Thursday, May 6, 2010

Layer Masks in Photoshop Elements

Someone over at DSP was asking me about how to use the gradient tool to easily and quickly fade a photo into a background. Simple right? Except she is a newbie, and even if she knows about layer masks other newbies won’t. Sadly, I can’t find a decent and not confusing tutorial about layer masks in Photoshop Elements (PSE), so I have decided to make one myself. I hope I have made this not confusing, but if it is less than clear please let me know and I will rework it. All screen shots are from PSE 8.

What are layer masks?
Imagine that you lay a piece of paper on top of a photo so that you can’t see the photo. Now imagine you cut a hole in the paper, so that now you can see a portion of the photo. That is a simplification of what a layer mask does. When you apply a layer mask to a layer in PSE, it becomes like that piece of paper. It blocks you from seeing whatever is below it, but when you cut a hole in the layer mask, by using the brush tool to paint black on it, you see portions of what is below the mask.

This is a screen shot of paper with a layer mask applied and you can see where I painted black on the layer mask a hole in the top paper has been made showing the green paper below it. (Papers are from Fantasia's Charm Backpack created by Nicole Young, a blog freebie that will soon be available in the DSP store.) Notice how the black painting on the layer mask on the right corresponds to the hole in the paper. (Click on the images to see them nice and big.)

How do you apply a layer mask?
In full-blown Photoshop (and the newest version, Creative Suite 5 has been announced), all you have to do to apply a layer mask is click a little icon. Sadly, however, PSE doesn't come with layer masks and you must use one of two work-arounds to achieve the same effect. The first, using Adjustment Layers, requires no set up before beginning, but does require more steps and more layers in your layout, not to mention that for some reason every time you click on your layout with the move tool in PSE 8 the Adjustment Layer is always selected. I find that so annoying that I personally opt to not use Adjustment Layers, but rather use Grant’s Tools. Grant’s Tools require time and effort to set up, but set up is a one-time thing and thereafter applying a layer mask is as easy as it is in Photoshop. First, I will describe how to use Adjustment Layers as layer masks, and then I will tell you how to install and use Grant’s Tools.

Adjustment Layers
Let’s practice using two papers of different colors, as I have done in my samples. 
  
Now, at the bottom of the layers bin on the right you will notice a little icon that is half-black and half-white. That is the Adjustment Layers icon. Click and choose the top option, “solid color”. It doesn’t matter at all what color you choose. 
  
Make sure the Adjustment Layer is directly underneath the layer you wish to be masked. You may have to move it to get it there. Then select the layer you wish to be masked, the top paper in our example, and group it with the layer mask by holding the Control key and hitting the letter G (ctrl+G). The masked layer will now be inset a bit and have an arrow pointing down to the Adjustment Layer. 
  
Now we are ready to start painting on the layer mask. Make sure the mask is selected in the layer bin at the right. Notice how that layer is darker, and how the mask (the white box) has a double frame around it. That is how you know it is selected. 
  
Now use the brush tool (the paintbrush icon on the tool bin to the right, or keyboard shortcut B) and paint black on the paper in the working space (not in the layer bin). Painting black will have the same effect as if you were using the eraser tool, but by using a layer mask you can go back and paint it white again to put back what you “erased” away. 


Grant’s Tools
Grant’s Tools are effects you can download and install into PSE to give it some options that are similar to Photoshop. Each version of PSE has its own Grant’s Tools download, so be sure you get the right one. You can find the Grant’s Tools downloads here. After downloading the tools, unzip them. The trickiest part is installing them, but I feel they are very much worth it. I use the masks layer tool in almost every layout I do. I am sorry I am Mac ignorant and cannot even begin to address how Grant’s Tools can be installed on a Mac computer, although I have read it can be done.

Prepare to install Grant’s Tools. You must make sure PSE is not open, and you must make sure that you have Window’s set to show hidden files. This page shows you how to do it in Vista, and it is the same in XP and 7. 

Install Grant's Tools
1.   In the Grant’s Tools folder that you downloaded and unzipped, open the folder called “actions pngs and xml files” and copy all of the files.

2.   Now you need to paste these files into the PSE Photo Effects folder.
For Windows Vista and 7 the path is C:\ProgramData\Adobe\Photoshop Elements\8.0\Photo Creations\Photo Effects
For Windows XP the path is C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Adobe\Photoshop Elements\8.0\Photo Creations\Photo Effects 

3.   Next, you must rename an existing file, to point PSE in the right direction for Grant’s Tools. You must rename the file Mediadatabase.db3 to be MediadatabaseOLD.db3 (the same name with the word “OLD” added to the end in caps).
For Windows Vista and 7 the path to locate this file is C:\Program Data\Adobe\ Photoshop Elements\8.0\Locale\en-US
For Windows XP the path to locate this file is C:\Documents and Settings\All Users\Application Data\Adobe\Photoshop Elements\8.0\Locale\en-US

4.   Now start PSE editor. It will take a long time for PSE to start up this first time after installing Grant’s Tools, but don’t be concerned. The software is “rebuilding” its database. It will start as normally after that initial time.

Using Grant’s Tools
You will find Grant's Tools in PSE under Effects>Photo Effects. If you are anything like me, you will be using the masks layers tool all of the time, so I suggest you add it to your Favorites. You can easily do this by right clicking on the masks layer icon and choosing “Add to Favorites” from the pop- up menu. You can add a favorites bin to the right by choosing it from the Window menu at the top of PSE. I also added low drop shadow to my favorites bin, so that both are easily accessible, since I use them so often. 
  
Set up two contrasting pieces of paper as you did for Adjustment Layers. 
  
With the layer you want masked selected, double click on the Grant’s Tools masks layers icon. 

Make sure the mask is selected in the layer bin at the right. Notice how that layer is darker, and how the mask (the white box) has a double frame around it. That is how you know it is selected. 
  
Now use the brush tool (the paintbrush icon on the tool bin to the right, or keyboard shortcut B) and paint black on the paper in the working space (not in the layer bin). Painting black will have the same effect as if you were using the eraser tool, but by using a layer mask you can go back and paint it white again to put back what you “erased” away. 


Clearer than mud I hope. Next look for a tutorial on how to use layer masks and the gradient tool to fad photos into backgrounds. That one will be much shorter and simpler, I promise.

Edited on 27 Sept '11 to add: I recently discovered another source for a layer mask action like Grant's Tools. It is at The CoffeeShop Blog. I haven't personally tried Rita's layer mask action, since I already have Grant's Tools installed, but I have quickly fallen in love with many of her other actions, such as the 2 Minute Miracle. Your photos may never be the same.

Edited on 1 July '13 to add: Photoshop Elements 11 includes layer masks, so no action or work around required. How to work with the masks is the same, however, so this tutorial still applies.

1 comment:

Victoria said...

Thanks so much, I had learned to use masks before, but your explanation was especially clear. I had never heard of Grants Tools before, so that is a whole new thing for me to explore! Thanks again for taking the time and care to teach others!