Photoshop is an application with endless possibilities, and one of its most used functionalities is the mask. This page will cover the basic functions of masks, how to use them, and outlines several different masking techniques that can streamline your workflow.
On this page:
General: Why Use Masks?
Types of Masks: Clipping Masks | Layer Masks | Vector Masks | Removing and Disabling Masks
Final Touches and Quality Control: Workflow Tips | Quality Checks
Why Use Masks?
Masks hide or crop parts of an image or a design without impacting the original content permanently (also known as “non-destructive editing"). Non-destructive editing allows users to both alter and preserve their content as needed. Masking is an ideal practice overall, but it is especially useful for those working on collaborative projects.
One of the most common uses of masking is to pre-crop images to a particular shape, which enables users to place their images correctly in a single step.
Masks can be created on any layer except for a Background layer. To apply a mask to a background layer, first to convert it to a standard layer by selecting Layer > New > Layer from Background.)
Types of Masks
A clipping mask is a quick and simple way to mask an image by using the layer directly below it. When a clipping mask is applied, the image will crop to the shape of the layer below, and an indented arrow will display to the left of its thumbnail in the Layers panel. Multiple layers can be applied as clipping masks for the same image in order to change its blend mode, color, or to add an effect.
- To create a clipping mask, make sure that the layer or layers that will be masked are positioned above the base (or mask) layer. The base layer is what will do the masking; the layers above it are the ones that will be masked. Then, in the Layers panel, select the layer you want masked and choose Layer > Create Clipping Mask.
- For a shortcut, hold down Alt (Windows) or Option (Mac OS), position the mouse over the line in the Layers panel between the base layer and the next layer above it (the pointer should change to the clipping mask icon), and click.
- To add additional layers to the clipping mask, use either method described above. Make sure to place any layers you want to mask above the base layer before applying the clipping mask. In some cases, the clipping mask will apply itself automatically when a new layer is positioned directly below one that has been clipped.
- To remove individual layers from the clipping mask, select the layer you no longer want included, and choose Layer > Release Clipping Mask; you can also follow the same shortcut as above (the pointer should change to a strikethrough version of the clipping mask icon). The selected layer, along with any layers positioned above it, will be released. To add layers back to the clipping mask, repeat the first steps above.
Layer masks are used to crop or modify parts of a single layer by using Photoshop’s painting, shape, or selection tools. Layer masks are most commonly used to “cut out” or isolate aspects of an image. Once applied, a layer mask will appear to the right of the layer thumbnail as a grayscale image that shows the shape of the mask itself. Areas of the mask that appear as black will be hidden completely, while areas that are white will be fully visible. Areas shown in shades of gray indicate a level of transparency.
When creating a layer mask, begin with a base that hides or shows the full layer (which you will edit later), or begin with a mask that selects and isolates a portion of the layer.
- To create a base that hides or shows all of the layer:
- First, make sure that no part of the design is selected, then click Select > Deselect.
- Next, in the Layers panel, choose the layer or group that you want to mask.
- To create the mask, click the Add Layer Mask button in the Layers panel, or select Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All.
- Alternately, to create a mask that hides the entire layer, either Alt-click (Windows) or Option-click (Mac OS) the Add Layer Mask button, or click Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All.
- To create a layer mask that will isolate a specific area of a layer:
- First, make sure that the layer or group that you would like to mask is selected in the Layers panel.
- Using the applicable tool of your choice, select the desired area of the image that you would like to isolate. From here, click Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection or Hide Selection. For a shortcut, click the Add Layer Mask button in the Layers panel to create a mask that reveals only the selected area, or Alt-click (Window) or Option-click (Mac OS) the Add Layer Mask button to create a mask that hides the selection.
After the mask base is created, it can be refined in the Channels panel by using Photoshop’s paint tools.
A vector mask uses vector shapes to create a mask on a layer, and has the benefit of extremely sharp, clean edges and points. Unlike a layer mask, a vector mask is created exclusively with the pen or shape tools, and it functions without relying on the masked image’s resolution.
Much like creating a layer mask, vector masks can be made to reveal the full layer, hide the full layer, or show only an isolated portion of the layer.
- To create a vector mask that shows the entire layer:
- First, select the layer to which the mask will be applied.
- Next, click Layer > Vector Mask > Reveal All.
- To create a vector mask that hides the entire layer:
- Select the layer to which the mask will be applied and click Layer > Vector Mask > Hide All.
- To create a vector mask that shows only the contents of a shape or path:
- First, select the layer to which the mask will be applied.
- Then, using a selection, shape, or pen tool, draw a path around the area that you wish to mask.
- Finally, click the Vector Mask button in the Masks panel, or choose Layer > Vector Mask > Current Path.
Once the vector mask is created, you can apply layer styles to your image and edit them easily. This will instantly create a usable button, panel, or other design element. The bounds of a vector mask can be edited by using the vector mask portion of the Properties panel; select the vector mask, and then use the direct selection tool to manipulate its points to change the paths of the mask. Also, you can convert a vector mask to a layer mask by selecting the layer with the mask and clicking Layer > Rasterize > Vector Mask.
Removing and Disabling Masks
Masks can be removed by selecting the mask layer only (not the full layer itself) and clicking the delete icon in the Layers panel. You can also temporarily disable or enable a layer or vector mask by shift-clicking the Mask Icon in the Layers panel, or by selecting the layer and choosing Layer > Layer/Vector Mask > Disable/Enable.
Final Touches and Quality Control
When using masks, make sure to check the opacity, effects, and edges for imperfections before finalizing the design. Here are a few quick tips:
- The Properties panel is useful for fine-tuning designs, as it provides controls that can be used to further edit and refine the mask.
- The opacity of an entire mask can be changed to reveal or obscure the masked layer to varying degrees
- Masks can be inverted.
- Feathering of the mask borders can be adjusted to suit your needs.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to quality check projects before wrapping up and submitting. By double-checking your work, you are ensuring that your file can easily be used by others. Below are some of the most important checks to consider:
- Do all the masking edges look smooth and clear? (Even feathered edges should look nice and clean)
- Does the masked image appear to be warped or unrealistic?
- Is the mask applied to the correct layer?
For more information, see Mask Layers in Photoshop.
Last Published: May 26th, 2020