Photoshop Tutorial: Using Adjustment Layers and Masking

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What you need

To follow through with this tutorial you need at least Photoshop CS. More recent versions of Photoshop may appear a little different (mostly the interface has added features) as this tutorial is originally from 2006, but the techniques here are sound and work quite well across all versions since its publishing.

To follow along with this tutorial you will need to download this image: Adjustment-Layer.jpg  (right-click and choose: Save As).

What is an Adjustment Layer?

Layers Pallette

You can apply Adjustment Layers from the Layers Palette using the button circled above. An Adjustment Layer will be inserted above the currently selected layer and will apply to all layers below it.

Adjustments menu

Clicking the Adjustment Layers button provides you with a list of the types of adjustment layers you can apply. Choosing one will give you further options for it.

Just as it sounds, an Adjustment Layer will adjust a property of your photo on a separate layer. Why is it so special? An Adjustment Layer can be changed or masked at any time and removed with no ill effect to the original image. Ever adjust the brightness or color of an image early on, then after 30 or more alterations, want to go back and undo or tweak that initial change? If you used an Adjustment Layer, you can click it and change the setting you made way back then, even if you saved and returned to the file at another date. Adjustment Layers are essentially mini-filters that you can apply to an image or part of an image, and change the filter settings any time you want.

Adjustment Layers also come paired with Masks. A mask is an instruction that tells the layer what parts of the image will show the adjustment, and what parts will not (masked parts). With a combination of an Adjustment Layer and a Mask you have the control to change the look of just one section of the image, like giving a beach ball on a beach scene more saturation, but leaving the rest of the scene alone (masked from the effect).

When Adjustment Layers were introduced in Photoshop 4.0 (way back in 1996) it revolutionized the workflows of millions of users. No longer were common image adjustments made permanently. Prior to Adjustment Layers, users had to duplicate the image layer and apply a permanent change to that layer. If they wanted to go back and change an adjustment they made, they would have to delete all the layers up to and including where they made that adjustment, and start over. With Adjustment Layers, common changes to images, such as contrast, color, and filters could be changed easily right up until output. File sizes have been kept in check too, because Adjustment Layers take up little room in the PSD file. You can add several Adjustment Layers to a file with little increase in the size of the file.

More about Masking

Masking is an essential tool for applying otherwise global changes (levels, colors, saturation) to isolated areas of your image. Say you want to adjust the levels of the sky in your landscape image to darken it slightly, but you want to leave the trees and land alone. You can add an adjustment layer to change the level for the sky, and then mask the effect from the land on your image, so it appears untouched. It’s that simple. You can even go further to brighten the land and mask the sky, which may not need that effect. Masking is the perfect way to apply an adjustment to just parts of an image at a time.

Masking is handled in most photo retouching software (Photoshop, PaintShop Pro) the same way: using a black and white canvas to control the mask. The masking canvas matches the size and shape of the layer it applies to. It can either be black, white or shades of grey. You can paint these shades on the mask any way you’d like, you just need to understand what each shade does.

  • White: Anything on the layer this mask is attached to will show through on the image where there is white. White = Unmask/Show. 
  • Black: Anything on the layer this mask is attached to will not show through on the image where there is black. Black = Mask/Hide. 
  • Gray: Anything on the layer this mask is attached to will show through as transparent on the image depending on how dark the gray is. The lighter the shade of gray, the more of the attached layer will show through. The closer the gray is to black, the less will show through. 

You can fill a mask completely with one shade, or you can use the Paintbrush, Pencil, Eraser, Fill Bucket, Gradient, or other tools to paint where you wish on the mask canvas. When you change the shade of the mask, the Layer it is attached to either appears or disappears where you make the change to the mask. So, if you wanted to darken the sky in a landscape shot and leave the rest of the image alone, you would apply a new Brightness Adjustment Layer and adjust for the sky, and then use a mask to prevent the adjustment from showing on non-sky parts. In the mask, the portion of the canvas containing the sky will be white (allowing the change to show through) and the portion containing the land will be black (blocking the adjustment from showing through).

Adjustment Layers & Masking in Practice

Original image

In the image above, the sky is slightly washed out and I prefer to have it darker. If I darkened the whole image, I’d be making the mountains in the bottom half too dark and would lose detail.

The mountains are too dark now.

I apply a Levels Adjustment layer (named Levels 1) and adjust the levels to darken the sky. Unfortunately, because the mask attached to this adjustment layer is all white, this effect is applied to the whole image and my mountains are now too dark.

Layers Palette

The top layer (Levels 1) is a Levels Adjustment layer (you can tell by the icon). The attached mask (which is all white) tells Photoshop to apply the adjustment to the whole image.

I need to Mask the mountains from this adjustment.

Correctly masked image

I use a large, soft-edge paintbrush, set to pure black, and I paint over the mountains with the mask canvas selected. This hides the effect of the Adjustment Layer in those areas. This returns the mountains to their original tone.

Masked adjustment layer

Notice the bottom half of the mask is now painted black. It is masking the Levels adjustment layer from the mountains so it only shows in the sky.

Trying it Yourself

Open the image (Adjustment-Layer.jpg) and make sure the Layers Palette is visible. Windows shortcut keys are used here. If you use a Mac, just replace the Ctrl key with the Command key.

Take a look at the image and its inherent problems. I shot this with an old compact camera. It is well composed, but the colors and tone are dull and the image is bland. Not one single adjustment will solve the problems with the water, trees and sky all at once. So we use separate adjustments with masking. The waters of Green Lakes State Park are usually a bright blue-green. Let’s start with that. Original image Problems:

  • Too dull
  • Not enough contrast
  • Incorrect water color
Let’s fix the dull water first.

  • Select the background layer.
  • On the Layers palette, click on the Adjustment Layer button and select “Photo Filter.”
  • Select “Cooling Filter (82)“ (1) and set the density to 32 (2).

This applies a blue-tint to the whole image, matching the water to the natural color of Green Lake.

Photo filter adjustment layer Resulting image:
Resulting image
This changed the whole image, and we only want it to apply to the water.

  • Use the rectangular marqeeRectangular Marquee tool to draw a box around the sky and trees, leaving the water unselected (3).
  • Rename the Photo Filter 1 adjustment layer (you just created) to “Water(4) and
  • click on the white mask for that layer (5).
Select the sky rename adjustment layer
  • Paint Bucket ToolSet your foreground color to black and use the Paint Bucket tool to fill in the Marquee Selection (6).

This will change the sky and trees back to their original shades.

Notice how the area you painted black shows up in the mask preview in the Layers Palette

adjustment-layers-tutorial-al-6 Fill the mask
Now let’s fix the sky.

  • First, remove the Marquee you used in the last step by pressing Ctrl-D on the keyboard.
  • Add another Adjustment Layer. This time use a Levels Adjustment Layer.

While adjusting the Levels, concentrate on the sky and ignore the changes to the trees and water.

  • Drag the Black Point slider to the right to increase the shadows in the clouds and give the sky some definition (7). I used an Input Level of about 80.
Levels Adjustment

Moving the Black Point slider to the right will increase the prominence of shadows.

after black levels

Keep your eye on the sky and ignore the rest of the image in this step.

The sky looks better, but Levels totally screwed up the rest. So let’s use the mask to turn off the adjustment and paint it to only where we need it.

  • Rename the Levels 1 adjustment layer (you just created) to “Sky” and click on the white mask for that layer.
  • Press Ctrl-I to invert the Mask. Invert will make this white mask black and the adjustment will be hidden by the black.
  • Paint Brush ToolSet your foreground color to White and use the Paint brush tool to paint over the sky with the levels adjustment.
If you make a mistake, change your brush color to black and paint over your mistake, it will hide it again. You can switch easily between the foreground and background colors by hitting the X key on your keyboard.

If you make a mistake, change your brush color to black and paint over your mistake. This will hide it again.
You can switch easily between the foreground and background colors by hitting the X key on your keyboard.

Sky Adjustment layer
And finally, the trees.

  • The tress just need a bit more color. So add a new Adjustment Layer for Hue/Saturation.
  • Editing the Master channel, increase the saturation to 10 (8).
Saturation Adjustment Layer Saturation result
  • At the top of the Hue/Saturation control change Master to Yellow (9) to edit the Yellow colors only and decrease the Hue to -5 (10).

You’ll notice the yellows (and some of the greens) will become more orange.

Adjusting yellows Yellows adjusted
The trees look better, but those adjustments were also added to the rest of the image too.  So let’s use the mask to turn off the adjustment and paint it to only where we need it.

  • Rename that new adjustment layer (you just created) to “Trees” and click on the white mask for that layer.
  • Press Ctrl-I to invert the Mask. Invert will make this white mask black and the adjustment will be hidden by the black.
  • Paint Brush ToolSet your foreground color to White and use the Paint brush tool to paint over the trees with the levels adjustment. 

 

Masking

If you make a mistake, change your brush color to black and paint over your mistake, it will hide it again.
You can switch easily between the foreground and background colors by hitting the X key on your keyboard.

 

Masking

White is painted over the trees, which applies the Adjustment Layer just to that area.

Final Results

The differences are obvious. Adjustment layers enabled us to make major changes to the tone, color and saturation, and isolate those changes to just the spots we needed them. The best part about the changes that we made using adjustment layers is that they can be adjusted or removed at any time. That’s right; click the Adjustment Layer to change the original options, or turn it off by clicking on the eye next to the layer on the layers palette.

Before

Before

After Adjustment Layers

After Adjustment Layers

What's Next

More Photoshop tutorials can be found in our Articles section.

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