Photoshop Help: Get Your Layers & Layer Masks Working Flawlessly
So many photographers who are new to Photoshop have trouble understanding layers and layer masks. The layers palette intimidates them – and is the number one reason photographers are afraid of Photoshop.
Layers and masking, when explained correctly, really are simple.
Think of the layers palette as a stack of clear and opaque pages on top of your desk. The desk (representing your original image) is the “Background.” Typically this is locked and does not change. If you want to make changes to your image in Photoshop, you stack those changes on top of the “desk” (your original) in the form of layers. Layers can be turned on or off as you edit, may be stacked, and each layer can be applied to part or all of the image. Below are some, of the many, types of layers that exist in Photoshop. For more details, check out this guest article I wrote for Digital Photography School on Layers.
Pixel layers (AKA New Layer from Background – or Duplicate Layer of the Background): Some changes are done on pages that look like a photocopy. If you duplicate your background image, you get a pixel layer that has the same properties as the original. When you make changes on this type of layer, often used in retouching with tools like the patch tool, you are working on the exact image below. The main difference is you keep the background in tact and you can adjust the opacity of this layer. By default, it will be at 100%. But you can make changes and reduce the opacity so that some of the original image shows through. You can add layer masks to these types of layers. The downside is that when they are set to normal blend mode at a high opacity, they will cover each other up. Picture a photocopy on white paper. If you put it on top of a stack of clear sheets, it will hide them.
Adjustment layers: These are the most important type of layers. See my article “Why you should use layer masks and adjustment layers when editing in Photoshop” to learn why. Adjustment layers are transparent. They work like the clear acetate used in overhead projectors. If you do not know what an overhead projector is, I just dated myself a bit… In any case, these layers apply a variety of changes to your image, from levels, to curves, to vibrancy or saturation, and much more. Each adjustment comes with a layer mask so that it can be selectively applied to the image if desired. Most MCP Photoshop actions are made of adjustment layers for maximum flexibility. You can not only mask with these but adjust the opacity as well.
New blank layers: A new blank layer works similarly to an adjustment layer in that it is transparent. You can use these in retouching with certain tools that allow you to use all layers below the blank layer. For example, you can use the healing brush on a blank layer. You can also add a watermark on a blank layer which allows you to move it around independently of the image itself. You can add masks manually to these layers too. You can also add embellishments or paint on a blank layer. You can adjust the opacity for more flexibility.
Text layer: Fairly self explanatory. When you add text, it automatically goes onto a new layer. You can have multiple text layers in an image. You can adjust the opacity of the text layer and change the text at a later time, assuming your layers are in tact and not flattened.
Color fill layer: This type of layer adds a solid color layer to an image. It comes with a built in mask to control where the color goes and you can alter the opacity. Often, in portrait photography and in Photoshop actions, these layers utilize a different blend mode, like soft light rather than normal, and are set to a low opacity to change the tones and feel of an image.
Layer masks: the key to understanding the “white and black boxes”
Once you understand how layers stack and work with each other, you can start working with layer masks. Here is video and tutorial on how to use layer masks in Photoshop CS-CS6 and CC+. Many of the lessons will also apply to Elements.
After watching and reading this, you may still feel like you are missing something. If you try using a mask and it does not work as expected, watch the video below. If you are thinking “my actions do not work – nothing happens when I paint on the mask” our latest Photoshop video tutorial will help you become an expert masker!