In this free Photoshop layers tutorial lesson, learn to do more with layers and make the most out of this popular photo editing software.
Sometimes you may want only certain parts of a layer to be visible. For example, you might want to remove the background from a layer so the layers below it can show through. While you could use the Eraser tool to remove the parts you don't want, this type of destructive editing may be difficult to undo. Fortunately, layer masks allow you to show and hide parts of any layer in a nondestructive way.
Creating a layer mask can be a bit complicated, so let's start by looking at one that's already finished. If you're following along with the example file, select the Acorn layer. Here, we used a layer mask to hide, or mask out, the background—the acorn is the only part of the layer that's visible. The layer mask is represented by the black-and-white thumbnail to the right of the layer icon in the Layers panel. Notice how the areas that are visible in the document window correspond with the white area on the layer mask thumbnail:
The important thing to recognize here is that the background of the Acorn layer hasn't actually been removed—it's just hidden. If we ever wanted to show more of the original image, we could edit or even remove the layer mask.
To better understand how layer masks work, let's try editing the the Acorn layer mask. We'll be using the Brush tool, so if you've never used it before you should first read our extra on Working with Brushes.
You'll need to take your time and work carefully to get the best possible result, especially when refining the edges of the layer mask around an object. It may be helpful to adjust the size, hardness, and opacity of the Brush tool.
Now that you know more about layer masks, you may want to try creating your own.
Note that you can apply multiple layer masks to the same layer. However, this can become complicated, so we recommend using only one layer mask per layer.
You can use a layer mask to control which areas of your image are affected by an adjustment layer. For example, if you have a black and white adjustment layer, you could use a layer mask to convert specific areas to black and white while leaving other areas unaffected.
Every adjustment layer has a layer mask by default, so you won't need to create a new one. You can simply click the layer mask and then use the Brush tool to edit it.
You can also press and hold the Shift key and then click the thumbnail to temporarily disable the layer mask.
Creating and editing layer masks can be a challenging task, and there are many other methods for achieving good results. If you want to learn more, check out these tutorials: