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Post Production Tips

Retouch Pro-Tip: Using Layer Masks in Retouching Your Image

By fotosiamo on October 22nd 2012

Layer masking in Photoshop is a powerful and non-destructive way to alter and introduce an element on top of your image. This can be another image, a layer adjustment, or even a solid color. I use it constantly when I only want to show certain portions of the layer.

If you do any sort of retouching work in Photoshop, then layer masking is your friend! Here is how I used layer masking for my editorial image of the X:Animo dance crew.

X: Animo Dance Crew by Joe Gunawan |

A Little Primer on Layer Masking

A layer mask is a way to hide and reveal parts, all or none a layer. In a way, it is like localized layer opacity. The way you activate a layer mask is to click on the layer that you want the mask to be applied to, and then click on the icon to the right of the “fx” icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This icon, which looks like a rectangle with a circle in the middle of it, is the layer mask.

Photoshop Layer Mask

Once applied, you will get a white rectangle next to the layer thumbnail with a “chain-link” in between them. When the layer is linked to the mask, whenever you move or nudge the content in that layer, the mask will move also. If you unlink the layer mask, then you can move the mask and the layer content independently.

Photoshop Layer Mask

The way a mask is work is by coloring in black, white, or any shades of gray into the mask. Whatever is in white on the mask will be revealed in the actual layer, and whatever is in black will be hidden in the layer. So if you think about masking like the opacity on a layer, the white color equals 100% opacity and the black color equals 0% opacity. All the grays in the middle correspond to the degree of opacity.

In the photo below, the entire mask for green-colored layer is painted white, so the entire green layer is revealed.

Photoshop Layer Mask

If we were to color the top half of the mask black, then the top half of the green layer is hidden. You can then see what is underneath that hidden portion of the layer, which in this case is a layer with the words “Layer Mask” written on it.

Photoshop Layer Mask

Using Layer Mask for my X:Animo Dance crew Editorial Photo

So now that we have a little primer on layer masking, let’s take a look at an example of the X:Animo Dance crew editorial photo. Here is the original image as taken with my Panasonic GH2 I process it in Lightroom 4 with a lighter and desaturated version of the HDR Light preset from the SLR Lounge Lightroom 4 Preset System.


Lens: Olympus 4/3 Zuiko 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 mkII (full-frame equivalent 28-108mm)
Focal length: 23mm (ff equiv. 46mm)
Aperture: f/10.0
Shutter: 160
ISO: 160

One of the difficult challenges when shooting into a glass window straight that the lights themselves can show up as reflections on the glass. In this case, the reflection of the beauty dish and softbox is visible .

Additionally, there were a couple of elements in the photo that I wanted to change or remove, like the hanging lamp and some of the dancer’s body part positions.


This is where taking a background plate is important. A background plate is a shot of the scene without anybody in the scene. I also shot the plate without my strobe lights in order to get a clean shot of the city without any reflection.


I copied this plate as a new layer over the original image and added a layer mask for it. Since I only want to replace the strobe reflection, I painted everything else in black on the layer mask in order to hide them.


If you want to check which areas are hidden, you can hit the “\” key to see which areas are hidden. Areas that are hidden are highlighted in red.


And this is how this part of the photo looks with the plate over the original image. I also use the plate to remove the hanging lamp.


Now there certain body positions of several dancers that I want to change, so I used a similar image and masked out everything but the portion that I want to add on top of the original image.


And this is how the image looks like before and after I altered the body position.


The Rest of the My Post-Processing

So now that I have the content of image the way I want to, it’s now time to retouch the image. Thankfully, all of the dancers have really great skins, so I did not have to do any skin retouching. Here is a rundown of the rest of my post-processing:

Soft Light Layer Dodge & Burn

This is one of the popular techniques used by professional retouchers to brighten or darken parts of the image, or as they call it, perform light-sculpting. The great thing about this technique is that it’s non-destructive, which mean that whatever you do on this will not permanently change your original image.

The other benefit for using this technique over the actual dodge and burn brushes is that this technique does not add color shifts as easily.

Create a new layer from the Layer Menu/New/Layer… (Shift+Ctrl+N on Win, Shift+Command+N on Mac)


In the New Layer dialog box, check the checkbox “Fill with Soft-Light-neutral-color (50% gray).

Change the Mode to “Soft Light”

This creates a new layer with 50% gray. If you want to brighten any portion of your image, use white brush and gradually add some white on the Dodge & Burn layer. If you want to darken any portion of your image, use a black brush.

Here is my image after I used this technique.


Contrast Toning with Black & White Adjustment Layer on Overlay or Soft Light Blend Mode

One of the ways I create a signature look to my image is to add a contrast punch by using a Black & White Adjustment Layer set on Overlay or Soft Light Blend mode. Click on the Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. From the popup menu, choose the Black & White Adjustment Layer.


You will get a dialog with sliders for each color. Change the opacity of the layer to 25% and the Blend Mode to either Overlay or Soft Light. You can then play around with each sliders and the opacity until you get a look that you want. Here is how image look after the Black & White adjustment layer.


High-Pass Filter for Sharpening

To sharpen the image, I like using High-Pass Filter. Alternatively, you can also bring the image back to Lightroom 4 and use the Clarity slider. I prefer to do this in Photoshop, however, because of layer masking.

First, create a visible stamp of the image with all the current visible layers (Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E on Win, Command + Shift + Option + E on Mac).

Change that layer into Soft Light Blend Mode.

At this point, I typically like to zoom in to 50% because I usually adjust the sharpness until it looks sharp at 50%, not 100%.

Go to Filter/Other/High Pass to open the High Pass Filter dialog.


Adjust the Radius slider until you get just enough sharpness without introducing too much edge halo. Usually, I like to stay around 2-4 pixels or until the most important focus points like the eyes are sharpened enough.

Once you hit ok, you should immediately see a sharper image.


When I shoot people, I also like to use the Layer Mask to hide the High Pass Sharpening effect on the skin. All you have to do is create a Layer Mask and apply the black brush on the skin areas of the Layer Mask.

Finally, for this image, I used an Exposure Adjustment Layer set at -.75 to darken the windows. Once again, I used the Layer Mask to only apply the adjustment layer on the windows. Here is the before and after of my editorial photo for the X:Animo Dance crew. You can click on the finished image to see a high-resolution copy.


X:Animo Dance Crew by Joe Gunawan |

You can also see more of my work in commercial and fashion photography on my website:


Joe is a rising fashion and commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, CA. He blends creativity and edge with a strong style of lighting and emotion in his photographs. Be sure to check out his work at and connect with him on Google Plus and on Facebook

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Alissa Tipton

    Very extraordinary photo manipulations, cool style! I wanted to retouch in this genre, but image manipulations are not my strong points. I send my works to online photo retouching services like if I need

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  2. Joseph Prusa


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  3. Ed Rhodes

    thanks for sharing!

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  4. Basit Zargar

    love it thanks

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    Awesome! This a great tutorial.

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  7. Anonymous

    I know I’m a terrible photographer when I see how well you nail you images straight out of camera. Solid as always.

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