Yesterday’s layer mask tutorial had a couple of tips for advanced layer mask users. Today, I thought we could talk about the basics of using layer masks in Photoshop Elements for those who are new to the tool

Layer masks are what we use to communicate to PSE that we want an edit in a certain part of a photo rather than everywhere.

Take this lovely portrait:

layer masks before

Say I want to soften the skin a bit.

Here you go. Softened skin below. But wait. Do I really want the eyes softer also? Or the hair? Or the super cool earrings?

layer mask skin softened

That’s where a layer mask comes in. I use it to tell Elements, “Hey, Elements, apply this skin softening just to the skin on her face. Don’t make the eyes blurry.”

How to Add Layer Masks

To add a layer mask, just click the layer mask button. It’s next to the green arrow in the screen shot below. If you are using an earlier version of PSE, your layer mask button might be at the bottom of your Layers panel instead of the top.

layer mask button

Wait. You don’t have a layer mask button? Proceed to step 1.

Step #1. The layer mask button was introduced to PSE with version 9. We’re on version 14 now. If you’re still using 8 or something prior to that, upgrade already!

Step #2. After you’ve added your layer mask, click on it to make sure it’s outlined. If it’s not outlined in blue or white, it’s not active for editing and you’ll make a big mess of your photo.

layer masks photoshop elements active for editing


How Do Layer Masks Work?

Now that you have your mask, think about how it corresponds to your photo. Each white area on a mask corresponds to an area of the photo where the effect is visible (in this case, the skin softening effect). If the mask is completely white, that means that effect is showing everywhere on the photo.

Black areas on a mask correspond with areas of the photo where the effect is hidden or not visible.

In other words:

White reveals

Black conceals

Easy enough, right? You’re probably wondering at this point how to get the black and white on your mask. It’s as simple as grabbing a paint brush and painting black or white on the active mask to tell Elements where to show the effect and where to hide it.

Step #3. Type the letter B to select the brush tool.

Now that you have a mask and the proper tool, I want you to think about my example photo for a minute. Say that I just want to soften the skin on her face. Is the mask going to be more white or more black?

Don’t keep reading for an answer. It will help you to figure it out for yourself.

My layer mask will be mostly black. That’s because I only want to soften the relatively small area of the photo that corresponds to her face.

Why is that important? Well, given that the mask will be mostly black, doesn’t it mask sense to start with a black mask so that you only have to paint on a little white? The alternative would be starting with a white mask and painting on a lot of black.

Step #4: Type command i on a Mac or control i on a PC to invert your mask. If you have an all white mask, inverting it makes it black. Alternatively, if you are adding this mask using the layer mask button, you can hold down alt or option as you click the button to create a new black mask.

Step #5.  Change your colors. Sure, you can go down to the Color Swatches and change your color whenever you want, but it’s much easier to use these shortcuts:

  • D to change whatever colors you are using to (Default) black and white. Black will be the foreground or active color.
  • X to switch the foreground and background colors.
  • To paint on a black mask with a white brush, you would type B, D & X right in a row.

Step #6: To create a natural looking mask, you’ll want to vary your paint brush size as you paint. This helps you make neat edges around eyes, mouths, etc. To change your brush size, type the following short cuts:

  • [ to make your brush smaller
  • ] to make your brush larger.

When I paint on masks, I keep one hand on my mouse and use the other to type X to change colors or [ and ] to change my brush size. I do both frequently as I paint.

Step #7: Correct mistakes. When you paint over the wrong part of an image, simply type X to switch the paint color and “unpaint” that part.

Step #8. Now, take this same portrait and say I want to soften the skin on her neck, but only half as much as I softened the skin on her face. Hitting the number 5 will automatically change the brush’s opacity to 50%. Hitting the number 3 will change its opacity to 30%. And so on. Painting at a lower brush opacity will give your mask shades of gray on the mask like you see in this screenshot:

layer mask layers softening

This screen shot shows my brush options after typing B, D, X & 5.

layer mask brush options



layer mask final

How to Use a Layer Mask: Summary

  1. Click the mask button to add a mask, if your layer doesn’t have one already.
  2. Click the mask to activate it for editing.
  3. Type B to select the Brush tool.
  4. Invert your mask if necessary by typing command i (control i on PCs).
  5. Type D to select Default Black & White Colors.
  6. Type X to switch the foreground and background colors and alternate between black and white.
  7. Type [ to make your brush smaller and ] to make it larger.
  8. Paint with the brush. Correct painting mistakes by typing X to paint with the opposite color.
  9. Use the number keys to change the brush’s opacity.

Following these steps will have you using layer masks correctly & quickly! And once you’ve mastered them, check out these two power tips for layer masks!