Masking with Selections 101

So today I am going to switch things up and do a tutorial on masking as it has proved to be one of the most important tools in my arsenal. I have worked every summer for the past three or so years as an editor for a photographer friend and one of the most helpful tools is being able to use masks to enhance a photo. For example, imagine if there is a shot where a bride and groom are posed perfectly, the light is just flawless, and everything in the universe seems right… except the groom is blinking. Usually that would mean the picture is garbage, right? Wrong! Chances are there is another photo within the dozens that have been taken where the groom is making a good face. So what I usually do it take the groom’s one head, swap it onto the other photo, and boom! Perfect photo. And, if you’re clever enough with masks, then you can make it so convincing the photographer won’t even know you switched it.

Unfortunately, you must walk before you run. So this is a basics course in masks so that you can try and break into the intimidating world of masking.

Masking is a non-destructive way of essentially erasing unwanted objects. It does increase file size but to me, it’s better to have a larger file and not lose the data, than to accidentally over-do it and ruin your image. You can always flatten to reduce file size later.

I’ll be starting off with how to transfer an image onto text. I downloaded a royalty free texture here for the purposes of this tutorial, though you may use whatever tickles your fancy.

Begin by opening the file. Duplicate the layer so that if anything happens, you still always have the original.

Next you’re going to type something on the document. Select the type tool (T) and type whatever you want. Or, if you’re at a loss for inspiration, you can type what I did which is “Smile! We’re learning masks!”.

Duplicate the type layer. We will be rasterizing the type to make it easier to work with so it’s good habit to duplicate it if you find a spelling error or need to change the information.

Now hide the duplicated layer. Click the eye icon and just forget about this layer for now. If you need it, it will be the editable layer.

Select the layer of type you plan on working with (aka the visible one). Right click on it and select the “Rasterize Type” option near the top of the list. It is highlighted in blue below.

There are many ways to select the type we have now rasterized. I will show you the two I most frequently use.

Option one: Magic Wand Tool (W)

For this type of selection, click anywhere on the document that isn’t on the type.

You should now see the marching ants dancing around the edges of the type but not in the fully enclosed parts like in the e’s, a’s, g’s, and what have you. Now, hold Shift and click inside these parts of the letterforms to select them.

Now you have everything but the letters selected. To invert the selection, you can go to the top menu and hit Select > Inverse. Or, if you’re feeling particularly savvy and want to show off a bit, you can use the keyboard shortcut which is Shift + Command (Control) + I.

The second option is much quicker. While holding Command (Control), hover over the layer thumbnail with your type on it. You should see a small square with a dotted edge appear near the bottom right of your cursor. Click the layer thumbnail while still holding Command (Control) and huzzah! Everything is selected. This is useful if you want everything on the layer selected.

Now you should have something that looks like this.

Click on your image layer (the layer you want the type to look like) in the layer palette while maintaining the selection on the document like shown:

At the bottom of the layer palette, you should see a rectangle with a circle inside of it (it’s the third from the left). Click it.

You may notice that now your layer thumbnail has a box beside it that is mostly black save for a wee bit of white. What that means is that the black is what is hidden or “erased” and the white is what is visible.

Now you can see here that the text is still white and doesn’t look like the image. Deselect by either going to Select > Deselect or Command (Control) + D. Hide the rasterized type layer. Now you can see that it has the texture of the picture but is in the form of the letters.

Another great thing about layer masks is that they can be reversed. Click on the thumbnail for the layer mask in the layers palette and either go to Image > Adjustments > Invert or Command (Control) + I. This will change what was “erased” to be visible, therefore knocking out the type and making it transparent.

And there you have it! It isn’t nearly as complex as swapping heads, but this is a great way to start practicing with layer masks and selections. You can also brush out elements of the layer mask using the Brush tool (B) if you’re feeling invincible and want to be challenged.

Would you like me to continue with a series of masking tutorials? Did I confuse you even more than before? Let me know in the comments!




One comment

  1. I appreciate that you teach how to do things while being non destructive, I know a lot of tutorials don’t, and for the people that are starting out (aka those who actually use tutorials) it’s super important to learn! That being said, I would have loved to see a tutorial that includes some photography masking, since I feel like applying this to photography is a bit more complex.


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