Using Adjustment Layer Masks

Last week we looked at some of the reasons to use layers while working in Photoshop. Now let’s see some of the flexibility that Layer Masks can bring to the workflow. As mentioned last week, there’s more than one type of layer in Photoshop. To understand masks, we’ll begin with Adjustment Layers because they come with a mask automatically attached.

What are Layer Masks?

Quite simply, Layer Masks are your way to tell Photoshop which parts of a layer to use or hide, without having to actually delete a thing. On an Image Layer this means, for example, being able to erase part of a photo without losing the data and, with a sweep of the Paintbrush, being able to bring back what you erased.

On an Adjustment Layer, a mask lets you choose which areas of the photo to apply the adjustment to. Instead of having to use only blanket adjustments across the entire photo, this means that you can isolate certain areas. There are endless ways this can be used. Let’s look at a simple example, following on in the theme of contrast.

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Histograms in Action

Recently we looked at how histograms show the tonal data of an image, now lets put them to some practical use.

Histograms are ideal to help us understand the contrast in our images. When a picture seems a bit “foggy”, we can look at the histogram and see exactly where the graph is unbalanced. Maybe the tonal information is mainly in the middle of the histogram, thereby showing a lack of both shadows and highlights; or perhaps the graph is mainly to the left of the centre showing that, while the dark tones are fine, the whites are underexposed.

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