hits counter

What’s a layer mask in Photoshop? | Day 24

Layer masks are one of the most powerful things about Photoshop and one of the most confusing when you first get started. I promise you this – thousands and thousands have figured it out, and so can you! Soon you’ll forget why you felt such trepidation.

What is layer masking? What is it for?

Layer masks allow you to selectively edit parts of your image rather than the whole thing. Lighten only part? Sharpen only part? Not a problem at all with layer masks.

When you make an adjustment layer, a shaded box will appear next to it that is either white or black. White means the edit is visible. Black means the edit is not visible, or masked. I made you a video demonstrating a very simple example of layer masking in Photoshop.

Soon to come in this series: actions, workflow, editing, and some opportunities for more show and tell link-ups.

Don’t forget these awesome girls who are sharing this 31 Days journey with us:

31 Days of Grace :: Chatting at the Sky
31 Days to an Inspired Table :: My First Kitchen
31 Days to a Less Messy Nest :: Nesting Place
31 Days of Living Simply :: Remodeling This Life
31 Days of Autumn Bliss :: The Inspired Room
31 Days to More. . .With Less :: Beauty and Bedlam
31 Days to a Better Photo :: My 3 Boybarians
31 Days to Stress Free Entertaining :: Reluctant Entertainer


  1. Can you do layer masks in photoshop elements do you know.I did a seminar with Scott Kelby,but I don’t seem to be able to get masks.

    • It depends on your version of Elements. If you have some of the early versions – I think Elements 6 or lower, maybe? – I’m not sure that it does. I’ve never owned Elements, so this is only based on research. You can do layer masks in the most recent verion(s) of Elements.

  2. I have really enjoyed all of your posts thus far. I am looking into getting a Photoshop program, but there seems to be so many different ones out there. Which version do you recommend?

    • Buy the most recent one you can afford. In my opinion, the CS versions of the program can do more than the Elements version but are pretty expensive. CS5 is the most recent release in the CS line. I believe Elements 8 is the most recent of that program. Lightroom is something totally different, and I’ll do an upcoming screencast featuring Lr.

      If you check ebay you may be able to find CS3 or CS4 for much cheaper now that CS5 is the most recent version.

      Also – if you’re eligible, Adobe has a great program for Educators, Students and homeschoolers to get education discounts.

  3. oh this make so m uch sense! thanks again for all the tips!

  4. Great post. It made a lot more sense, but now I’ll need to figure it out for Elements. But that should be a fun challenge. I just got back from the beach and took a bunch of pics. However, I did shoot on auto because the weather was so iffy we didn’t have time for me to mess around with figuring out settings. Even still they turned out fun and cute!! Thanks for sharing.

  5. I would recommend Photoshop Elements for those photographers who will editing their pictures only occasionally. I started with Photoshop CS years ago but found I couldn’t remember all the commands and features after a short absence, whereas, moving to Elements, it provided more help in accomplishing what I needed albeit with fewer tools.

  6. I have loved these 31 days, Darcy… 31 days to revisit over and over again.
    Thank you for the art you make everywhere.

    So grateful,

  7. Thanks so much for this video Darcy! I upgraded from PSE6 to PSE9 and am really enjoying learning more about what the software can do for me. I really appreciate you taking the time to explain all of this stuff to us!

  8. Thank you, Darcy! This actually makes sense in a way that I think will stick with me. I’ve gone through other tutorials and did fine, but when it came time to use layer masks later, I never remembered quite how it was supposed to work. Yours just clicked for me, though. Loving this series!

  9. I just bought Elements 9 a couple of weeks ago and was floundering. I watched your video a couple times and now I TOTALLY get masks! Ok, maybe not totally yet. But I am no longer floundering. Thank you soooo much.

  10. How do you know when to paint in black and when to paint in white? You did Curves in black and Contrast in white? How do I know what to pick?

    • Black hides the edit. White reveals the edit. So if you make a layer to brighten, black means that area is not brightened… white means it is. You can paint it on only where you want the change to show and only where you want it to show.

      So you chose based on where you want to reveal or hide the changes that layer makes. 🙂