A former scholar of classics and mythology, I've been creating webpages about my hobbies and interests for over 20 years.
Photoshop Clipping Mask Tricks for Beginners
Photoshop masks let you show or hide parts of a picture. Masks are like stencils, except that instead of hiding part of a photo, by default, they tell Photoshop which parts to show.
You can keep editing the mask until it's just right—so no more trying to erase around an image to cut away the background, only to find you've erased too much!
In this article, I'll teach you:
- How to give a photo an interestingly shaped frame
- How to paint a picture on text
- How to draw your own clipping mask to make a stencil
- How to place all these on another background
Masking 101: Clip Out a Piece of a Photo
Here are the basics—how to make and use a clipping mask in five easy steps! The top layer is the picture, and the bottom layer (clipping mask) is the stencil.
- Open the Layers Palette under the "Window" menu in Photoshop.
- On one layer, place an image or photo.
- Create another layer with a shape, text, or drawing. This is the clipping mask, and acts like a stencil.
- Move the clipping mask layer under the image's layer.
- In the Layers Palette, Alt-click on the border between the two layers (Opt-click on a Mac). You've got the right spot when you see the cursor change to two circles straddling the line between the two layers.
That's it! There are many fun and powerful ways to use clipping masks. Try the examples below, and you'll quickly get the hang of them!
Paint a Picture on Text
This is EASY! We'll be using a text layer as a stencil.
- Open the Photoshop Layers Palette (Under the Window menu)
- Pick the Text tool and type something using a big bold font.
3. Create a new layer (click the notepad icon on the Layers Palette) and paste in an image/picture.
4. In the Layers Palette, ALT-click (Option-click on a Mac) the border between the two layers. The bottom layer will be used as the shape/cutout/stencil; the top layer of the pair will be the image.
5. Want to add a drop shadow, outline, or other special effects? Select the Text layer on the Layers Palette. Then double-click the "F" icon at the bottom of the layers palette, or choose "Layer Style" under the Layer menu up top, to add drop shadows, stroke, or other effects.
Below is the result:
Use a Shape
Want to cut out a photo with a cool frame of any shape (see the example above)? Here's how!
- Paste an image into a new Photoshop document and open the Layers Palette (Under the "Window" Menu)
2. Pick a shape from the Shape tool. You could use an Ellipse (also makes circles), a rounded rectangle, or custom shapes (some are built-in, and there are thousands of Photoshop Custom Shapes available on the web).
3. Draw your shape. Don't worry, it won't cover up the picture when you're done. Just think of it like the hole in a stencil.
4. In the Layers Palette, drag the Clipping Mask one slot down so it's right below the image's layer.
5. In the Layers palette, Alt-click the border between the two layers. (Option-click on Mac.) This makes the bottom layer a mask.
6. Here's the result. When you go to "Save for Web," saving as a jpg will replace the checkerboard background with white. If you save as a PNG or GIF, you have an option to leave the background transparent.
7. Want to make the frame even fancier? While the Clipping Mask layer is selected in the layers palette, click on the F icon, OR choose "Layer Style" from the Layer Menu up at the top of your screen. You can add a stroke (an outline), a drop shadow, and many other effects! Here is a gray, 1-pixel-wide stroke, plus drop shadow.
Oval Photo Frame (Optional Soft Edge)
You can pluck out a piece of a photo with the Lasso or Marquee Tools. However, by using a clipping mask, you won't lose any of the original picture, and you can adjust and experiment with the mask until you get the outline you like.
- Copy a photo into a new document (NEVER work on your original raw photo—you don't want to hit save by accident and lose it).
2. In the upper lefthand corner of your Tools palette, choose the Elliptical Marquee Tool. If it's not showing, click and hold down whatever icon's there (probably the rectangular selection tool) and choose the ellipse.
Draw an elliptical selection on your photo. Hold down the shift key to get a perfect circle. After you let go, you can place your cursor over the selection, click and drag to move the selection outline around.
3. In the Layers Palette, click the notepad button to make a new layer. Or choose New Layer from the Layer menu at the top of the screen. Pick the Paint Bucket in the tools palette. Fill your selected area IN THE NEW LAYER. Make sure it's the new layer, not the layer with the photo!
4. In the Layers palette, move the clipping mask (the oval) layer down one slot, so that it is now below or behind the photo's layer.
5. Alt-click (PC) or option-click (Mac) between the two layers in the Layers Palette to set the bottom layer of the pair to be a mask or stencil.
6. Make sure you've still got the oval masking layer selected in the Layers Palette, NOT the photo. Now go up to the top of your screen, and under the Select menu pick Inverse. You've now selected everything except the oval.
7. Under the "Select" menu, pick "Feather..." and a small radius. Here, I chose 3. Then hit the delete key! This isn't deleting your original picture. Rather, it's deleting the edges of the mask, making them fuzzier. I found deleting twice got the effect I wanted.
8. Save For Web. I usually leave transparency off, when saving gifs or pngs, HOWEVER, there are times when you want the webpage you place the graphic on to show through. Then keep the transparency, save as gif or png!
Freeform Doodle as Stencil
Did you know that you can draw whatever shape you like as a mask? Or paste in a shape you've found? Here's where things get really interesting. It took me all of two minutes to do this, tops:
- Open the Layers Palette under the Window menu (you got this).
- Paste a photo. (yep, you got this too.)
- In the Layers Palette, click the little notepad icon down at the bottom. Or else, under the Layer menu at the top of the screen, pick New Layer. You now have a blank layer.
- In the Layers palette, move the blank layer down so it's UNDER the photo. This blank is going to be your mask.
- Alt-click (option-click) the border between the two layers. Whoa! Your photo disappeared!
- Choose the paintbrush tool.
- Up top, you should see a "Brush" selector tool. If you don't, go to the Window menu and choose Brushes. Scroll way down and pick an irregular brush shape that looks like an ink splat!
- In the masking layer—make sure you're in the masking layer, not the photo!—start doodling. As you draw, the photo will appear wherever you're drawing. Don't like it? Switch to the erase and erase, or use Undo and try again.
- For fine-tuning, I then switched to the Smudge Tool, which looks like a finger, and went whoosh-whoosh-whoosh horizontally over the edges of my mask, in the same direction as the ripples of the water. I was smearing the edges of the mask horizontally to make it more wispy.
- Use the Blur Filter, smudge, draw dots, or try oddly-shaped brushes along the edges of the mask to get an interesting border.
As you can see, this can be a powerful technique for pulling out someone's head and shoulders from a background, making a soft-edged frame, or many other tricks. Now that you've got the basic idea, experiment!
Put It on a Different Background
So, you've got this two-layer document with an image and its clipping mask. What do you do with it? Well, first, SAVE it. This will save a raw .psd or Photoshop file with all the layers you've created.
Then choose "Save for Web" and pick jpg format, and Photoshop automatically paints the background white. With png (memory-intensive, but sharp) and gif (quick-loading, but limited colors), you can opt to have the background transparent so that the webpage background shows through -- or turn off transparency and Photoshop makes the background white.
Or add your OWN background in Photoshop!
This is easy-peasy. Once you've got a clipping mask set up, to add a background from an existing photo:
- Copy and paste another photo.
- In your document with the image + clipping mask, select the top layer, the image.
- PASTE the new layer, which will be the background.
- Drag the background layer down, down, down until it's under the other two.
Voila (I grabbed the background from a photo with a cloudy gray-and-white sky):
Draw Your Own
Want to draw your own background? Click the notebook icon at the lower right on the Layers Palette to create a new blank layer. Draw on it, use the paint bucket with a gradient fill, or add whatever you like.
Just move it down in the layers palette so it's below the clipping mask layer when you're done. Be sure NOT to get it between the clipping mask layer and the image being masked, or your background will be masked too!
To get this, I did the following:
- I copied the grass from my egret photo and pasted it into a new document.
- I made a text layer that said "Think Green" as its clipping mask.
- I pasted a random desktop wallpaper into a layer below the other two.
- I changed the background layer's HUE in the "Image >...Adjustments" menu so it was a matching green.
- And I added a few special effects to the text layer (Drop Shadow, Inner Shadow, Stroke to make the yellow outline—picking up a color from the background).
I hope you found this tutorial useful!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
visit2goa on March 03, 2014:
anonymous on February 13, 2013:
Thank you for this article, it was exactly what I was looking for!
John Dyhouse from UK on June 07, 2012:
thank you - masks have up until now bwwn a mystery to me.
caffimages on May 17, 2012:
Thank you so much. Despite using Photoshop to edit my photos for a long time this lens has given me just the information I've been searching for. I'm a photographer, but not a very good Techi person! Thanks again.
xmen88 on March 28, 2012:
iMorpheus on March 24, 2012:
Excellent work! Thanks a lot for creating this useful lens :-)
WhitePineLane on February 10, 2012:
This is really, really, really, really helpful! Thank you so much for sharing!
bikerministry on October 07, 2011:
Awesome lens. I love the way you put the print screens right there for the step-by-step. Thank you for all your hard work. Blessings.
anonymous on August 21, 2011:
Thank you SO much!! This has been haunting me for weeks and this was the only tutorial that I could find that made sense!!
deyanis from Oz on February 13, 2011:
I had no idea that it's very easy to create mask on Photoshop. I usually download the photoshop mask templates. You have tempted me to create one & experiment with it myself. Great tutorial. --- Blessed ---
anonymous on February 09, 2011:
These are some great Photoshop tips. Added to my Squidoo Lens Customization Featured Lenses!
Joy Neasley from Nashville, TN on December 26, 2010:
Wow...I am learning a lot of photoshop tips on Squidoo lately. Great lens.
missiemiles on November 10, 2010:
I have been looking ALL OVER the web for something as easy and comprehensive as your article on masking! This was a stroke of luck and wonderful information---please keeps these coming!
reasonablerobby on October 02, 2010:
Just like Wordcustard I've had no idea where to start doing this so this is brilliant. Should help with my Zazzle product designs and the photos I use, just using photos as they are looks so plain and boring. Thank you!
Ellen Brundige (author) from California on July 21, 2010:
@indigoj: There's one more masking demo I should do -- how to get a person extracted out of a background! That takes a little more explaining, but it's using the same techniques as the freehand doodle and the fuzzy oval mask -- you make a layer above the person (it helps to lower the masking layer's transparency slightly while you're working on it), draw over where the person is, get the mask to cover the person neatly, then when you're satisfied you've got a good silhouette, move the masking layer below the photo layer, alt-click, and restore the clipping mask to full opacity.
Which is a mouthful. I need to show it. It's a little harder because you actually have to draw by hand, but it's still not too bad, since you can keep editing the mask until it looks right without worrying about erasing something on the original photo.
Indigo Janson from UK on July 21, 2010:
I have been wanting to learn to do this, so I'm delighted to come across a lens that can teach me Photoshop masking techniques in such a clear way and helpful way.
Ellen Brundige (author) from California on July 21, 2010:
@KarenHC: I know Elements has basic masking. I hope these are useful!
I've decided to start making Photoshop tricks and tutorial lenses. I'm no expert, but I've been using Photoshop since 1993 (good grief), so I have picked up a set of tricks I use to make web graphics. :)
Karen from U.S. on July 21, 2010:
This is great information! I use PhotoShop Elements, so I'll have to see how much of this I can use -- some I'm sure! And I see you have a few other PhotoShop lenses. I'll have a fun few hours trying things out :-)