Using the Mask Feature in Photoshop Adjustment Layers

Using the masking feature in Adjustment Layers allows me to color correct these wisteria blossoms. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Using the masking feature in Adjustment Layers allows me to color correct these wisteria blossoms. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

[Second in a Series]

When you start toning with Adjustment Layers, you gain all kinds of new flexibility to your workflow, since it’s a truly nondestructive method of image toning. Each adjustment you make can be ‘turned on’ and ‘turned off’ simply by activating or deactivating that layer. Today we’ll look at how to use the masking feature in Adjustment Layers to fine-tune the overall image we’re toning.

For this exercise I’ve selected a new image of a wisteria blossom, something I photographed just last week. It’s a particularly good candidate for this lesson because the color processing algorithms in my Canon camera don’t render the blossoms the correct shade of purple/lavender, instead coming up with a light blue:

So we’ll need to do some toning to correct this color problem.

To start, as with any image, we’ll first select the Levels icon in the Adjustment Layers panel. Regardless of whatever else I’m doing to a photograph, I always start with Levels.

Choose the Levels icon in the Adjustments Panel to start. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Choose the Levels icon in the Adjustments Panel to start. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

This histogram looked decent, only needing a slight highlight slider adjustment. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

This histogram looked decent, only needing a slight highlight slider adjustment. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

In this case, the Levels histogram is in pretty decent shape. I’ll make a small change to the Highlights slider, moving it slightly to the left. Then click the arrow, bottom left of the palette to return to the main palette menu.

Next we’ll select the Color Balance icon. This opens up the Color Balance window with its sliders for Red/Cyan, Green/Magenta and Blue/Yellow. I know from past experience that to turn light blue into lavender/purple, we need to add a little yellow and some red to the image. We’ll do that now.

Using the Color Balance feature, we add red and yellow to the image to turn the blue blossoms lavender/purple. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Using the Color Balance feature, we add red and yellow to the image to turn the blue blossoms lavender/purple. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

This fixes the color of the wisteria blossoms, but now the rest of the image has an overly-warm, yellowish cast. What to do? This is where the layer mask will save the day!

Double-click the mask icon, right next to the Color Balance layer in the Layers palette. Select the brush tool icon on the left, make sure Black is selected at 100%, and choose a big, soft brush size. Click and drag the brush through the parts of the image with the yellow cast, being careful to avoid the wisteria blossoms. You’ll see the yellow cast disappear as if by magic, taking that part of the image back to its original color.

Double-clicking the layer mask on the Color Balance layer. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Double-clicking the layer mask on the Color Balance layer. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Confirming the Layer Mask Display Options. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Confirming the Layer Mask Display Options. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Choosing your brush size for painting back the yellow tone. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Choosing your brush size for painting back the yellow tone. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Painting back the yellow tone with a large, soft brush. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

Painting back the yellow tone with a large, soft brush. (Copyright 2010 / Andrew Boyd)

If  I’m sure I won’t need to work on this image again, I can simply go to Layer>Flatten Image and then Save As into the file format I prefer. If I think I may want to revisit this image, I’ll save this as a Photoshop document file (.psd) first. Then I’ll go to Image>Duplicate to create a new copy of the file. I’ll then flatten that file using the above procedure and save the finished file out as a tiff, jpeg or whatever, depending upon the intended usage.

This same approach can be used for all of your toning adjustments in Adjustment Layers. Whenever there’s a part of the image you want to tweak back to another state, the Mask feature in Adjustment Layers gives you this new flexibility.

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for  email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

A Basic Guide to Photoshop CS4 Adjustment Layers at PSD Tuts+

Working with Adjustment Layers Photoshop at Hero Turko

Adjustment and Fill Layers at Adobe.com


Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

11 Comments on "Using the Mask Feature in Photoshop Adjustment Layers"

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  1. Marco Fiori says:

    Thanks for the share! Really helpful, going to give it a try now!

  2. Yes, this really works. Once you get used to the workflow it’s fast.

  3. Paulette Hurdlik says:

    Andy, are the screenshots you’re using for the wisteria lesson Photoshop? I don’t recognize them. (I work in CS3)

  4. It’s Photoshop CS4, on a Windows machine. So the interface may look a bit strange. My screenshots changed a bit from the straight-up PS files, so the color looks a bit less realistic than it should, but I couldn’t figure out a way around that on my setup. But the functionality is all correct as far as how it works.

  5. Gillian Dodson says:

    I’m glad to have visited your page. This an easy to follow tutorial. Surely, this could really be helpful for someone like me who is just starting to explore the wonders of Photoshop.

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