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Make efficient selections quickly with layer masks

Added on Wednesday 11th of August 2010 03:52 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Many folks struggle with selections, but you don’t have to. Instead, harness the power of layer masks and make precise image selections every time.


To create selections with layer masks, we’ll:

•     Create a layer mask and paint the selection with the Brush tool.

•     Show you how easy it is to edit the layer mask.

•     Isolate the masked selection for use in a layout.



For decades, artists, photographers, and printers have used physical masks, such as frisket and rubylith, to section off a portion of an image to manipulate either the masked area or its surrounding areas. Using Photoshop’s layer masks to isolate areas in your images, you can incorporate multiple images into your layouts, as shown in Figure A . And not only can you can create masks that work exactly the way physical masks do, but you can control your masks in ways far beyond what’s possible with traditional masking materials and methods.






Select your subject

The first step in this technique is to choose an image with an object you want separated from its background. To follow along with our example, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, and extract the file orchids.jpg , as shown in Figure B . (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.)






Create a layer mask

To begin, launch Photoshop, and then open the image you want to use. First, you’ll duplicate the layer and create the layer mask for this technique.


To duplicate the layer and create the mask:

1.       Press and hold [option] ([Alt] in Windows) and drag the Background layer to the Create A New Layer button at the base of the Layers panel to duplicate the layer. In the resulting Duplicate Layer dialog box, enter Orchids in the As text box, and click OK.

2.      With the Orchids layer selected, click the Add Layer Mask button at the base of the Layers panel. A layer mask thumbnail appears on the layer, as does a link icon, as shown in Figure C .


3.      Display the colored overlay by pressing [option][shift] ([Alt][Shift] in Windows) and clicking on the layer mask thumbnail. You won’t see any change at first, but you will once you begin painting on the mask.

4.      Select the Brush tool from the Tools panel and choose a brush size that works well with the areas of the image you want to mask.

5.      Set the foreground color to black.

6.      Paint over the areas you want to mask with the Brush tool, as shown in Figure D .

7.      Continue adding to the layer mask until you’ve completely masked the area you want, as shown in Figure E .




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