Guide to the Photoshop Clipping Mask
If you know a little bit about layers in Photoshop, you probably know that you can use layer masks to control visibility.
What you might not know, however, is that clipping masks can be a powerful alternative that can speed up your workflow and give you more control when trying to create certain effects.
A great example of when to use a clipping mask in Photoshop is when you want to create a composite of some sort — for example, putting a photograph inside a photo frame.
If it’s just a rectangle, it’s not too difficult to resize the photograph and position it on top.
However, the clipping mask in Photoshop gives us much more control which is useful if the shape is more complex than just a rectangle, or if you want to keep more control over the photograph that you’re adding to the picture frame.
Let’s take a closer look at the Clipping Mask in Photoshop.
What is a Clipping Mask in Photoshop?
In short, a clipping mask is used in Photoshop to make one layer “apply” itself to the layer below, allowing you to control the visibility of the upper layer according to the pixels present on the lower layer.
At first, clipping masks might seem confusing, but imagine that the lower layer consists of pixels and no pixels.
The upper layer only shows up where the lower layer has pixels, while it becomes invisible in those areas where the lower layer has no pixels.
Consider the ‘BEFORE’ image above taken from Photoshop. The image consists of one layer, part of which is text, the rest of which is empty of content — therefore transparent.
(As a visual aid, Photoshop shows transparency by displaying a white and grey checkerboard, much like when using a displacement map in Photoshop.)
In Photoshop, we can now add a layer on top of this and turn it into a clipping mask.
The combination of content and transparency contained in the layer below determines what is visible of the new layer that sits above.
This is why we can say that the upper layer is being “applied” to the lower layer. The upper layer will be invisible unless there are pixels on the lower layer to which it can be “applied.”
In the above example, you can see two layers. The lower layer is simple black text and the rest of this layer is transparent. The upper layer is a photograph of some flames.
Without the clipping mask, the photograph of the flames is completely visible, obscuring half of the text below because of the way that it has been positioned.
When the clipping mask is added — i.e., when the layer above is “applied” to the layer below — the image of the flames disappears, apart from where there is content — i.e., the text “FLAMES” — in the lower layer – see the AFTER image.x
Notice that the upper layer has a little arrow to the left of it in the layers panel. This is how Photoshop shows that a clipping mask has been created and that this layer is being applied to the layer below.
Here is the layers panel before the clipping mask has been added:
And here is the layers panel after the clipping mask has been added:
I like to think of it as the upper layer being squashed onto the layer below. What’s useful here is that I can edit the text on the lower layer, or add more shapes.
In addition, I can resize the flames on the upper layer, or swap it for a different image entirely.
What is the difference between a layer mask and a clipping mask?
It’s useful to think of a clipping mask in comparison to a layer mask.
With a layer mask, you create a layer and then place a layer mask on top of it. You then add black to the mask to hide the layer below, or white to allow it to show through.
In effect, you have two layers: a lower layer which is your content, and a mask on top that controls what can be seen.
By contrast, clipping masks in Photoshop are a different means of controlling what is visible in a pair of layers, using the layer below to determine what can be seen of the layer above.
One way to understand it is to think of layer masks working so that the black and white of the layer above determines what can be seen of the layer below, while clipping masks work so that the pixels of the layer below determines what can be seen of the layer above
How to Create a Clipping Mask in Photoshop
Creating a clipping mask in Photoshop is simple once you have your layers in the right order.
Photoshop also gives you a useful visual indicator to show how and where a clipping mask has been applied.
This example teaches you how to use a clipping mask by showing you how to put a picture inside a frame.
Step 1: Set up your document
For this example, I opened up an image of an empty picture frame hanging in an office in Photoshop.
Step 2: Create a new layer and add a shape
I then created a new layer by pressing Shift + Command +N (macOS) or Shift + Control + N (Windows). You could also click on the “Create a new layer” icon in the Layers tab.
On my new layer, I drew the shape that I needed using the Rectangle Tool, and made sure that it was filled with a color.
The color here doesn’t matter as the clipping mask will soon mean that the layer above replaces it. This is the layer to which the layer above is going to be applied.
If you’re struggling to find the Rectangle Tool, it’s usually in the Toolbar, towards the bottom. Make sure that you set Fill to a color.
Step 3: Create a third layer and add your picture
I then created another new layer (don’t forget this step!) before dragging one of my photographs onto it from Finder (macOS) or Explorer (Windows). You need to press enter to put it into place. This is the layer that is going to be clipped.
We now have three layers: at the bottom, we have the image that we first opened in Photoshop of the office with an empty picture frame.
Above that, there’s the shape that I drew: “Rectangle 1.”
And finally, there’s the picture of the bearded man jumping around. You will find that this layer is named after the filename.
Because of the way that the layers are stacked one on top of each other, the picture of the man jumping means that my rectangle is not visible. This is about to change, however.
Step 4: Create your clipping mask
I selected the top layer in the layers panel and from the menu chose “Layer” and “Create Clipping Mask.” Alternatively, we could use a keyboard shortcut: Command + Option + G (macOS) or Control + Alt + G (Windows).
There is another method. Check that the uppermost layer is selected, then hold down Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) and hover the mouse over the division between the active layer and the layer below. The mouse will turn into a small white box with an arrow next to it.
When you click, this will create a Clipping Mask.
Once this is done, your top layer will be turned into a clipping mask and it will then be applied to the layer below. The photo of the man jumping takes the shape of the rectangle.
5 Essential Clipping Mask Tips
The beauty of Photoshop clipping masks is that you retain so much control to be able to tweak what you have created.
Here are some tips to start making some changes.
1. How to move content within a clipping mask
It’s very easy to reposition content within a clipping mask. With the uppermost layer selected, choose the Move tool from the Toolbar or simply hit V. We can then click and drag around the photograph that we placed inside the picture frame.
2. How to resize content within a clipping mask
If we want to change the size of the photograph that we’ve added to our picture frame using the clipping mask, we can use the Free Transform tool. Click “Edit” and then “Transform”.
Alternatively, hit Command + T (macOS) or Control + T (Windows).
You will see that a blue frame has appeared around the photograph and you can drag this to resize it within the “frame” that our red rectangle has created for it.
The photograph will retain its proportions when you resize it.
3. How to transform content further within a clipping mask
Under the “Transform” menu in Photoshop, you’ll find a host of other tools that can be useful for tweaking your clipping mask to change its proportions and make it fit into the desired space.
In this example, the picture frame on the wall has been photographed at an angle. In order to make the photograph of the man jumping fit better, I used the Skew tool to match the perspective of the picture frame itself.
4. How to add more clipping masks
You can keep adding clipping masks to a layer which is invaluable when you want to make changes that only affect the clipping mask that you created earlier.
In our example, say we wanted to make the picture in the frame black and white.
To do this, create a new adjustment layer and choose “Black & White…”.
You’ll notice that this removes color from the entire image.
However, we can choose to apply that adjustment layer to the Rectangle layer below. Simply repeat the steps from before: hold Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) and click in between our Black and White adjustment layer and the layer below.
The clipping mask icon will appear and clicking will make it apply to the Rectangle layer above.
Notice that our office is now colorful again while the picture in the frame remains black and white. You’ll notice that there’s now a clipping mask symbol next to the Black & White adjustment layer in the layers panel.
This might be a useful trick to remember for other reasons, too. For example, if you cut out a headshot and paste it onto a new background, you might then want to apply a curves adjustment to the headshot, and not to the new background.
You can create your adjustment and then apply it only to the headshot by turning that adjustment layer into a clipping mask.
5. How to remove a clipping mask
If at any point you need to reverse a clipping mask that you’ve created — perhaps you clipped the wrong layer — the process is very straightforward. Simply click “Layer” and “Release Clipping Mask”.
Or, you can hold Option (macOS) or Alt (Windows) and hover between the clipped layer and the layer above:
The clipping masks in Photoshop can be useful to understand when you come to creating composites of your images, such as making a photograph appear as though it’s in a picture frame, or perhaps enhancing some text by setting it on fire.
Photoshop clipping masks can also be a useful way to control your changes to an image, allowing you to finetune adjustments and target specific areas.
Once you have your head around how they work, understanding clipping masks is a handy addition to your arsenal of Photoshop techniques, and you might suddenly find yourself using them more often than you expect.
If you have any comments or questions, be sure to leave a comment below!