The Ultimate Photoshop Resource

Layer masks in Photoshop – Get perfect smooth transparency on your masks

Subscribe on YouTube:

How to get smoother masking inside of Photoshop.


Alright, so I’m going to show you something about masking that few people realize. So we’re just gonna use this picture of a woman and a cat on top. So this is not so much about the artwork is this is just understanding the technique I want to show you.

So the first thing we want to do is create a hidden mask or an inverted mask. So hold down the alt or the option key and then go in the layers panel and click on create mask. What that does is it creates a black mask which hides the contents of the layer.

Now to bring back the contents of the layer, we’re going to paint white in here. So let me just hit the D key to reset the foreground background colors.

Let’s grab a brush and we’re going to start to paint. Now. Some people use flow. Some people use opacity. Check out my tutorial that talks about the difference.

I’m going to drop the flow down to 10% and we’re gonna start to paint in a little bit here. See, so what happens when you want to paint in a specific value, like maybe you want to do 20% here.

This is the mistake that most people do. Most people drop the opacity down to 20% and that is wrong. And I’m going to show you exactly why.

Opacity is basically how transparent it is in the flow is how fast you get there. See my tutorial on Flow vs Opacity


How a layer mask works is simple. When you paint with white, it reveals the contents of that particular layer. If you paint with black, it hides the contents of that particular layer. Check out my other tutorial on masking basics. Let’s continue.

What most people would do if they wanted to paint 20% is to drop opacity down to 20% and this is wrong. And I’ll show you why.

If you paint at 20% opacity you lay down some paint. Now, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a mouse or a graphics tablet.

But here’s the thing. Yes, it’s adding 20%. But if I lift and then I paint again, it adds another 20%. If I lift, it adds another 20% and so on.

This creates very splotchy paint (or a splotchy mask).

And then at this point to try and get everything smooth and even, is very, very difficult. So opacity is not the way to do that. I’m going to turn the opacity all the way up. Rather than using Opacity,  go under the color picker.

Choose (B) Under HSB. This is going to give us brightness. Now choose 20. So rather than choosing an opacity, we’re choosing a shade of Gray with 20% white.

Click ok, now  watch what happens if I go up to the other side here and I start to paint and I lift it and I paint on top of it.

Look at this. I’m getting exactly 20%.

But this does even more because when we use Opacity or flow, what it’s going to do is it’s just essentially going to keep stacking more and more paint.

Remember the first area I painted on the left, supposed to be 20%. Now if I paint, this would just take it straight back to 20. So if it’s a lighter, it will darken it. If it’s darker, it will lighten it and look how smooth and perfect we can get that.

Rather than use transparency, use gray. See how the tones map to transparency values.

Now if we combine this with flow and let’s take that flow down to a very low amount. So this enables us to blend these edges and get them beautiful and smooth and precise.

How would this apply on the image? Simple. Let’s choose the mask.

Choose 40% by entering 40 into B in the Color picker.

We’re going to get 40% of that fur. Look at that. Just a little bit of texture there. Let’s do the same top of the cheeks.

Why don’t you try this method for yourself next time you’re trying to create a little bit of transparency in your mask and you’ll find that this technique will get you much smoother, more even masks.

So I’m curious. Guys, did you know this already? Was this something new? Let me know in the comments underneath.

And by the way, if you’re new, welcome to Photoshop Cafe. Do me a favor and hit that subscribe button. And that way you won’t miss any of my concise tutorials. So anyway, guys, I hope you like this.


And until next time I’ll see you at the cafe.


PS Don’t forget to follow us on Social Media for more tips.. (I've been posting some fun Instagram and Facebook Stories lately)
You can get my free Layer Blending modes ebook along with dozens of exclusive Photoshop Goodies here photoshop goodies for free

22 responses to “Layer masks in Photoshop – Get perfect smooth transparency on your masks”

  1. I use masks often and am aware of opacity vs flow, but had not heard this. I do sometimes paint at a low O or F and adding has been unsuccessful so my solution, usually is to paint at 100% and reduce O. This has been very helpful. Thank you

  2. Total game-changer for me. I have almost worn out out my keys trying to get even application of less than 100% black masks. One of the things I really like about your tutorials is that that each one just focuses on learning a single skill, learning it quickly, and showing a practical example.
    When I watch a tutorial that goes through a series of techniques to “fix” a photo, I seldom retain the information. It’s too much to take in all at once and just becomes a blur. By breaking things down into small pieces, I am much more likely to practice and repeat.

  3. Hi Colin,
    Nope!!! Did not know this. I’ve always gone with low flow and about 80% opacity. Now, I going to try this out. It looks like a much much better technique.

  4. I am so pleased I joined the Cafe….the videos are helping a great deal. Soooooo useful in my work. I download the notes so I can make extra notes while I watch the video.
    Thankyou Colin.

  5. thanks Colin for that masking tip, i did not know that . so i shall be trying it on my next edit once again thanks

  6. Colon, actually i have never seen this method for masking before. It makes a lot of sense. I do have trouble with unevenly painted masks because of the buildup of the paint. I am looking forward to trying this method of painting masks.
    Thank you for this tip.

  7. Nope. I’ve never tried this and it makes so much sense. Thanks! Great job at the PS Summit, by the way. Just finished the ACR presentation. Dynamite!

  8. A new and innovative way to better blend in composites. Thanks Colin.
    This is one of the issues about PS: there are so many options to do the same thing that the software intimidates new users. It’s so good to have detailed, step by step S2F instructions.

  9. Thanks Colin, really useful! I’m just wondering, if I do a mistake and want to “paint back” the mask, how do i do that? I have always done the opposite, used “white” masks and painted away with black the parts I don’t want. I then paint with white if I need to “undo” something. Now I’m a bit confused about how to undo working with a black mask.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Access The Photoshop Vault

Unlock dozens of valuable Photoshop resources for FREE

The Ultimate

Photoshop Resource