Basic photoshop masking techniques

Photoshop is a global phenomenon and many of us used to use it with a rather poor knowledge. It contains a number of powerful tools that give users a huge power of decision-making. In other words, there are many ways how to get to the same result in Photoshop. The difference is the question of effectiveness and quality. There are still some features that create the essence of Photoshop. These are certainly layers and masks. Together they create the core of Photoshop adjustments.

The model in this tutorial is used with a permission, courtesy of Yuriy Zhuravov

One of the most frequent adjustments in Photoshop is to remove background and then compose into a new scene. Removing background or cutting something out is not as tricky when using the right tools. The first thing many inexperienced users take is eraser, background eraser or magnetic lasso first and then erase or cut out the pixels forever. However, this is not the effective way and it’s rather a destructive adjustment. Advanced users do not harm pixels in the image, they create masks. Mask is an area that can be applied to any kind of layer  in PSD. Its basic purpose is to hide or reveal areas of pixels or any effect in a given layer. In this tutorial I mask a model of a woman and put it into another scene.

Preparation and analysis

1. First of all, every time we work with an image, we should know its quality and recognize areas that might be more problematic. Masking a 50px image usually doesn’t make sense and you won’t be able to create soft and detailed edges. The larger the size and the higher the resolution is, the better for your mask. You can view the actual size of any image in Photoshop by pressing CTRL + 1. It is also useful to zoom in and know the areas that are not sharp enough or areas, where the object we wish to mask is gradually blended to the background – the hair for instance – and specially prepare for them.

Creating mask for the body

2. Double click on the background layer to create a regular layer. Name it e.g. Original and then press CTRL + J to duplicate the original. Turn off the visibility of the Original layer and activate the layer above (by selecting it). When we zoom closely, we can see the hair blended with background. Hair is obviously more difficult to mask and often requires a special masking later on. Firstly, we’ll focus just on the body.

check image resolution

Go to Image – Image Size or CTR+ALT+I


There are more ways how to create selections, but I most frequently use the Quick selection tool (W). Sometimes other techniques are more effective.

SHORTCUT TIP: To change the size of the selection brush hold ALT and hold and drag the right button on the mouse left or right to alter the size. You will see a red preview of your brush. Dragging the mouse up or down will alter the hardness of the brush. This behavior is relevant for any other tool using brush. With a bigger brush you can select bigger areas.

SHORTCUT TIP: To remove areas from selection hold ALT and the brush pointer change the plus sign to minus and you can do the opposite.

Click or drag with the Quick selection tool, where you want to have selections. Photoshop looks at the areas that are more homogeneous (lower contrast areas) and thus selects the areas bounded with edges. The selection doesn’t have to be perfect at the beginning; however, make sure you zoom in and pan around the edges to to add or remove areas that stick out. Note that in this stage I am creating a selection just for the body, because the mask for the head requires different procedures because of hair.


Image analysis

Image analysis

When we finish selection for the body, click on the mask icon in the layer panel to create a mask.  The mask will hide all pixels that are outside of our selection.

Create layer mask from selection

Create layer mask from selection

Next step is to refine the edges, because as you can see they are more or less jagged. To do so, double click on the mask thumbnail to open the mask properties panel and then click on the mask button. It will open the Refine Mask dialog box. The most relevant settings here is the Smart Radius (check it on), Feather and Smooth, make decent shifts in the values(you can use arrow keys) and observes changes that happen in the edges.

Refine edges tool

At this stage I recommend you to create any solid background layer to see what is going on with your masks.

Creating mask for the head and hair

3. For the head we make a rough selection from the original layer big enough to include entire head and all flyout hairs. Then copy it and place it place(SHIFT + CTRL +V) into a new layer.

Creating quick selection

Creating quick selection

Press OK when you are done. To check the quality of your mask and to make additional improvements, there are several good habits.

Check the preview of your mask. The mask preview is composed out of black, white and gray pixels that reveal or hide pixels in the fellow layer. To activate the mask preview ALT + CLICK on it. It can help you see better those areas within that should be completely black or completely white. To fix that select brush tool and paint it with black or white.

SHORTCUT TIP: Press D to reset foreground and background color to black and white. Set up your brush size, hardness and paint. Painting on mask with black you hide areas, painting with white you reveal areas. Press X to switch between foreground and background color. This way you can quickly paint in or paint away areas that need to be fixed manually.  

Deactivating a previewing mask

Deactivating and previewing a mask


Another way to see what quality of mask is to pan around the image (hold Spacebar) and SHIFT + Click on the layer mask to de/activate the mask. This way you can see the before and after and review edges where there are some not properly masked areas. Note that you can paint on the mask no matter whether it’s active or not.


Shifting contrast values of the mask

Shifting contrast values of the mask

In this case I am still not very satisfied with the mask of the head. There are still some fuzzy areas. To fix that we can adjust the contrast of the mask, especially the midtones. Select the mask (click on it) and go to Levels/CTRL+L. In my case I lowered the midtones values in order to bring more contrast to the mask. As a result, the gray pixels of the mask (midtones) went darker and hid more of the fuzzy areas. I also did a little shift in highlights.

If necessary make similar adjustment to the body mask and we’re done. When we want to take our model into a new scene, there is much more work to be done. The important thing for now is that when we have this masked object, we have the flexibility to adjust it or use the mask anytime for example by copying it into other layers.

Final mask

Final mask


Changing the color of clothes

3. We can also use layer mask with any kind of adjustment layer. Let’s say we want to change the color of our lady. We can create a selection and then apply it hue/saturation adjustment layer, for example.

Recolor clothes

Recolor clothes


Create a selection you need in a similar way we did before. Then click on the Adjustment Hue/saturation layer and check on the Colorize option. Now drag the Hue/saturation sliders and adjust colors you like. Again make sure to zoom in into areas and review if there are any areas that need to be masked with brush.

If you haven’t used masks until recently, make sure you’ll get used to them soon. They will save you a huge amount of time. Moreover, they’ll give you freedom and flexibility that is important for your creativity.

Thank you for comments.

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