How to Confine Photo Effects to the Areas You Want Them

So, last week we talked about layers, the secret to creating limitless effects in Expert mode. If you have no experience with Photoshop Elements, you might want to start by reading some of the tutorials I’ve written here on the Quick mode and Guided modes as you get familiar with the Photoshop Elements layout.

So today it’s all about layer masks.

What are Layer Masks?

Remember how layers work like a stained glass window? The visibility of each layer and those beneath it depends on the opacity of said layers. If you lay a completely opaque layer on top of other layers, it will completely block out the layers beneath it.

Well Layer masks work like that, except their effect is limited to only the layer it is attached to. It’s a way to customize how opaque you want that layer to be in different parts of the photo you are editing. If you want to saturate the colors of the photo, but you don’t want your subject to end up with unnaturally red mottled skin that comes with increasing saturation, you can use a layer mask to lessen, or block out the effect where you don’t want it.

How do you use Layer Masks?

Like pretty much everything else in PSE, once you know how to do it, it’s a super easy process. And it’s much easier than it used to be. In earlier versions of Photoshop Elements, there wasn’t a handy button to push to insert a Layer Mask. You had to download an action for that. Now-a-days it’s built in.

Layer Masks How to Step 1

Step 1: Have photo opened in Expert mode

Step 2: Populate the right side panel with Layers

Step 3: Select the layer in the layers panel that you would like to add the Layer Mask to.

Step 4: Click on the Layer Mask icon at the top of the Layers panel (light blue rectangle with a circle cutout in the middle) and click on the white layer that appears to the right of the layer you have selected.

PSE Layer Masks Brush

Step 5: Use the brush tool (hotkey “b”) and change the color selection to black (you can press hotkey “d” to set background and foreground colors back to black and white. To switch which is the foreground, or the one you’re painting with, press hotkey “x”)

Painting PSE Layer Masks

Step 5: Paint black over the areas of the picture where you don’t want that particular effect to appear on the photo. If you just want to lessen the effect and not completely block it out, lessen the opacity of the brush in the tool options panel (bottom left of the screen).

Step 6: If you’ve accidentally blocked out too much, you can change the foreground color to white and paint back over the area where you want to increase the effect. Once again keep the opacity of the brush in mind as you paint.

You will notice that as you paint on the photo you won’t see gray or black being painted over your photo, but you will see all your strokes appear on the layer mask. Ingenious, right?

Another thing to note: when you add an adjustment layer (the square icon ½ blue and ½ white) they automatically come with a layer mask already attached.

That’s it to layer masks. Now that you know how they are used, you can use them for anything and everything.


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About the author

Cecilia Harvey

I'm a technological enthusiast with a completely unrelated degree in English Literature. I've also been known to dabble in photography and DIY furniture refinishing, with occasional stints of fitness sprinkled among all of the above.

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