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Creating Layer Masks with Adjustment Layers (E8)

By Mike Rodriguez  ·  July 14th, 2011

Layer masks are essential tools to help with selective editing and special photo effects. While Photoshop Elements 9 has a layer mask feature built into the product, you’ll need to use an adjustment layer workaround in earlier versions of Elements. This video (and the instructions below) show you the steps for creating a layer mask in Elements 8. (Links to creating layer masks in Elements 7 and earlier–and Version 9–are listed below.)

  1. Open an image with a duplicate background layer. If you don’t have one, open an image and duplicate your background layer (PC: Control+J, Mac: Command+J). In this tutorial, Mike desaturates the duplicate layer (PC: Shift+Control+U, Mac: Shift+Command+U) and shows you how to bring color back in selectively.
  2. Create a new Levels adjustment layer, by clicking on the adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette, or by going to Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Levels. In the Layers palette, click and drag this new layer so that it’s directly below your duplicate layer.
  3. Select your duplicate layer in the Layers palette.
  4. We’re going to group the duplicate layer and the Levels adjustment layer together, and there are three ways to do this:
    • Go to the Layer menu and choose Create Clipping Mask.
    • Use the keyboard shortcut, which is PC: Control+G or Mac: Command+G.
    • You can go to the Layers palette, hold your mouse over the line between your duplicate layer and your Levels layer and hold the Option or Alt key. Once you see the cursor change to two overlapping circles, click the mouse button once.
       Once you’ve created your clipping mask, there should be a little arrow next to your duplicate layer, pointing down to your Levels adjustment layer. The adjustment layer’s mask will now act as a mask for the duplicate layer.
  5. Click on your Levels layer mask and select your Brush tool.
  6. Remember, when working with masks, “White reveals, black conceals.” Anywhere you paint black with the mask selected in the Layers palette, you will conceal the changes you’ve made, allowing the original layer’s pixels to come through. Anywhere that you paint white reveals the changes that you’ve made. So, to work on your image, just set your Foreground and Background colors to black and white (press the D key if they aren’t, and press X to swap the foreground/background colors). Then you can start painting on your image and the effects will be applied to the layer mask.

This video is part of our Photoshop Elements “quick video tips” series.

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7 Replies to Creating Layer Masks with Adjustment Layers (E8):

  1. Clarke

    July 15, 2011 at 11:21 am

    I give…why separate tutorials for version 8 and versions below 8???

    • Rick LePage

      July 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm

      Because the menu item changed names between Versions 7 and 8, and the icons moved from the top of the palette to the bottom of the palette.

      Those differences are just enough to confuse folks, so we decided to do two different videos.


    • Mike

      July 15, 2011 at 4:08 pm

      And, one other small one…in 7 creating an adjustment layer brings up a dialog box that requires a click on the OK button, whereas in 8, the adjustment layer controls appear in the Adjustment Panel, so no OK clicking is needed.

  2. Robert

    August 13, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    I get totally confused with masks when I learn this way and then do the tuts where you put black on a blank layer, clip it to the photo image above, and the black areas of the mask reveal the corresponding areas in the photo above. The blank areas of the mask layer reveal a background layer if added below the mask layer. No white in the mask involved at all. Ponderous…..

    • Mike

      August 14, 2011 at 8:06 am

      Hi Robert-
      Layer masks and Clipping Masks are similar, but not exactly the same thing. It can be confusing, for sure. Especially in this example, where using a clipping mask to get at the layer mask is required. I don’t know how clear this will be in words, but basically, with this method you’re clipping the adjustment layer to the image layer to get at the layer mask. That’s where the black and white painting take effect.

      With a normal Clipping Mask like you describe, where you add some pixels (the color actually doesn’t matter on a Clipping Mask) to a transparent layer and then “clip” an image to it, what you’re telling Elements is “Only show the image in the area filled with pixels. Hide the image in the areas that are transparent.”

      In Elements 9, with the addition of normal layer masks, this workaround isn’t necessary, and the differences between the two are much more clear and straightforward.

      I hope that doesn’t muddy the waters further. If so, keep asking questions and we’ll help straighten thing out!

  3. Marianna

    March 23, 2012 at 10:55 am

    When I tried this on a .tif file, it did not work. Changing it to .jpg made it work. Can anyone explain?

  4. Linda

    June 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I appreciate this video and printed instructions to refer to as there are so many things to remember when learning Photoshop Elements, especially if you don’t use it every day.

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