Who  doesn’t love Photoshop layers and masks?!  Who doesn’t know a thing about them?  Who wants to learn?

You do?!  Great coz I’m here to show you!  Warning:  This tutorial contains a lot of information however, once you learn these simple little tricks you will become an expert at editing your images!

NOTE: all shortcuts referred to in this tutorial are for Window users as that is my current workspace. If you Mac it, you will find tons of shortcut key charts online for mac users *I currently work with version CS5 but I’m sure the basics of this method apply to other older/newer versions as well

Open your Photoshop program and lets get started!

First things first.  We want to be sure that our Photoshop “Point Sample” is set at either a 3X3 or  a 5 X 5 average pixel sample.  To do this Locate and click on your *eyedropper icon. ( this icon may very well be hidden under the  Ruler’ tool which is located on the upper left hand side of your PS workstation.  You will right click directly on the Ruler icon which will bring you to a list of icon options…in this case of course you will choose the eyedropper tool).  Found it?  Great…Let’s move on

A little box will appear at the top of your PS.  Click it to change and reset your point sample.


I’ve set my sample at 5X5 as my image was shot in RAW and is quite large

To open your image click FILE>Open, select your image off of your computer hd to be edited.

You will see a thumbnail of your image within the tray to the right of your screen.  click on this background thumbnail & choose ‘CONVERT TO SMART OBJECT‘. This will prevent compromising the quality of your original image as you edit and make changes.


Your background layer thumbnail will automatically rename itself to ‘Layer 0’  You can change the names of your layers by simply double clicking on the spot where it reads ‘Layer 0’
I’m leaving mine the way it is…because I’m feeling a little lazy…but if you are feeling more creative and want to re-name your layers…go for it!  It’s actually a better practice to rename your layers if you are working with several layers in your edit.  This way you are clear which layers are for which edits.  Sorry…I know teachers are suppose to lead by example.  I’m not a very good teacher today! hahahahaa


Let’s have some fun with our ‘Layers’ :]
I’m thinking maybe we should work on our WHITE BALANCE and correct any color casts within our image


duplicating layer 0 by dragging and dropping

Duplicate Layer “0” by left clicking & holding the thumbnail named “Layer O”  and then dragging & dropping it to the  ‘Create a New Layer’ Icon which is located at the very bottom or your PS workstation as is illustrated in the above image. [This icon appears as a small square within a larger square…you’ll drop your layer directly on top of that icon]

Notice as in the above image there are two identical layers now sitting in your tray.
You can actually turn off the very bottom layer by clicking on the ‘eye’ icon. In this way your original image is preserved.


turning off layers

Working with your visible layer (be sure this layer is highlighted, which indicates the layer is active) click on the the two toned, moon shaped icon located at the very bottom of your PS workstation. Clicking this icon will open a list of editing layer options.  Generally I begin my editing phase with a ‘Threshold’ adjustment to locate the images darkest and lightest areas.
Selecting the Threshold option will add a New ‘Adjustment Layer‘ to your tray as indicated in the image below:


threshold layer

Once your threshold Layer is visible you will notice your image has changed quite a bit.  Don’t be alarmed we are simply adjusting and balancing out our colors & things will return to normal…well a better version of normal shortly.

ImageSlide the middle slider all the way to your left. Your image will now be completely white.
Left click and hold down your ‘ALT’ Key while slowly sliding the arrow back toward the center.
Once you see the slightest bit of black coming through stop sliding. You have located the darkest part of your image. Yay! :].  We need to mark this for adjustment sake.

ImageYou may need to zoom [Z on our keyboard]  in to ensure that your marker lands directly inside one of the little black squares :]
Go ahead and grab that little eyedropper tool found on your left hand side panel…probably no longer hiding behind the ruler tool since we’ve already used it to set our point sample.  Ahhh but ..there are two of em?  I know. :]  Doesn’t matter which one you use..as long as it’s an eyedropper shape :]

Using the eyedropper tool you will now hold down the ‘SHIFT’ key while clicking on one of those black squares.  Wallah…..you’ve marked your blackest black  & can now move on to finding  your whitest white :]  Not to worry…all of your hard work and efforts will pay off shortly!

Head on back to your Threshold layer (if for some reason your threshold layer disappears from view just double click on the Threshold Layer in your layers pallet) \Sound confusing?  Sorry I don’t know how else to say it other than post up this image to clarify ;}~


double click to bring threshold layer back in view

Again using the slider you will bring the center white arrow all the way to your right [..EH it’s worth mentioning here to be sure your image is no longer zoomed in close (right click directly on your image and select “Fit On Screen“)..which will put things nicely back into place.]
Once again, Click and hold down your ‘ALT’ Key while slowly sliding the arrow back toward the center until a little peep of white shows through. At which point you will stop sliding and grab that eye dropper tool once again to mark this point (Whitest White). Zoom in if that helps you to select within the area of white. click and hold down the “Shift” Key while selecting your point.


locating your white point

Head back to your layers pallet and you can now drag and drop into the little trash can icon,  your Threshold layer as it is no longer useful. You are only trashing the layer mask, not the points. Now that we’ve located and marked our white and black points,  lets find that grey area.  C’mon, it’s not that bad…we are almost finished! Promise! (fingers crossed behind back)  :]

Reset your image to fit your screen. [right click>Fit on Screen]  We want to see our entire workspace.

Select the “Create a New Layer” Icon located on the bottom of your PS work area.  It is the square shaped icon that has a smaller square on the left bottom corner.

We are going to fill this layer with 50% gray.  To do this head on up to “Edit” at the top of your PS. & select “FILL” from the drop down list. Under “Contents” Select the  “50% grey” Option.  If your image turns completely grey….you ruined your entire image! …you’re doing great! :]


Change the ‘NORMAL blending mode [located under your layers pallet]
click where it says ‘Normal’ blending mode  to ‘Difference’ in the setting module on the right side of your ps as indicated in image below.


difference blending mode

the image above represents how your image will appear at this point.  You may stop now if you are pleased with the  groovy psychedelics…otherwise  I’m afraid you will have to continue on with me.

We will now add an additional Threshold adjustment layer by clicking the adjustment layer icon found on the bottom of your PS work area.  The same icon we’ve selected previously  :]

Again we will slide the middle white arrow all the way to your left and slowly bring it back to the center until you see the very first hint of black showing through.  You have located your grey area and now you will have to mark this spot the same way you did the black and white areas.  Select your eyedropper..Click and hold the ‘Shift” key down while clicking the dropper on the black square.  Zoom in if need be.
You have located and marked your grey area.

Fit your image back into view by zooming out.  You may now drag and drop  your entire Threshold layer as well as your Layer 1 layer [the layer that turned your image all funky looking] directly to the trash can icon at the bottom of you PS work area.

We are now left with two layers.  Our original layer “0” which is not visible & our copy of layer ‘0″ which is visible.   Notice the three little markers left behind?  Lets have some fun before we make them disappear :]

We will need an additional “New Adjustment Layer”. Remember the black and white circle icon on the bottom of your PS work area Click it :]  Select “CURVES”.  A curves box will appear..which is always a good thing :]  Especially when that is exactly what you want to happen.  :]



Notice there are three eye dropper icons on the left hand side of this curves box. Select the very first one (black). Click your ‘CAPS LOCK’ so that your dropper changes into a ‘bulls eye’ icon (this makes for better placement and it’s just easier in my own humble opinion)

With your black dropper now turned bulls-eye..ZOOM in if you feel that will help with placement and click that bulls-eye directly over marker number 1.  Now choose the very last dropper (White) and perform the same steps on marker number 2.  Last choose the middle dropper (grey) and click the bulls-eye on marker number 3.

At this point should notice a wonderful change to your image.  Colors should be balanced out a bit. Things should look a little brighter.  If not scrap it and start all over…j/k!


Improved Image

You are probably wondering if you are going to be stuck with those three little markers forever?  Nah…wanna get rid of em?  Head on to where you located your dropper and select the color sample tool from the drop-down menu.  A little box should appear at the very top of your PS that says “CLEAR”.  Click that & like magic…those little buggers disappear.

Heading back to your layers pallet you can now merge your layers by clicking on your ‘CTRL + E’ keys on your keyboard or LAYER>MERGE LAYERS from your PS.

At this point you can make other adjustments to your image. If you would like to balance your colors out a bit you can select a new ‘color balance’ adjustment layer.   Whatever you do, use an adjustment layer…it’s a well organized method as well as image friendly.  I will go into a little more detail about this in future blog post.    My image looks in need of a little brightening/Sharpening…but other than that I am pretty happy with the results made just by finding the white, black and greys and balancing everything out.

If you’d like to continue on for even more improvements…follow me….

Perhaps the sky will look more appealing a little darker?  Lets try to achieve that.
Drag and drop the background layer to the ‘New Layer’ icon located at the bottom of your PS.
[big square/little square] icon.
Let’s see what things look like if we Change the blending mode from ‘NORMAL‘ to ‘MULTIPLY’


While I love this affect I think perhaps the flower could use a little less multiplicity.
Let’s change our blending mode back to “NORMAL” and select our “Quick Selection Tool” located on our side tool bar as indicated in image below.

ImageClick and drag around the perimeter of the flower (or whatever it is in your image you do not want to include when changing blending modes). Your selection will be indicated by those marching ants as  in image below


Click the “REFINE EDGE’ icon at the top of your workstation & Feather & smooth a bit. Click OK


feather and smooth options highlighted

Right click on your image and select ‘SELECT INVERSE’~
Now change your blending mode to ‘MULTIPLY‘~
Here is where you will see that your selected areas change back to the original form
Create a NEW VECTOR MASK found at the bottom of your PS next to the half moon icon we selected previously.  This icon kinda looks like a little camera :]


‘Camera’ Icon location

How’s your image looking now?  Mine is just about where I want it. Although it could use a little sharpening.  Yours too?   Lets Do that Shall we? :]
We will merge our layers once again.  You remember how to do that right? …. [CTLR + E] on your keyboardor you can click on LAYER>MERGE LAYERS.

If you intend to resize your image do so before sharpening.
I’ve resized my image to 930Pixels
To re-size your image simply click on IMAGE>RESIZE IMAGE> A box will appear where you can place your dimensions.


resizing image

Now lets Sharpen :]

Copy your background layer [Drag and drop into the new layer icon at the bottom of your PS]
FILTER>OTHER>HIGH PASS  A ‘RADIUS’ box will pop up.  You will want to slide the arrow to the point where you can just barely make out the image behind the grey area.  If you see a halo effect going on such as in the image below, you’ve gone a little too far.  Find that delicate balance where you see the outline but no halo and click OK.


You’ve gone too far


just about right!

Change your blending mode to either: Soft Light, Hard Light or Overlay.  I generally go with “overlay‘ because it’s the middle ground..but it all depends on preference and of course your image.  Try different blending modes to suit your taste.

before and after

Before and After Adjustments

If you stuck with me all the way to the end of this tutorial..God Bless ya!  Hope you learned something useful :]

Til next time…..Happy Photoshopping!