What Is Image Masking and How Can It Improve Your Workflow?

Image masking is an effective way to transform photographs. You can use different techniques to add an artistic touch to your photos or to cut out unwanted parts from an image.

When used correctly, image masking can transform your work and make your editing sessions easy, educational, and fun.

What is Image Masking in Editing?

What is Image Masking in Editing

Image masking involves hiding and displaying specific parts of an image. This is particularly helpful in commercial photography, where a product needs to be highlighted in a way that draws the viewer in and blocks distracting elements.

Masking images might seem like an intimidating editing technique. When you get the hang of it using our tips, you’ll find it easy to mask any image, no matter how detailed it is.

There are many ways to approach this technique, from alpha masking to layer masking. With so many options to choose from, there’s no doubt that image masking is ideal for any photographer who wants to streamline their editing workflow.

Why Do You Need Image Masking In Photo Editing?

If used correctly, photo masking can help you improve the quality of your edited images, give you flexibility, and boost your creativity as a photographer.

Here are a few more reasons why you should include image masking in your editing workflow.

Create Artistic Photographs

What Is Image Masking and How Can It Improve Your Workflow?

Image masking creates a whole world of editing possibilities for photographers. You can create surreal images by blending multiple photos. You can also add new elements to a scene.

For example, conceptual photographers often replace skies, objects, and even people in their images to make their photos look more artistic.

Provide Clients With Creative Images

Provide Clients With Creative Images

Some companies value photographers who are good at designing photographs. With the help of image masking techniques, you can blend your photos with text, shapes, and other photos to create unusual compositions.

This is also a great option for anyone who wants to design their own website or products. If you know how to use photo masking, you’ll be able to create your own photography merchandise within minutes.

Create Transparency In Any Photo

Create Transparency In Any Photo

Photos with transparent backgrounds are very helpful in the world of design, but they can prove to be just as handy in the photography industry.

Whether you’re working for a client or building your own business, you might find a lot of potential in image masking. When you learn how to use the techniques below, you’ll be able to create transparent backgrounds and transitions in any photo.

Take the Dullness Out Of Photos

Take the Dullness Out Of Photos

Masking can help you make selective edits that enhance certain parts of your image without affecting any other areas.

For example, if you want to brighten your subject’s face but don’t want the rest of the photo to be affected, you can easily achieve that with the help of a layer mask.

Image masking can take the dullness out of simple photos. Whether you’re a product photographer, landscape photographer, or a generalist, you’re bound to find photo masking useful.

Types of Image Masking in Post-Production

Masking a photo doesn’t always involve the same steps. If you know what kind of effect you want to create, you’ll find it easy to pick the right photo masking technique for your needs. 

1. General Layer Masking

This photo masking technique is an efficient way to enhance any photograph by editing specific areas.

You might want to brighten the main subject in your image without affecting its surroundings. Alternatively, you might want to alter a certain colour without affecting similar colours in your composition. All you need to do is select the area using a brush tool and let masking do the rest.

Start by creating an adjustment layer. In this example, I’m selecting Curves to brighten the sneakers without affecting the background.

What Is Image Masking and How Can It Improve Your Workflow?

Select the layer mask and press Control/Command + I on your keyboard to invert the mask.

Set your foreground color to white and, using the brush tool, brush over the areas that you’d like to edit.

Select the layer mask

In the second example, I used the black & white tool to desaturate all the colours in one sneaker.

 desaturate all the colors in one sneaker

There are many exciting ways to approach this technique. Use your imagination to make your photographs stand out!

2. Alpha Channel Masking

Alpha Channel Masking

You can use Alpha Channels to make selections that would be nearly impossible to achieve manually. This type of masking is ideal for subjects with detailed edges like fur, fabric, and hair.

Alpha channel masking is also suitable for photos that have busy backgrounds. No matter how complicated a background is, you can separate it from your subject using a few simple techniques.

As its name suggests, Alpha Channels can be found in the Channels section of any editing software that has layers. The three main channels – Red, Green, and Blue – will give you different black & white versions of your image.

Duplicate the channel that has the strongest contrast between your subject and its background. (If your background is white, the edges of your subject should be dark, and vice versa.)

Alpha Channel Masking final

After that, it’s a matter of using the Dodge and Burn tools to brighten the edges and darken the background of your photo. Once that is ready, you can create a mask that has very detailed edges.

3. Gradient Masks

A gradient mask can create a seamless transition between multiple photographs. Similar to the general layer mask, it can help you add something new to your images without making them look unnatural. This is perfect for landscape, portrait, and wildlife photography, but it’s also suitable for anyone who wants to experiment with creative photo manipulation.

Open your photos in the same document. Create a layer mask for the image that you’d like to blend with the second photo. Then, click on the Gradient tool, which is located under the Eraser tool and above the Blur tool.

Gradient Masks

Click on the illustration of the gradient. This will open a menu with different gradient options. Go to the Basics folder and select the gradient that transitions from black to white. Make sure that Reverse is not selected, as illustrated in the example.

Reverse is not selected

Then, drag the gradient from any direction of your choice. This will seamlessly erase parts of the second photograph and create a natural-looking transition.

natural looking transition

Note: You might need to make some more adjustments using the Brush tool, but the Gradient tool should take care of the big picture.

4. Clipping Masks

Popular in the world of graphic design, clipping masks are a great technique for anyone who wants to combine photos with shapes or text. This is one of the easiest photo masking techniques that you can use to transform your images within seconds.

Start by creating a blank new file. You can choose to create a file with a black or white background, depending on your preferences. Right-click the Ellipse tool (alternatively, press U on your keyboard) and select a shape. Drag your cursor over the blank canvas to create a shape.

 Right-click the Ellipse tool

Open your photo in the same file, making sure the new layer is directly above the shape you created. Right-click the layer and select Create Clipping Mask. This will automatically link the photo to the shape, creating an eye-catching effect.

Clipping Masks
Clipping Masks 2
Clipping Masks final

How to Mask an Image in Photoshop?

Adobe Photoshop has a wide variety of tools that you can easily use to mask your photos. Image masking in Photoshop can help you edit your photographs in an advanced way.

1. Open both photos in the same document. I have a photo of a model and some clouds that I’d like to merge in a creative way.

Open both photos

2. If necessary, move your photos around so that it’s easier to edit them later on. In this example, I moved the photo of the sky over the model’s shirt.

moved the photo of the sky

3. Create a layer mask by clicking on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers screen.

Create a layer mask

4. Press Control or Command + I on your keyboard to invert the layer mask. The layer mask should turn black.

invert the layer mask

5. Go back to the first photograph (or the image without a layer mask) and select the area that you’d like to edit (i.e. fill with the second photograph). You can make a selection using any tool you like, but I recommend using the Quick Selection tool as it’s easy to use. Your selection doesn’t need to be perfect.

using the Quick Selection tool

6. Go back to the layer with the mask. Click on the layer mask. Make sure your foreground colour is set to white. (You can toggle between black and white by pressing X on your keyboard.) Using the Brush tool, paint over the selected area.

 paint over the selected area

7.  Press Command or Control + D on your keyboard to remove the selection. You might notice some areas that weren’t meant to be filled with the brush. Use a smaller brush to go over those areas. If you want to remove the layer mask edits, brush over with black. If you want to add the layer mask edits back to the photo, brush over with white. Make sure that your brush opacity is at 100%.

remove the selection

8. Here is the final result. You can use this technique to edit your photos in practical and creative ways.

How to Mask in Photoshop - Final

How to Mask in Lightroom?

Adobe Lightroom Classic has a versatile collection of masking tools for every photographer.

1. Lightroom has a dedicated Masking panel in the Develop module. You can use this tool to select a subject, sky, or background. You can edit any of these subjects using the brush, linear gradient, radial gradient, or range tools. You can also manually select the area that you’d like to edit.

Masking panel

2. Your selections in Lightroom will be red. In this example, I clicked on Subject and let Lightroom automatically select my subject for me. If you’re short on time or have many photos to edit, Lightroom’s automatic features may be a good option for you.

selections in Lightroom

You can also manually brush over your photo if you want to have more control over your selection. Again, your selection doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect unless you’re making very specific edits in your photo.

manually brush over your photo

3. The model in this photo doesn’t stand out much because the whole photograph is dark. Instead of brightening the entire photo, I wanted to keep the background dark while brightening the model. To do this, I made a few adjustments to the mask. There are many editing options to choose from in Lightroom, so feel free to get creative.

 adjustments to the mask

4. If you want to edit another part of your photo, click on Create New Mask.

Create New Mask

5. Even a minor adjustment, like brightening a subject, can make a big difference in your work. This is all possible thanks to image masking.

brightening a subject

6. Lightroom has a few special masking features that can make colour correction and creative photo creation much easier for photographers. In the same Masking section, click on Range. You’ll be presented with three options: Colour Range, Luminance Range, and Depth Range. Let’s take a look at the first two and how they can improve your workflow.

What Is Image Masking and How Can It Improve Your Workflow?

7. Colour Range will make a selection based on the colours you select. This is similar to the process mentioned earlier in this tutorial. When a selection is made, all the affected areas will turn red. Once this happens, you can start editing.

make a selection

To give this photo a surreal look, I experimented with Hue, Saturation, and Temperature.

experimented with HTS

8. Luminance Range will select areas with a specific brightness level, depending on the area you pick. You can pick a specific brightness range. The wider it is, the more areas in your photo will be affected by your edits.

Luminance Range

This works the same way as Colour Range, but with different selections.

 Colour Range

9. Both tools can be immensely helpful when making specific colour edits in Adobe Lightroom.

masking before after

Leave the Image Masking to Clipping Path Studio

If your photo gallery is overflowing with unedited photos, you might not have the time to produce high-quality work for your portfolio or your clients.

To make things much easier, you can use image masking services. Send your photos to Clipping Path Studio, a commercial platform that will save you time and money. Clipping Path Studio is one of the leading platforms for e-commerce sellers, photographers, and anyone working in the commercial photography industry.

Reach out to Clipping Path Studio and start doing more of what you love today.

Final Thoughts

Image masking is often associated with expert photographers and editors. Fortunately, it’s not an unattainable editing technique that’s only available to Photoshop gurus.

Whether you want to experiment with image masking in Photoshop or submit high-quality commercial photos to a client, you need to use the right techniques to get perfect results.

With some practice, you can transform your images with the help of clipping masks, gradient masks, and other techniques mentioned in this article. Start practicing today or use Clipping Path Studio to take your photography to the next level.

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About the Author

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Taya Iv


Photography Coach, Writer, Podcast Host

Taya Iv is a portrait photography coach, writer, podcast host, and video producer with over 14 years of experience. In her free time, she enjoys reading books, travelling, and learning new languages. Also, She is an Ambassador of 500px.

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