One of the upgrades that really help Photoshop Elements users is in current version 9 and that is the Layer Mask. Masking on a layer allows you hide part of the image or effect. This hiding or even pulling back gives more creative expression for images and makes placing cut out images easier.
For example, lets say you want to put a person or a fuzzy object like a tree in another image. In the olden days we had to make a selection and try to make it tight or using the Refine Edge tool a softer edge so it would not look like it was cut out with a dull pair of scissors . This would take a lot of time and/or frustration to get right. And then sometime it would still not look right.
This is where the new Layer Mask comes into play. While making a good selection are still a good thing to have in many cases you can now just make a rough selection around your object, copy then paste it onto the new image. This copy will come in on it’s own layer and in version 9 you can click on that little square with the circle in it at the bottom of the Layer Pallet right next to the new layer icon of the square with the corner turned up. The second one is the Layer Mask icon. What this will do is place a white square right next to the image thumbnail in the layer pallet. If it looks familiar that is because these layer masks come up every time we add an adjustment layer and work in the same way. For years we had to do complex work around layer tricks employing fill layers of 50% grays, linking layers with burning and dodging or brush tools and maybe even waving a dead chicken over heads.
Now we have this powerful tool that allows us to blend in images with just a simple brush tool and painting with black. First click on the white box to make sure it is selected and click on the brush tool. Make sure your fore ground color is black and start painting along the edge of your rough copied image. You will see the pixels start to disappear and if you have a soft edge brush you will get a good blending effect. You can even use different shaped brushes for different effects. Here is a really neat trick. Reduce the opacity of the brush and you will see the areas you paint over fade out instead of being removed.
You are no doubt going to say “But Bill, why not just use the eraser tool to remove the edges.” The reason is that the eraser tool is a destructive tool in that when you use it removes pixels while the Layer Mask is just hiding them under your brush strokes. When you make a mistake by going too far or over something important like a hand or a head with the Layer Mask you can just paint it back with white. The pixels are always there and can be reworked as many times as needed. After all a Pixel is a terrible thing to waste.
So lets go back to the layer mask on the Adjustment Layer for a minute. They have been there for a very long time but are we using them. Think about the times you may have added an Adjustment Layer for Levels and really only needed it in a small area to bright out shadow detail or highlights. With the layer mask you can just have it in that area by painting out all the other areas or (and here is one of my famous Bonus Tips) you can fill the layer with black using the Fill tool then paint with white in just those small areas needing the adjustment.
For a second bonus tip you can make those wonderful blending images where you have one image blending into the other using a Layer Mask. Place the one image on top of the other, add a Layer Mask and with the Graduate Tool going from Black to transparent and pull it across the top image. It will smoothly blend into the other. You can even add a couple of Graduate blends for just the right look.