Photoshop Tutorials

Layer Mask Concepts & Basics – Part 1


NOTE – For maximum clarity, you can click to zoom in on (or download)
any image in this post!  



There is incredible power in being able to work on your image in Photoshop “globally” (the whole image), as well as “locally” ( just part of your image).  It’s the digital post-processing equivalent of the legendary Ansel Adams’ & Fred Archers’ photographic  “Zone System”.


This is Part 1 of what will be a multi-part series of blogposts on Layer Masks.  Each post will be short and sweet, and focused on just one aspect of Layer Masks – given in bite-size pieces, if you will.


So, what’s a Layer Mask, and why do I need it?


•  Layer Masks give you the ability to make adjustments to your image locally, not just globally, by hiding or revealing portions of your adjustment – you can pinpoint specific areas to change.


•  What “adjustments” can you localize? Virtually anything you can do in Photoshop, such as contrast, color, brightness, sharpness, etc.


•  You don’t visually “see” a Layer Mask in your final output, only the results – it’s invisible, and works in the background.




In Part 1 of this series, we’re going to focus on one key component in working with Layer Masks, which are …


Adjustment Layers


You’ll work with Layer Masks through Adjustment Layers, such as the Levels or Hue Saturation Adjustment layers (discussed extensively in my Book & Meetups). 


Think of Adjustment Layers as “clear plastic overlays” the are stacked and  sandwiched on top of your original image, with each Layer giving you the “global” or “local” ability to control an adjustment to your image.  They’re depicted two-dimensionally in the Layers Panel (see the pic and more below).


Local vs Global Adjustments


One of the main purposes of Adjustment Layers is to allow you to make adjustments to your image, both globally and locally, basically in a non-destructive manner.  This is one of the more powerful features in Photoshop. By the way, “destructive” is defined as causing pixelization and posterization to your digital image, resulting in loss of critical information.


In addition to “global” control, you can define what areas to “localize” by shaping your Layer Mask Thumbnail (part of an adjustment layer, see below) using Selections, such as the Magic Wand Tool, Brush Tool, etc (discussed in future Quick Tips).


Key Points


•  It should be noted that the Layer Mask Thumbnail is one of the few visual representations of your actual Layer Mask – remember, you don’t visually “see” a Layer Mask in your final output, only the results – the Layer Mask Thumbnail is one of the ways where you “see” the Layer Mask in Photoshop, and therefore have the ability to “shape” it.


•  When you see the color black in a Layer Mask Thumbnail, it “hides” the effects of the adjustment – conversely, the color white “reveals” the effects of the adjustment.





So, what’s in an adjustment layer?


•  Layer Visibility (this turns the Layer on & off)

•  Adjustment Icon (Levels adjustment layer shown below)

•  Link (generally, leave this alone)

•  Layer Mask Thumbnail (white by default)

•  Layer Name (double click to change, if desired)


Where to Find:


You work with adjustment layers in the Layers Panel (discussed extensively in my Book & Meetups)If you set your workspace up as suggested in my blogpost here (with video), then your Layers Panel will be near the bottom right-hand corner of your workspace.


The Layers Panel is where you’ll manage all of your Layers, including Adjustment Layers. Think of this as a 2-dimensional side-view of your original image (the Background Layer), with your layers (“clear plastic overlays”) stacked & sandwiched on top of it.


In the image to the right are examples of Adjustment Layers that you’ll use regularly, as shown in the Layers Panel, with no “shaping” of a Layer Mask (remember, “white reveals, black hides”)


To create an Adjustment Layer (in your Layers Panel) – 2 ways:


 Click on the “New Adjustment Layer” button at the bottom of the Layers Panel (the faux Yin-Yang” button), and choose the desired adjustment from the drop-down list.


•  You can also go to the Adjustments Panel (one of my recommended Workspace Panels, shown here) and choose your desired Adjustment Layer from the icons – see the pic to the right.




In the next Quick Tip in this series:  Layer Mask Concepts & Basics, Part 2Two strategies used in creating and working with Layer Masks …




Here’s a link to free useful downloads for photographic post-processing:


By the way, all of this is part of my book designed for photographers, “Not just another Photoshop Book”, available exclusively on Amazon:


Questions?  Lemme know, and feel free to comment below …


Thx again, and cheers,


John 🙂


The Philosophy of RAW


NOTE – For maximum clarity, you can zoom in on (or download) any image in this post!  

For best results, maximize your browser, then click on the desired image – navigate as needed. 


One of the most misunderstood (and mis-used!) concepts in digital post-processing is how to properly work with RAW files to maximize your images.  What to do with all that digital information?  How do you work with the format correctly & maximize your image’s potential?  When enhancing your image from RAW, what is the “goal”,  and why?  What the heck are you aiming for?


First, what is a RAW File?


A Camera RAW file contains unprocessed, uncompressed data from your digital camera. It’s just information, but lots of it. It isn’t really a file “format”, like JPG or TIFF.  It also doesn’t have a Color Space.

You should be shooting in Camera RAW for your important work — the results are worth it! The more information you are able to capture when you shoot, the more information you have to effectively create your image.

We’re focused on the “Philosophy of RAW”  in this post, to give you direction.  For more valuable information on RAW “by the numbers”, click here:  Why shoot in 16 bit (RAW), rather than 8 bit (JPG)?


What is the INCORRECT way to work with a RAW file?


So, why not just use a few sliders willy-nilly to make my image “nice-looking”, either in Photoshop’s Adobe Camera RAW plug-in (ACR), or in the Develop Module in Lightroom?   You can try, but by doing so, you’re cheating yourself of all of the available digital information, which you can use to your advantage in Photoshop – and more digital information in your file is a very good thing!


Keep in mind that Photoshop & Lightroom are two totally different programs, with two totally different purposes – more here: Photoshop vs Lightroom?  Wrong Question!


What is the CORRECT way to work with a RAW File?  What are the Goals?


Here’s where the “Philosophy Of RAW” comes into play – – Set Goals!  There are 4 individual goals  – the “Overall Goal” is to bring your final RAW image into Photoshop:


•  Slightly Under-Exposed – – It’s easier to lighten in Photoshop …


•  Slightly Low orFlat” in Contrast – – It’s easier to increase your contrast in Photoshop …


 Slightly Over-Saturated – – It’s easier to de-saturate in Photoshop …


•  Best Overall Color Balance – – You can “fine-tune” individual areas in Photoshop


Why these “Goals”, you ask?


Following these 4 “Goals” will bring LOTS of information from your digital capture into your Master File in Photoshop, and information is king in post-processing.  Further, it provides you “headroom”, or a “margin of error” – it’s always better to have more information than not enough! 


Keep in mind that by using these “Goals” your aim is NOT to make a perfect image in ACR (which is what most people try to do, including Lightroom users in the “Develop” Module – and you simply can’t – see PS vs LR link above)  –  – – by using these “Goals”, you’ll take advantage of the strengths of both ACR and Photoshop in your overall workflow to end up with your final desired “killer” image (via your Master File – see link below). 


What are those strengths? ACR is designed to get as much digital information as you can out of your digital capture, and Photoshop is the industry standard in using that information for the best possible (and most flexible) results.


More on Master Files here:   What is a Master File, and why do I need one?




If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this series of screen grabs of two different images will visually show you the evolution from the Original RAW Capture, to the Optimized RAW file, to the Optimized Master File in Photoshop (click on image to zoom in)and many thanks to Stephanie Rudd & Mark Ochenduszko for allowing me to use their beautiful images:





















By the way, all of this is part of my book designed for photographers, “Not just another Photoshop Book”, available exclusively on Amazon:


… and here are more free useful downloads for photographic post-processing:


Questions?  Comments?  Lemme know – I’m here to help …


Thx again, and cheers!


JW ?


April 2020
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