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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The Joys of Layering

When I first began using Photoshop, layers confused me horribly. But after some time of reading tutorials, magazines, and picking the brains of every Photoshop-savvy person I came across, layers became my big Photoshop love.

I now use them for every tiny change I make to my images. With big edits, or high-resolution photos, this can mean my PSD (Photoshop format) files take up a lot of hard drive space, but it’s so very worth it.

Why Layer?

♦ Flexibility. This is the reason, above all other reasons, to use layers. You can use Layer Masks to apply an effect to any area of the photo you like, or more to one area than to another. You can lower the opacity of a layer to soften its effect on the layers below it. And of course you can take one image and combine it with another, as well as countless other possibilities.

♦ Gobackability. What do you mean that’s not a word? Sure it is. It means you always have the ability to go back to a previous version of your image, even right back to the start if it all goes calamitously wrong (it does happen), or if you have a new idea for how you want your image to look.

You can undo changes at any point later on if you’ve decided that’s not what you want for your image, or you can improve the changes made on an Adjustments Layer at some point long after you finished editing it the first time.

Photoshop has a History Brush tool, and I know people who swear by it, but I’ve never been a fan. I prefer to simply have my changes preserved in layers to go back to at any time.

“How did I do that again?” This is a big one for me. I edit photos quite quickly, usually without knowing beforehand what I intend to do with an image. Sometimes even just a few weeks later I don’t remember exactly how I created a certain effect (usually one that’s the result of about 20 layers of tiny changes).

If you save your PSDs it means that you can open the file a week, a month, a year later, and see exactly how you made it look like it does. This is great for fine-tuning a technique that you’re testing, or one you’ve stumbled across accidentally as you worked.

♦ Progress check. There are literally limitless things to learn about Photoshop. Sometimes it can get overwhelming and I feel like I’ll never learn it all. Then I realise that while, yes, I’ll never know everything there is to know about Photoshop; there’s a difference between knowing everything and knowing plenty.

To remind myself how far I’ve come, I like to go through my old PSDs. By looking at the layers I can see how I did things when I first started, and then see how my techniques have changed with each piece of newly acquired knowledge. My first PSDs, the ones I was so proud of at the time (and still am!), look so primitive by comparison, and even edits from only a year or two ago show how much my skills have improved. If you’re anything like me, you’ll love being able to track your progress this way.

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