How To Use Clipping Masks In Photoshop

Clipping masks are one of many essential tools in Photoshop that help to control where a layer is actually visible. With the help of a clipping mask, you can mask multiple layers together to create any shape you want. Although this may seem like an uninteresting tool in Photoshop, clipping masks prove extremely useful.

In this tutorial, you’ll learn the different ways you can use clipping masks in Photoshop, a helpful keyboard shortcut, and the important differences between clipping masks and layer masks.

By the end of this post, you’ll have wondered why you didn’t start using clipping masks sooner.

Let’s get started!

What Is A Clipping Mask?

A clipping mask connects multiple layers together to create a shared mask based on the shape of the bottommost layer. The bottom layer will define where the clipped layers are visible, based on the shape or layer mask of that layer. These types of masks are useful for applying adjustment onto a specific layer or to alter the shape of an image.

To give you an example, let’s say you have a piece of text on one layer, and an image on the other. Now let’s use a clipping mask to fill the text with the image.

After clipping the image to the text, the image is only visible in the shape of the text. That’s because the clipping mask makes it so the above layers (the image) are confined to the bottom-most layer (the text).

This can be used in countless other scenarios when editing in Photoshop, particularly with spot adjustments. For example, you could apply a brightening adjustment to one layer, while leaving the others untouched.

You can combine as many layers as you want in a clipping mask. As they combine, they create somewhat of a chain, all linking to the bottommost layer.

In the example below, you can see how there are 4 clipping masks combine to link to the same underlying layer.

In this other example, there are two sets of clipping masks applied to two different layers. You can easily tell where the chain is broken as there is no clipping mask symbol beside the layer thumbnails.

How To Create A Clipping Mask

The most simple way of creating a clipping mask in Photoshop is to right-click on a layer and select “Create Clipping Mask.”

This will clip the selected layer to the underlying layer in the Layers panel.

To make life a little bit easier, you can hold the Alt or Option key and hover between the two layers you want to clip.

By clicking between the two layers you’ll apply a clipping mask connecting the upper layer to the bottom layer.

The Handy Keyboard Shortcut For Creating Clipping Masks In Photoshop

You can also create clipping masks in Photoshop using an easy keyboard shortcut. Clicking on the layer you want to add a clipping mask to, press Command + Option + G (Mac) or Control + Alt + G (PC).

You can use this same shortcut to remove clipping masks as well!

Clipping Masks On Transparent Layers

Although clipping masks can be used in just about any situation, they do not work when clipping to a transparent layer.

To give you an example, I’ll apply a clipping mask from my image layer onto a transparent layer.

Once the clipping mask is applied, my image goes invisible, even though the layer itself should be visible (indicated by the eyeball icon).

This is because there is nothing in the clipped layer to display the image. Since this underlying layer is full of transparent pixels, nothing actually happens besides making the clipped image transparent.

So what happens if you apply visible pixels onto this transparent layer?

Selecting the Brush Tool (B) and painting on the transparent layer, notice how the clipped image starts to become visible again.

A clipping mask will only allow a clipped layer to appear on visible pixels of the underlying layer.

That’s why clipping masks work exceptionally well for things like cropping images into a shape or filling text with an image.

Scaling Clipping Masks In Photoshop

If you’re new to working with clipping masks, scaling a clipped layer may seem confusing.

Unlike a layer mask, clipping masks can be moved and scale independently from the layer it’s clipped to.

In layman’s terms that means you scale a clipped layer without affecting where it’s visible.

An easy way to see this in action is by cropping an image into a circle. I’ll start by selecting the Ellipse Tool and create a circle shape.

Placing my image layer above the circle layer, I’ll use the keyboard shortcut Command + Option + G (Mac) or Control + Alt + G (PC) to create a clipping mask.

Now the image is only visible inside of the circle, but it needs to be repositioned.

Grabbing the Move Tool (V) and clicking in the image layer, I can reposition it and scale without any issues.

Since the image layer is on a completely separate layer than the shape, it can be adjusted freely. However, if you move the shape layer, it will change where the clipped image is visible.

That’s where layer masks and clipping masks are a bit different. A clipping mask connects two separate layers, while a layer mask is directly linked to one layer by default.

Using Adjustment Layers With Clipping Masks

Clipping masks are also extremely useful when blending multiple photos since they allow you to selectively adjust layers.

For example, there is an image cut out on one layer, and a new background on the other. If you want to only adjust the cutout, you may think you need to manually mask around the shape.

Luckily, with a clipping mask, you can apply any adjustment directly to the cut-out in one click. That way you can adjust your cutout while leaving the background totally untouched.

Using a clipping mask, the Curves Adjustment only effects the model.

Better yet, you don’t have to deal with any selections or layer masks!

This same idea goes for all types of adjustment layers in Photoshop. With clipping masks, you can easily isolate which layers are affected by your color and exposure adjustments.

What’s The Difference Between A Clipping Mask Vs. Layer Mask?

A clipping mask uses the visible pixels of an underlying layer to create a mask for single, or multiple layers above. A layer mask, on the other hand, applies a mask to a single layer and uses black or white pixels on the mask to indicate areas of transparency.

A layer mask can be used for refining the visible area of a single layer. If you need to create a mask that’s unique to one layer, then a layer mask is the only way to do so.

Meanwhile, a clipping mask uses the visible pixels of an underlying layer to define the shape of a clipped layer. Like you learned earlier when filling text with an image, a clipping mask works best to link one layer to another layer’s shape.

Layer masks and clipping masks can be used together in any Photoshop project. In the example below, there are currently two clipped layers inside of the circle shape layer.

By adding a layer mask to one of the image layers, I can fade the edges of the image to create a different look.

Although each type of mask changes the visibility of a layer, a layer mask allows you to create a mask unique to the layer.

A clipping mask relies on the shape of other layers to define a masking area instead.

In Photoshop there isn’t a single best way to mask your images. Both layer masks and clipping masks are valuable tools. Rather than looking at them as this one or that, try to think of them as a masking duo. A team of tools to help you refine where a layer or adjustment is visible in your project!

Now that you know all about clipping masks, let’s go over Layer Masks In Photoshop for the ultimate control in spot adjustments!

Happy Masking,

Brendan 🙂