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June 30, 2006

Photoshop, Layer Masks, and You

A couple quick tips to correct something that drives many people nuts!

The topic du jour is layer masks. Very powerful stuff, but widely misunderstood or not understood at all.

The idea of a layer mask is that you can "block out" a portion of a layer from being visible. This is incredibly useful if you're using an Adjustment Layer, for example: you may only want the levels or curves layer to apply to a specific part of the image. Using a mask, you can do just that.

Tip #1: Black blocks.
Layer masks are easier to understand if you have a wet darkroom background, but even many film photographers have tried to "White Out" the portion of a layer they want to mask out. Paint black where you want to hide the layer. Paint white where you want to let the layer apply completely. Paint shades of grey where you want something in between.

You're effectively painting your own opacity settings for the layer.

Tip #2: Show Your Mask
There are many cases where what exactly you've painted in the mask won't be immediately obvious by looking at the image itself.

Adobe knows this. So flip over to your Channels palette and turn on the "Layer Such-and-Such Mask" channel. Et voila—a red overlay that represents the mask!

Tip #3: Tip 2, Faster
Going to the Channels palette over and over can be a pain in the butt.

So don't do it if you don't have to.

Instead, just hit the backslash (\) key on your keyboard to toggle the mask channel.

Note that it's mislabeled in the Mac version of CS as being toggled with Command-\, but you can press that key combination all day and nothing will happen. It's just backslash, on both Windows and Macintosh.

Posted by Colin at June 30, 2006 11:13 AM

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