By Jim Hamel
In a recent article called: Getting Started with Layer Masks in Photoshop – a Beginners Tutorial, I showed you the basics of layer masks and why they are such powerful tools. Layer masks are essentially what gives Photoshop layers much of their power. They allow you to tell Photoshop exactly where you want your changes applied, and to what degree.
In that article, I also showed you how to use layer masks in pictures where you had a defined edge to the areas you wanted to change. Photoshop has a lot of great tools that allow you to make selections, which you can then use to define the mask.
But what about pictures where you have a soft edge? Or where you want to blend in the effect gradually? That’s what I will cover in this article. It will pick up where the prior article left off, so if you haven’t seen that one yet, check it out. Once you have reviewed the basics of layer masks in that article, come back here and we will get started.
Step 1: Create an Adjustment Layer
The first thing to do is make the changes you want to the image, which will then be blended into the selected areas later. To make those changes, I am going to create a Curves adjustment layer. As mentioned in the prior article, Curves adjustment layers are one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop. They allow you to selectively effect brightness, contrast, and/or color. To create one, just select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. You can also click on the Curves icon in the adjustment layer panel. Don’t worry though – we are not going to do anything complicated with the Curves Adjustment layer.
Of course, you don’t have to use a Curves adjustment layer to make adjustments to your picture, you can use any of the adjustment layers offered by Photoshop. If you are more comfortable with Levels, use that. If you want to change the brightness levels, there are Exposure and Brightness/Contrast adjustment layers. If you want to make changes to color, you can use the Hue/Saturation or Vibrance adjustment layers. I consider Curves to be one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop, so that is what I use, but you can use whichever one you want, or you are most comfortable using.
Step 2: Add in the Effect
Once your Curves adjustment layer is created, just add the effect that you want. Remember that a white mask is automatically applied to all adjustment layers – so it reveals everything – but we will change that in a second.
I want to add contrast, therefore I will just scoot in the endpoints of my curves adjustment layer. You can also drag the line up or down in places. The idea is to steepen the curve where you have a lot of pixels. Doing so adds contrast, which is what we want.
You don’t need to do anything fancy here. Go ahead and add the effect to a greater extent than you will want it in your picture. In other words, overdo it. Don’t worry if the picture doesn’t look quite right.
In addition, don’t worry that the effect is occurring across the entire picture at this point. We will make the changes apply selectively in just a second. For now, just look at the area of the picture where you want the effect to be applied and add it in accordingly. For example, in this picture below, my change is added to the entire picture, even though it results in effects I don’t want (like blowing out the sky on the right). We will fix that in the next step.
Step 3: Brush it in
Now comes the part when you limit the areas where your changes apply to the image.
Start by masking off the entire image, just press CTRL/CMD+I to do so. You will notice that two things happen. First, the effect you just added to your picture is hidden, it’s as if you never made any changes (don’t worry, the changes are still there, they’re just hidden). Second, the box next to the adjustment layer you created turned black. The box represents the layer mask. As we discussed in the last article, a white layer mask means the changes show through to the image (which is why you saw the effect of the changes when the layer mask was white). A black layer mask means the effect does not show up on the picture. Since our layer mask is now black, the effect does not apply anywhere in the picture.
Now we can begin the process of adding the effect in gradually. To do so, we will use the Brush tool. You can select it from the list of tools on the left side of your screen (tool panel), or you can just press B to call it up. While you are at it, go ahead and press the D key on your keyboard. This will ensure that the brush is set to its default foreground color, which is white, which is what you want since you will be adding the effect to the picture.
If you just left the brush as is, when you used it to paint in your picture, it would add the effect 100%. That is not what you want here. You want to add the effect in gradually, so it blends in. Therefore, go to the top of your screen and find Opacity. Pull the Opacity to the left until it is in the range of 5% to 15%. In my case I will use 10% (you can also just type 15 on your keyboard and it will apply to the opacity of the brush while that tool is selected). The lower the opacity, the less the effect gets added with each brush stroke – and the more gradual the change. If you have the patience to keep the Opacity very low (some people go as low as 2-3%), you will be rewarded with very gradual changes.
Now you will just paint in the effect. Before you do so, also make sure that the hardness of your brush is set to 0%. You want as soft a transition as possible. In addition, use as large a brush as your picture allows. The larger the brush, the softer the transition. The easiest way to change the size of your brush is with the square bracket keys. The left bracket