Tutorial – Using layer masks in photoshop for a creative self portrait

I love my new studio, it’s a great space and a huge room that dwarfs the 3m backdrop. An empty photograph doesn’t do it justice, so how do I shoot it to give a sense of the space available? This is what I came up with, its a cool shot that’s not too difficult to achieve with the right setup and a methodical approach to Photoshop.

The Venue

In choosing your setting pick somewhere that will give you plenty of opportunities for different poses. The studio worked great because there’s plenty to do and things to adjust and look at. The more variation you can use the better the effect I think.

You can use as few or as many layers as you like.
You can use as few or as many layers as you like.

The setup

Your first step is to frame your picture and secure the camera to a sturdy tripod so It won’t move. At all. Most good tripods have a weight hook on the bottom. Hang something heavy (check the capacity of your tripod) on this to increase stability if you’re shooting outside. You must not zoom at all during your shots, you will have no problem with a prime lens or twist zoom. If you use a push-pull zoom like I did for this shot you might want to run a little tape over the barrel to make sure everything stays put. Once everything is framed you can consider your focus. Pick a spot to focus on at the distance you will be standing. Once you have your focus, switch it to manual and leave it alone. For the shots to match up the focus must be identical for every frame.

For my shot I knew I wanted everything sharp and printable on a large scale so at f16 and ISO 200, this gave me 1/10 second for the shutter. That’s fine at this focal length on a tripod as long as I don’t move. The tripod negates ay camera blur so my only limit is how long I can stay still.

Now make sure all auto settings are turned off. Auto ISO and Auto White Balance will give you variation across frames. Pick a white balance preset or value that looks good on your screen, if you shoot in RAW you can always alter this later. Each exposure must be the same for this to work so if you’re not sure try taking a photo with your hand close to and covering the centre of the lens. If the exposure looks the same and your lens doesn’t move then your camera is not adjusting for focus or light. Perfect.


To make this easy on myself I used a radio remote to trigger the camera with a 5 second timer on the shutter. This gives me time to pose, press and hide the remote before each shot is taken. If you don’t have a remote trigger, just set the timer for as long as you need and be prepared to do a lot of running. Think carefully about where you can pose when framing your shot, if this is your first time using masks in Photoshop try not to overlap your images. Leave a decent gap in your frame between each pose to make the editing easier. Of course if you can do it, overlapping the images only adds to the effect and makes it more convincing to the viewer.

Take a shot of the empty setting and make sure your happy with the preview. Now the fun bit, snap away. If you plan your poses carefully you can interact with yourself, experiment to see what works for you but be aware of reflections and shadows. In my shot the reflections in the floor and shadows on the seats all add to the realism. If you aren’t too comfortable with Photoshop make sure these don’t interfere with each other or overlap.

When you think you have enough options go through your shots on camera but try not to move anything. If you want to retake any pictures you’ll never get it lined up exactly right. If you see any you don’t like go back and take some more. Better to have too many options than too few.

Image processing

If you’ve done everything right, you now have a set of images identical except for your position in them. If you want to make any global adjustments such as saturation, contrast or levels you have two options.

  • Compose your photos into one image before adjustment then treat the resulting image as a single photograph to edit, possibly better if you shooting JPEG but not for me.
  • Make global adjustments in software such as Lightroom or Camera Raw before importing them to Photoshop.
Right click and select 'open in layers'
Right click and select ‘open in layers’ in Lightroom

I always choose option two as Adobe’s Lightroom software is perfect for group image changes, once imported I can work on just one image until I’m happy with the result, then synchronize my settings across all the rest. You can do this with Adobe’s camera Raw too, a plug in used automatically for RAW files. If you are shooting JPEG right click on the your selected files and click ‘open with’ then select adobe camera raw to access this easy adjustment and sync for your images. These steps are for Mac OS users but I’m sure windows has a similar command.

Using 'Place' in Photoshop
Using ‘Place’ in Photoshop

So, assuming your familiar with basic editing, first adjustments are done and your ready to start composing. You can skip straight to this step if your happy with your exposure. If the image is good straight from camera go ahead.

In Lightroom select the images you want to use, let’s say you use two, one picture sitting on a chair, one standing up next to it. Right click (ctrl click) to bring up the menu. Select ‘edit in’ and then ‘open as Layers in Photoshop’ to let the two programs import them all into your layers window for you. If you’re using Camera Raw or just Photoshop, open your first image then in the File menu select ‘place’. This will create a new layer containing your second image, directly over your first. for large numbers of images repeat until you have them all imported, each in their own layer.

Make sure to name your layers
Make sure to name your layers

At this point it’s a good idea to label each layer. Make sure you have your layers window open (F7) and double  click on the layer names to edit. If you have trouble identifying which is which, click the eye icon on the left of any layer to toggle it’s visibility or alt-click to see only that layer. When each layer is named, for example ‘sitting/ standing’ alt-click the eye icon next to the first layer (sitting) so only that layer is visible. This is our starting point for the first layer mask.

Creating a 'Reveal all' layer mask on Layer 2
Creating a ‘Reveal all’ layer mask on Layer 2

Using Layer Masks

Click the eye next to your second layer (standing). We want to bring in only the parts of this image that are different from the first so we use a layer mask to choose the area to keep. Click the second layer so it is selected and in the Layer menu highlight ‘Layer Mask’ and click ‘Reveal all’

Mask as shown in the Layers window
Mask as shown in the Layers window

Nothing happened. The ‘Reveal all’ has applied a mask that is currently blocking the pixels underneath at 100% opacity. You can see in the layers window that ‘standing’ now has a new white box next to it indicating it is linked to a layer mask. As long as that layer mask box is selected we can tell the mask how much of the image to let through by painting onto the mask in shades of white, grey and black.

Select the brush tool in your palette and select black as your colour. Use a large soft brush to fade the effect and avoid harsh

Use a soft black brush to erase yourself until there's no visible transition
Use a soft black brush to erase yourself until there’s no visible transition

edges if there are any differences between your layers. To change your brush size and hardness just right click anywhere on the image. Paint over the area in your frame you wish to keep, until you have erased yourself completely from the second layer, as you do so you will see a mini version of your work in the layers window. Your image should now look exactly like the first layer with no harsh edges from your brush or evidence that you were ever there. And then.. make sure the layer mask is still selected and press cmd-I to invert the mask.

Now there are two versions of you in the image with a seamless transition between them. Note the box in the layers window has flipped from black on white, to white on black when we inverted it .To bring more into the picture from layer 2 use a white brush, to trim it down use a black brush. You could skip straight to here by selecting ‘Hide all’ in the Layer menu earlier instead of ‘Reveal all’ but this does mean guessing your shape and positioning from a blank canvas when painting with the white brush. I find it easier this away round.

With the layer mask selected, 'invert' to see the result
With the layer mask selected, ‘invert’ to see the result

For multiple images that do not overlap, you can keep repeating this process. When you are happy with two layers. Click the eye icon next to the third. Select that layer and create another layer mask. If you’re images do overlap you will need more than the brush to get a convincing result but that would make this post even longer and you’ve already done very well to get this far so try this first and we’ll talk about quick masks another time.

Once you are happy with your image you’ll need to save and export it to JPEG format for normal use. Save your PSD file now while the layers are all clear and easy to edit. This may take some time if you have 11 large files in masked layers like I did but do it anyway. With a PSD file you can re edit each layer as much as you like. Only delete this when you have your finished product in saved in the highest quality you need.  If you are completely happy and ready to ‘save as’ a JPEG, then right click on any layer in the layers window and select ‘flatten image’ this reduces the file size and makes it a much easier job for Photoshop to export and save.. If you opened your files through Lightroom. Closing Photoshop and selecting ‘save’ will create a TIFF or PSD file in your source directory and add it to your library automatically. You can then export it straight from Lghtroom as normal. Clever stuff.

8 thoughts on “Tutorial – Using layer masks in photoshop for a creative self portrait”

    1. HiKaren, One of the great things about this method is that you don’t need a subject. You can do it yourself. I used a remote trigger to fire my camera but you could just as easily use the self timer. This will mean a bit more running around but it’s worth it I think. I hope you post your version when you’ve had a go. I’d love to see it.
      Good luck!

      1. Jon. I have 3 kids, why do i need to be my own model? 😉 I have recently upgraded my camera to a Nikon D7000 and have a remote so i could do it myself… but why should i, bribes on the way i think. It may take some time but i hope to eventually get something. 🙂

      2. A fair and valid point! Sounds like you could get something really I treating there. I look forward to seeing the results. The D7000 is an excellent body. I’m sure you’re having a lot of fun with it.

      3. Yes i am, that said, wow getting used to it is a steep learning curve as it is so different from the D3100 that i had. I find it kind of frustrating that i knew where all of the functions where and how and when to use them, know i have to really think about it and hunt around a bit. Practice makes perfect!

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