Why do you need Photoshop Layers and Masks?

St. Mary Falls, Glacier National Park, Montana (MT), USA

We are often asked why we need to understand Layers & Masks in Photoshop? After all, we can always blend or adjust images using HDR software, right? Here’s a quick explanation.

  • Image 1: Processed for Midtones

  • Image 2: Processed for Highlights in Water

  • Image 3: Partially Blended Image

Take a look at the images above. Notice that the highlights in the image on the left (Image 1) are overexposed. You can’t see any detail in the white areas in the water. On the other hand the Image 2 is processed for the highlight and the shadows and midtones are under exposed. In the final image (Image 3), I corrected the exposure using Photoshop Layers and Masks. I can create a similar blend using an automated HDR tool.

But this is not a finished image. I want to take it further. I think the image needs some corrections to improve the contrast in the rocks, and to help focus the viewers attention on the water itself. To accomplish this, I used different layers and masks to limit each adjustments to a specific region. The image below show all the layers and masks I used, and the areas I targeted with each adjustment.St.-Marys-Fall-Workflow

It is true that I can accomplish the same adjustment without Photoshop Layers & Masks, but adjustment layers combined with masks allow me a lot more freedom. I can fine-tune the adjustments I made on each layer without destroying the other layers. I can make adjustments to a single layer without having to retrace my steps. I can turn layers on and off to see what effect they have on one another. And I can add to or subtract from each mask to refine it at any time during the workflow.

I often save the image as a PSD file – with all those layers and masks intact – and return to it a few days later. In this way, I can keep track of all the adjustments I’ve made.

So, layers and masks let me take my blended image to the next level, and they allow me to preserve the processing steps I used to create the image. As my workflow gets more complex, layers and masks allow me to keep track of each adjustment, and gives me much greater control.

PS: You can do this with Lightroom’s adjustment brushes as well, but the the mask created in LR have limited controls as compared to those created in Photoshop.

About Author Jay Patel

I could startoff like this – “Seeds of Jay Patel’s appreciation for beautiful places were planted early in his childhood….” but it would get boring really fast. I will just sum it up and say that I am a Landscape and Wilderness Photographer who loves to capture dramatic light. My photographs have been published in various magazines, calendars and advertising materials throughout the world.
Patience is a virtue...unless you are chasing your dreams

  • greeting to you for these tutorials. marvelous.

  • Dona Dyer

    I have always loved taking pictures especially while driving coast to coast. I am just starting to learn how to work Photoshop. I love your tips and keep them bookmarked so when I get to that part.
    Thanks so much for sharing with us beginners.

    • Glad you enjoy our article. We have more of them in works.

  • I bought your iHDR workflow a couple months ago and it has completely changed my opinion and approach to merged exposures.

  • Hello Jay, This is my 1st visit in your blog. I have found this while touring in the blog land. As being a photographer I would like to appreciate your thoughts with full of hearts. But I have some suggestions for the Amateur photographers and that is: Please don’t use Layers and Masking effects while you are in a beginner phase. Here Jay is absolutely true and with full respect of him, I want to say that Raw Photography is the best part while you have learned it. After being a professional you can use these things once in a while. Anyways, thanks for sharing this wonderful article and Love to see more from you. Keep it up. 🙂