What is Photoshop Layer Mask? Understanding its purpose and How to Use it

What is Photoshop Layer Mask?  

In the early days, Photoshop was “destructive” since it made changes to the actual image itself. Once you made a change, it couldn’t be undone. It was important to save multiple versions of your work often since you had to go back to a previously saved version if you needed to make adjustments to an older version of your image.


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Today, however, Photoshop is “non-destructive,” which means it preserves the original image and any alterations can be “layered” on. If you don’t like what you’ve done, you can simply delete a layer and try again. One helpful tool for working in layers is the Layer Mask tool, which allows you to work on only a certain part of an image while keeping the rest intact.

Watch the below Video Tutorial to Understand Photoshop Layer Masks better than anybody! 

What is Purpose (use) of Photoshop Layer Masks?

Layer masks control the visibility of a layer, group, or Adjustment Layer. When a layer mask is completely white, the layer is completely visible. When a layer mask is completely black, the layer is completely invisible.

You can choose to make parts of a layer invisible by painting black in certain areas. You can use most of the Tools in the Tool panel on a layer mask including the Brush Tool, Clone Stamp tool, Gradient Tool and selections.

For instance, if you want to cut the subject out of their Background, make a selection around the subject and load that selection as a layer mask, the subject will be visible and the Background will be invisible.

Destructive vs. Non-Destructive Editing

When it comes to editing images in Photoshop, the ultimate goal is to do everything in a ‘non-destructive’ manner – meaning any change can be undone at any point in time.

For example, if you want part of a layer to disappear, using the Eraser Tool is destructive because it destroys the image, rather than just hiding it. If you use the Eraser Tool, then save and close an image, you won’t be able to undo those changes the next time you open the image in Photoshop.

In Contrast, layer masks allow you to make changes at any time – even years from now. Rather than destroying image pixels, they simply hide them.

How to Create and Use Layer Masks

To add a layer mask to a layer, click on the layer mask icon at the bottom of the layers panel (it looks like a square with a circle inside).

You can also use the menu, go to ‘Layer – Layer Mask – Reveal All’ to make a white layer mask.

Adjustment Layers come pre-loaded with Layer Masks, simply paint white or black on them to determine the visibility of the layer.

Helpful Layer Mask Photoshop Keyboard Shortcuts

When working with Layer masks, a few Keyboard Shortcuts can go a long way.

  • SHIFT+CLICK on Layer Mask – Disable Layer Mask Temporarily
  • ALT/OPTN+CLICK on Layer Mask – Show Contents of Layer Mask
  • CTRL/CMD+CLICK on Layer Mask – Turn Layer Mask into Selection
  • CTRL/CMD+I – Invert Layer Mask
  • / – View Layer Mask in Quick Mask Mode
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