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Layers And Layer Masks

Layer Opacity

Nearly every one of the Totally Rad Actions will create a new layer or layer set as a result. One of the most powerful features of the Totally Rad Actions is their tweakability, and the layers palette is the key to that power.  Most of the actions can be tweaked to your heart’s content using just the opacity slider. The opacity slider can be used to control the strength of each layer, and it’s located in the Layers Palette. If you can’t see the Layers Palette, click on Window -> Layers.  If you were to run the action Acid Washed (from TRA2) you would see something that looks like this in the layers palette:

Acid Washed is a layer set (represented by a folder icon), and is what you’ll get when you run the action Acid Washed. It is the currently active selection in the layers palette, and is therefore highlighted in blue. Changing the value in the Opacity box (pointed to by the red arrow) will change the strength of the action, from 100%, all the way down to zero. You can also click the arrow to the right of the Opacity box to use a slider to control opacity.

If you wanted to control the opacity/strength of a different layer, you’d simply select it by clicking on its thumbnail in the Layers Palette, and then use the Opacity slider.

You can also use the number keys to quickly dial in an opacity setting. Select the layer you want to modify, and then select the Marquee tool (press “m”). Now simply pressing a number on the keyboard will set the opacity to 10x that number. So pressing “6” will set 60% opacity for the selected layer. Pressing “2” will give you 20%. If you press two keys in rapid succession, you can get even finer control. For instance, “4” then “8” will give you 48% opacity.

Layer Masks

Layer Masks are a way for Photoshop to know where to apply a layer in a photo. They allow you to have a layer that affects only the specific parts of the photo that you choose, rather than the whole image. Layer masks are like lightbulbs – where they’re light, you’ll be able to see the layer, and where they’re dark, you won’t be able to see the layer. You can use many of the tools available in Photoshop to paint into layer masks, but we recommend using the brush or the gradient.

If a layer has a layer mask attached, then you’ll see a thumbnail of the layer mask to the right of the layer icon in the layers palette. It looks like this:

Try this – bring up any random photo in Photoshop, then create a new threshold adjustment layer (you create adjustment layers by clicking on the half black / half white circle at the bottom of the layers palette). Accept the default value of 128. You now have an adjustment layer with an all-white mask, indicating that it will apply everywhere in the photo. Because of this, the whole photo has been rendered in a harsh black and white.

Now, select your brush tool (just push the “B” key if you’re lazy like me). Make your brush size nice and big. Set your foreground color to black, and click on the layer mask for the layer you’ve just created. Start painting anywhere in the photo. Notice how the original photo begins to show through where you’ve just painted? Now look at the layer mask… notice how the thumbnail is black in the areas you’ve just painted? What you just did is darken the layer mask where you painted, telling Photoshop to lessen the effect of the layer in those areas. If you were to change your foreground color to white and paint over the photo again, the effect of the adjustment layer would show through again. Once you are comfortable with layer masks, you will be able to gain a lot more control over the different effects possible in Photoshop.

Layer masks are an important concept for many of the Totally Rad Actions. It will give you a great deal more control over certain actions, and some REQUIRE you to use the layer mask to specify where you want the action to apply.

Video Tutorial

This video walks you through the ins and outs of using layer masks with the Totally Rad Actions.