A Layer Mask Workaround That Gives Elements the Power of Photoshop

This Layer Mask Workaround is great. One feature I use all the time in the full version of Photoshop is the Layer Mask. Photoshop makes it very easy with a Add Layer Mask button right in the layers palette.

Unfortunately Photoshop Elements didn't come with that button until Version 9. But if you have PSE 8 or older there's a little trick you can use. Of course if you're using an adjustment layer, layer masks are automatically added so you don't need this tip for that situation.

Layer masks are great because you can add or subtract from an effect applied to a layer without actually losing any pixels. That means you can go back and change which part of your photo is affected by the effect you applied to it.

Let me show you what I mean. In the image below I made a duplicate of the background layer and applied a Gaussian Blur to it. Because the blurred layer is on top in the layers palette it hides the non-blurry Background layer.

Duplicat Background in Photoshop Elements

What if I don't want the whole layer to be blurry? Well I could select the part I think I want to be blurry before I apply the Gaussian Blur. But if I don't like the results I have to start all over. If instead, I use a layer mask on the blurred layer all I have to do is paint in or paint out more blurred area.

For this example I want the Borders bookstore on the left side of the picture to be non-blurry. This is where a layer mask will help. I need to create an adjustment layer. But I'm not going to make any adjustments with it. I just want to use its' layer mask.

To do that I go to my Layers palette and click on the Create adjustment layer icon. It's the half black half white circle at the top of the palette. I'm going to choose Levels from the drop-down menu, but you could choose any of the Adjustment Layer choices since all we're going to do with it is use its' mask. When the new Adjustment Layer dialog window comes up just click OK to close it without making an adjustment.

Adjustment layer in Photoshop Elements

The adjustment layer appears at the top of the Layers palette. It needs to be below the layer that you want to mask. So in this case I just drag it down below the blurred layer.

One final step before I can use it as a mask for the blurred layer. They have to be grouped together.

To do that I select the blurred layer and go to the Layers menu and select Group with Previous. In some versions of Elements it will say Create Clipping Mask. Control G (Mac: Command G).

Group with previous in Photoshop Elements

You can tell that the blurred layer is grouped with the adjustment layer because it is indented and a 90° arrow points to the adjustment layer:

Grouped layer in Photoshop Elements

Now select the Brush tool from the toolbox. Press the letter D to set the foreground and background colors located at the bottom of the toolbox to their default colors of black and white. Black should be the foreground color. If it's white instead press the X key to switch them around.

Brush tool in Photoshop Elements

Now click on the Adjustment Layer in the Layers palette to make it active. With the Brush tool simply paint over the part of your image you want to hide and the original background will show through.

Look at your layer mask in the Layers palette and you can see black over the area you painted. That indicates you're hiding that part of the layer it's grouped with, allowing the original Background layer to show through.

The beauty of a layer mask is its' flexibility. If I decide I want to change a part that I just painted out, I can press X to change my foreground color to white and paint the effect back in.

Layer mask workaround for Photoshop Elements

If your brand new to using layer masks it probably seems very confusing. I know it was for me. Just keep playing with them. Remember black conceals the effect and white reveals it. Once you get the hang of it you'll be glad you invested the time because of the versatility it gives you.

Until next time,



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  • 4 VIDEOS showing EXACTLY how to use the tips in Elements
  • One-page printable CHEAT SHEETS to use with Elements

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