers panel. Command (Mac) / Control (Win) + 2 targets the layer
Create Layer Mask from Transparency
  • In order to automatically convert the transparent areas of a layer into a mask, select Layer > Layer Mask > From Transparency.
Delicate Mask Clean-Up
  • After adding a layer mask to hide portions of a layer, it can sometimes be difficult to determine if there are any small bits of the layer that have been accidentally left behind. In this case, it might be helpful to temporarily add a layer effect such as a bright red stroke ( Layer > Layer Style > Stroke and click the color swatch to choose a vibrant color) . The stroke will now appear around any small areas of the mask that you may need to clean up. When finished, simply remove the layer effect by dragging the "fx" icon on the Layers panel to the Trash icon).
Inverting the Quick Mask
  • Option (Mac)/ Alt (Win) -click on the Quick Mask icon to invert the selection when entering Quick Mask mode.
Quick Mask (Q)
  • Double click on the Quick Mask icon to access the Quick Mask Options dialog box to change color, transparency and opacity options.
Double Check your Layer Mask
  • When working on intricately composited, multi layered documents, it can be useful to check each of the layer masks before finalizing the image. To do this, Option (Mac) / Alt (Win) -click on the mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to display it. With the mask visible, check to see if there are any unwanted awkward transitional areas that might not have been visible in the complex composite (a sharp edge from a selection or gradient for example).
Pasting into Masks
  • To paste content (from the clipboard) into a Layer mask, Option (Mac)/ Alt (Win) -click the Layer Mask icon on the Layers panel and then select Edit > Paste. If you have an active selection in your document (marching ants) and have content on the clipboard, selecting “Paste Into” will paste the content from the clipboard into your selection - and automatically convert the selection into a Layer mask.
How to Paste into a Layer Mask in Photoshop CS6
Masking Selections with the Liquify Filter in Photoshop CS6
  • If you have an active selection in your image and choose Filter > Liquify, the Liquify filter will automatically turn the selection into a mask allowing you to manipulate the area within the original selection while masking (or freezing) the unselected area. If you need to manipulate the area outside of the original selection (instead of the inside), in the Liquify dialog, be sure to have the Advanced Options showing and click the “Invert All” button under the Mask Options.
Clipping Masks
  • Clipping masks are most commonly used when an adjustment needs to be applied to a single layer in a multi-layer document. For example, if you have a triptych of images (each on their own layer) within a single document and need to brighten only one of the images, you can add an adjustment layer and “clip” it so that it only effects that single layer. The easiest way to “clip” an adjustment layer to the layer below it is to target the layer that needs the adjustment in the Layers panel, then click the clipping icon at the bottom of the Adjustment panel before adding the adjustment, (or, if you forget, you can click the clipping the icon after adding the adjustment at the bottom of the Adjustment panel). As you make the adjustment, you will notice that the modification is only effecting the layer that the adjustment is “clipped" to. Another use of clipping masks is to clip content such as a photo to a shape such as type. In order to do this, put the type layer under the photo layer on the Layer's panel, target the type layer (by clicking in it in the Layer's panel) and select Command-Opt (Mac) / Control-Alt (Win) + G to create a Clipping Mask. Or, on the Layers panel, hold the Option (Mac) / Alt (Win) key and position the cursor over the line that separates the two layers in the Layer's panel. When you see the icon switch to a triangle with two overlapping circles -click to create a Clipping Mask. You can have multiple layers clipped to a base layer. Visually, you will know that the layers are clipped because the bottom most layer’s name will be underlined in the Layers panel, and the clipped layer(s) will be indented with an arrow pointing downwards towards the base layer.
Masking Multiple Layers
  • Not only are Layer Groups great for organizing your layers, you can also use them to mask the content of multiple layers at a time. With the Group targeted in the Layers panel, click the Add Pixel (or Vector) Mask icon from the Masks panel. This mask will control the visibility of all layers within the Group.
Adding Masks
  • To add a mask to a layer, click on the layer or vector mask icon in the Properties panel (or Masks panel, for older Photoshop versions). If you prefer to use the Layers panel “Add Layer Mask” icon, click once to add a layer mask, click again to add a vector mask, or if you want only the vector mask, Command (Mac) / Control (Win) -click the mask icon. To add a layer mask which automatically hides the selection (as oppose to reveals it as it does by default), Option (Mac) / Alt (Win) -click the icon. In Photoshop CS4, you can invert a layer mask using the Invert button in the Masks panel. In CS6 you find this button in the Properties panel.
Applying Smart Filters With Independent Masks in Photoshop
  • In order to apply multiple filters to a single layer – each with their own filter mask, convert the layer into a smart object (Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Objects). Apply the first smart filter and paint in the mask as desired. To apply the second filter, choose Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object (essentially ‘nesting’ one smart filter within another), apply the second filter and paint in the mask as desired. If you need to edit the settings or mask for the first filter, choose Layer > Smart Object > Edit Contents. This technique is also an excellent way to selectively sharpen and blur an image.

In the screenshot above, the High Pass filter was applied to the Smart Object (Layer 0) and then masked so that it is limited to sharpening the cactus. Note: If you use the High Pass filter to sharpen an image, you can double-click the small icon to the right of the filter name in the Layers panel and set the blend mode to Overlay or Soft Light to remove the grayish look of the filter

After applying the first smart filter, selecting Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object nests the first smart filter and allows the addition of another filter (in this example Oil Paint) with its own Smart Filter mask.

Convert a Layer or Layer Mask into a Selection
  • Command (Mac) / Control (Win) -click on a layer or layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to load it as a selection.
In addition:
  • Command (Mac) / Control (Win) + Shift to add additional layer and or layer mask to the selection.
  • Option-Command (Mac) / Alt-Control (Win) to subtract another layer and or layer mask from the selection.
  • Option-Command (Mac) / Alt-Control (Win) + Shift to create the intersection of two layers and or layer masks.
Moving and Duplicating Masks
  • Drag a layer or vector mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to move it from one layer to another.
  • Option (Mac) / Alt (Win) -drag a layer or vector mask thumbnail in the Layers panel to create a copy of the mask.
  • Option (Mac) / Alt (Win) + Shift -drag to create copy of a layer mask while simultaneously inverting the mask. (Note: this shortcut does not work with a vector mask - in order to invert a vector mask, select the path with the Direct Selection tool and click the “Subtract From Shapes Area” icon in the Options bar.)
Photoshop’s Mask Panel – Nondestructive Edge Softening

When adding a mask to a layer in Photoshop, instead of guessing at the size of a feather that should be applied (because we know that the feather amount will vary depending on the resolution of the image and the desired softness of the edge that is being feathered), use the non-destructive Feather option on the Properties panel. To access the mask properties, click on the mask icon on the Properties Panel. Now, you can add a feather to soften an edge yet, if the image is resized or other adjustments need to be made at a later time, the feather can be appropriately adjusted.

And while you’re in the Properties panel, and the focus is on the mask, be sure to check out the non-destructive Density slider to reduce the opacity (density) of the mask.

TIP: before playing with the ‘feather’ slider, go to the Channels panel and make the one corresponding to your selection visible. By doing this you’ll really see the feathered area.

The Adjustment Brush - Masking Options
  • When using the Adjustment brush, tap "M" to toggle on/off the Auto Mask option (Auto Mask automatically detect edges based on contrast and color to help selectively apply adjustments to a desired area. To view the Mask Overlay tap "Y" to toggle the Overlay on /off. To choose a different color to display as the mask overlay, click the color swatch to the right of the Show Mask option.
Temporarily Disabling a Layer Mask

Sometimes you need to see what a layer or the image as a whole looks like without the effect your layer mask has on the image. Luckily there’s an easy way to “turn off” the Layer Mask without deleting it or undoing its creation in the History panel.

Just move the cursor over the Layer Mask, then Shift-click to turn it off temporarily. This will place a red “X” over the mask and allow you to see what the picture would look like without it being used. To turn the mask back on, just Shift-click the mask again.


Similar credit as in my previous post where I shared 'Photoshop Layers tricks and shortcuts'. Many of these excellent tips I collected over the years by following Julianne Kost's blog. In an application as big as photoshop you are never too old to learn something new.

Masks in Photoshop


  1. 1 Kyle 08 Feb 2013

    Really good explanation of clipping masks and their effects. I will bookmark your blog to follow you.

  2. 2 Liam Dang 21 Feb 2013

    Great tutorial. I can share it on my website?

  3. 3 Veerle Pieters 21 Feb 2013

    @Liam Dang

    Great tutorial. I can share it on my website?

    It’s ok to share on your web site as long as it is clear I wrote it and all other credits stay in place exactly as it is here.