Photoshop Layer Mask Concepts & Basics – Part 2



The material in this blogpost comes from:

 My Photoshop book called  “Not Just Another Photoshop Book”

•  And, mSmall Group Workshop called “The Power of Layer Masks in Photoshop”




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).  Being able to localize your image adjustments is the digital post-processing equivalent of the legendary Ansel Adams’ & Fred Archers’ photographic Zone System –  see this post for more as it relates to Photoshop:


This is Part 2 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.  

As a refresher, here’s what we’ve covered so far:

•  Part 1 discusses the importance of why you need Layer Masks, Adjustment Layers, and much more:

•  For Part 3, see the link near the bottom  …




Part 2 – The two Workspaces Panels Critical to Working with Layer Masks:

•  The Layers Panel

•  The Properties Panel




The Layers Panel:

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


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    • A Background Layer is the image you bring into Photoshop – – This layer should generally be left alone – – Most of the time, no work should be done to it.
    • The Active Layer is the layer that you are working on, and is highlighted in a darker /different color.
    • You can control your Layer Visibility by toggling the “Eye” icon on and off – – This will help you see the effects of a particular layer on your image.
    • The Blending Mode lets you control the way pixels are blended together. The various blending modes that are available can be seen in the drop-down menu.  In the spirit of K.I.S.S., we will only be working with a few Blending Modes – The vast majority of time, your Blending Mode will be “Normal”.
    • To access the Layers Panel Options, click on the drop-down list (shown in the diagram above). Here you can quickly delete a layer, duplicate a layer, flatten your image, and so on.  If you go to “Panel Options” at the bottom of the drop-down list, you can change the size of the thumbnails displayed in the panel (A personal favorite, as my eyes are getting older!).  By the way, each Panel (not just this one) has a different set of options.
    • If your Layers Panel is fairly empty of Layers and there is any “empty gray space” below the Background Layer, you can “right-mouse click” and quickly choose the Adjustment Layer thumbnail size.
    • You can control the opacity of a particular layer by moving the Opacity Slider. 0% Opacity means that none of the effects of that layer will show through: 100% Opacity means that all of the effects of that layer show through.
    • The Adjustment Icon generally is a visual representation of the tool you’re using in an adjustment layer. Clicking on the Adjustment Icon will open the properties and controls for that adjustment in the Properties Panel (discussed in the next chapter).
    • The Layer Mask Thumbnail is a visual representation of the selection or layer mask for that tool.
    • You can Delete a Layer by dragging it to the Trash Icon.




The Properties Panel

The Properties Panel has two “Views”, both tied to the active Adjustment Layer
in the Layers Panel:

      1. The Adjustment Properties View
      1. The Mask Properties View
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There are two ways to switch between the Views:

    1. Click on the appropriate Icon in the Properties Panel
    1. OR Click on Adjustment Icon or Layer Mask Thumbnail in the Adjustment Layer (in the Layers Panel)


An explanation of some of the functions in the Adjustment Properties View(Levels shown):

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    • Toggle Layer Visibility – This shows and hides the visibility of the layer – when this is toggled, the Layer Visibility button in the Adjustment Layer (in the Layers Panel) will show the same results.
    • Reset to Default – This returns the adjustment to its default settings – rarely used.
    • Delete Layer- This discards the current layer in the Adjustment Layer – rarely used.
    • Clip to Layer – Most of the time, it’s best to leave this one alone. Otherwise, click it to affect only the layers below it in the Adjustment Panel – rarely used.
    • Previous State – Click to view the previous state (one step back) of the adjustment – rarely used.

An explanation of some of the functions in the Mask Properties View:

By the way, these will make more sense once you start creating and “shaping” Layer Masks in upcoming blogposts:

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    • Mask DensityThis is just an “Opacity” slider: If you’d like to adjust the opacity of the Mask, here’s an easy way to accomplish it, although I personally don’t use it very often – see diagram for example.
    • Feather EdgeThis is a non-destructive way to feather and soften the edge of the Layer Mask – see diagram for examples.
    • Mask Edge This is a shortcut to the “Select and Mask tool – – discussed in future posts.

      Click to Embiggen
    • Color Range This is a shortcut to the “Color Range tool – – See “Photoshop Help” or my Small Group Workshop on Layer Masks for more on this interesting Selection Tool.
    • Invert Selection This simply inverts the selection – see diagram for example.
    • Delete MaskThis deletes the current Layer Mask.
    • Disable/Enable MaskThis disables the Layer Mask, which is good for ‘before and after” scenarios.
    • Load Selection from MaskThis reloads the previous Selection, allowing you to use another adjustment or tool with the same selection.




In the next Quick Tip in this series:  Part 3 talks about the 2 strategies used in creating & working with Layer Masks:


Don’t forget, the material in this blogpost is from one of my Small Group Workshops called “The Power of Layer Masks in Photoshop” they’re live, online & available nationwide:




•  AVAILABLE NATIONWIDE – for more on my free live & online Photoshop Meetups, click here:


•  More Photoshop videos at my YouTube Channel:


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


Questions? Please contact me – also, feel free to comment and forward this to your photography friends!


Thx again, and cheers,

John Watts 🙂



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