What is a Layer Mask?

Within Photoshop, there are a variety of methods to manipulate layers so that they blend together, creating one seamless image. Perhaps the best way to create fades is with a layer mask. Below, we've outlined how layer masks work, how to use them to blend images, and how to adjust masks after you've saved them.

What is a Layer Mask?

Essentially, a layer mask allows you to set a layer's transparency. Unlike the Opacity setting, however, a layer mask can be used to reveal (or hide) certain areas of a layer. Since it only "masks" the layer, you don't have to worry about any of your image getting erased. It's much safer than using the Eraser tool, and offers complete flexibility over your layers.  

Blending Two Images With a Layer Mask

  1. 1. First, go to the Layers panel at the bottom right corner of Photoshop, and select the top layer in the list. There is a row of tiny icons at the bottom of this panel; click on the one that looks like a rectangle with a white circle inside of it. 
  2. Layer masks only use black, white, and all of the gradients in between, which represent the layer's opacity. White is completely visible, while black is completely hidden. Within the Layers panel, there should now be a white thumbnail next to the top layer. When you click the "Layer Mask" icon, it will create a white mask by default, but holding down Alt/Option when clicking will produce a black mask.  
  3. Now that you understand how layer masks work, you can select the Brush tool (and a black foreground color) to paint certain sections of a mask. This will hide those sections on the corresponding layer. Conversely, painting with white will reveal any areas that were previously hidden. Make sure to choose a brush size that is small enough to allow for clean, precise lines. You can also soften the brush's edge by holding Shift and pressing the "[" key. 
  4. With your mask selected in the Layers panel, you can now draw on the main areas of the image that you'd like to hide. Those sections will appear black within the layer mask thumbnail, but more importantly, they'll be hidden within the main Photoshop window. If you decide that you've painted too much black on the layer mask, just change the Brush tool to white and paint over the black areas. 
  5. When you're happy with the final arrangement, go to the File menu and choose "Save As" to preserve a copy of your work. At any time, if you're unsatisfied with the image, just open the Photoshop file and revise how the layers are masked. Once you're familiar with basic layer mask usage, it's time to get creative! Harness the feature to build elaborate collages, place subjects in exotic locations, design viral content, and reuse key images in your work.

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