Use Photoshop Elements and you have to use layer masks, right? Layer masks are those nifty little tools that let you apply an edit to one part of your photo but not another.

Layer masks are essential to getting good photo edits. Knowing the special tricks that they can do speeds up your workflow hugely!

These two tips are the ones I’ve found to be most useful in improving the quality of my layer mask painting as well as reducing the time I spend painting them.

Layer Mask Tip #1: See What You Painted

Type to display an overlay on your image that shows exactly where you’ve painted. That key is just above Enter or Return on American keyboards. Make sure the mask is active for editing before you type – it will have the cyan or white outline around it, as in the image below:

layer mask tips overlay

The mask in the screenshot above looks like the image below:

layer mask overlay

The parts of the image with no overlay correspond to the pure white parts of my mask. You can see a lighter shade of red on her shoulder, chest and neck where I painted with a 50% opacity brush. And the pure red overlay corresponds to the black areas of the mask.

See how I missed a few spots near the corners of her eyes? Touching up those areas will add a professional, finished quality to my edit.

Layer Mask Tip #2: Copy the Mask

I created the mask illustrated above for a skin softening layer. Now that I’ve finished the skin softening, I want to touch up the skin tone a bit.

To warm her skin, I add a Levels layer that darkens and adds a small amount of yellow. And since I don’t want to change the tone of the image’s background, I grab my brush and start painting on the mask. Right?

layer mask with levels

Wrong! It’s much quicker to duplicate a mask than to repaint a new one.

To copy a mask from one layer to another, hold down your alt or option key, click on the painted mask and drag it to the unpainted mask. Release your click right over the unpainted mask. You might receive a message asking if you’d like to replace the mask. If so, the answer is yes, please!

Now you have two masks that look exactly the same:

layer mask copy tips copy mask

layer mask tips


What do you think? Are these two layer mask tips as life-changing for you as they are for me?