Masks are powerful tools for manipulating images. Just as Halloween masks hide and protect areas of the face, Photoshop masks hide and protect areas of an image. You use masks to isolate the parts that you want to change.
For instance, let’s say you are designing a magazine cover and do a photo shoot of a musician at the beach. When you get back to your studio, the client decides that the beach is too complex and he/she prefers a simpler backdrop…. Yikes! Instead of doing another photo shoot (which can be very costly), you can mask out the beach background and insert another image, color, and/or texture in its place.
There are a couple of key benefit of masks:
(1) They are non-destructive. Erasing will permanently delete the pixels, whereas masking will merely hide them. You can easily reveal the pixels by editing the mask.
(2) They provide a quick way to select portions of an image. The mask shape is saved in a channel for easy retrieval.
My Two Fave Ways to Make a Mask
1 – Quick Selection, Magic Wand, and Lasso Tools
For simple shapes with relatively uniform color and texture, use a combination of the Quick Selection, Magic Wand, and Lasso tools.
- Begin with the Quick Selection tool and these settings:
32 px brush size, 100% hardness, 25% spacing
- Click on an area to begin a new selection. The tool should automatically change to “Add to Selection” mode. If not, select this mode manually.
- Continue clicking and dragging on the area to add to the selection.
- If the tool selects sections beyond the area you want, decrease the size of the tool.
- If the tool size becomes very small and your selection still extends beyond the area you want, it’s time to switch to the Magic Wand tool. Try these settings:
“Add to Selection” mode, 3 by 3 Average
- When the selection is close to perfect, you may need to switch to the Lasso tool to add the stray pixels to the overall selection. Make sure you are still in “Add to Selection” mode.
- Photoshop will mask what has NOT been selected. When finished selecting everything, decide whether your selection is what will be masked (hidden). If it’s the non-selected areas that need to be masked, you can INVERSE the selection: Select > Inverse.
- At the bottom of the Layer’s panel, click on the “Add a Mask” button.
Clean up the Mask
- In the Layers panel, click on the Layer Mask thumbnail.
- Select the Eraser tool. Even though you’ll be using the eraser tool, you won’t actually be deleting anything, you’ll be adding to the mask.
- Make sure the foreground color is White.
Remember: white adds to the mask, black subtracts from the mask.
- Zoom in on the areas that need cleaning up. “Erase” the stray pixels (add to the mask). If you need to reveal something, switch the foreground color to Black (subtract from the mask).
- While still on the Layer Mask thumbnail layer, you might also need to go to the Channels panel to view the mask and do a really good clean-up. Click on the mask channel to make it visible (in red). Continue with the eraser tool until done.
- Save the file.
2 – Select and Mask Workspace
For complex AND simple shapes, Photoshop provides an awesome suite of tools in the Select and Mask area. This is especially useful for the fine strands of hair in portraits and anything that has intricate details.
- Click on the layer where you want to apply the mask.
- Choose Select > Select and Mask.
You’ll enter a task space with the image, selection tools on the left side, and properties on the right side. The default View Mode property is a semitransparent Onion Skin overlay that covers the entire image for now. This overlay indicates the masked areas.
- Explore the other View Modes. I often find it easier to work in the Overlay (red) mode.
- Choose the Quick Selection tool on the left side and start with these settings:
15 px brush size, 100% hardness.
- Click on the area you want to reveal. Each subsequent click and drag adds to the selection and essentially peels away the mask.
- Increase/decrease the brush size and add to/subtract from the mask as needed.
- As with Method #1, at some point the Quick Selection tool may begin to select pixels that you don’t want. So, switch to the Brush Tool, zoom into an area, and resume adding to the selection.
Refining the mask
- Switch to the Refine Edge Brush tool, with these settings:
20 px brush size, 100% hardness.
- Change to Black & White view mode to see some imperfections that you can fix.
- Change back to the Overlay mode and Zoom in at high magnifications to inspect hair in portraits and other edges.
- Drag the Refine Edge Brush tool where the mask needs to be adjusted.
- Increase/decrease the brush size as needed. Smaller brush sizes will be good for finer details.
- Continue adding or subtracting to the mask until it looks fabulous!
- The Global Refinements section will fine-tune the mask’s edges. Try these settings:
5 – Smooth Slider
20% – Contrast
-15% – Shift Edges
- When finished, go to the Output Settings at the bottom of the Properties panel on the right side. Select Decontaminate Colors.
- In the Output To menu, choose New Layer with Layer Mask.
- You can continue to edit the mask if necessary. In the Layers panel, be sure you click on the Layer Mask thumbnail. Then, re-enter the Select and Mask workspace in one of these ways:
– Double-click on the Layer Mask thumbnail
– Choose Select > Select and Mask
– Properties panel > Select and Mask
- Save the file!
If you prefer, you can watch my video tutorial that shows you how to create masks in Photoshop using these 2 techniques:
What Are Your Fave Masking Methods?
There are probably a gazilliion ways to create masks in Photoshop. Do you have a favorite method? Tell us what it is! Please share!