Fan of creative technology, elearning, instructional design and a little geeky

Layer Mask from Grayscale Image

Digitip 025 – Adobe Photoshop CS

(revision 1.1)

During a Saturday training session, one of the trainees asked a question about creating a layer mask based on an existing greyscale image. A solution was found, that seemed too much like a work around. The following tip uses a copy-‘n-paste approach.

The images

Start by opening both images. The image that will be masked and the greyscale image.

sydney pic

The destination image.

grayscale image

The greyscale image (grayscale if you’re in the U.S.).

If your image is inversed then use the Image> Adjustment>Inverse command to swap the black and white colours around.

Converting Background to Layer.

double click background

Next, convert the Background into a layer by double clicking the Background icon. The New Layer dialog box will appear.

make new layer from background

Either enter a new layer name, or keep the default “Layer 0”. Don’t amend any other settings. Click OK to convert the Background to Layer 0.

Creating a layer mask.

layer mask button click

With Layer 0 selected, click the “new layer mask” button at the bottom of the layers palette . A blank mask is added to the image. Click the mask icon in the layers palette to select the mask. Then access the channels palette. The mask channel is automatically selected.

layer mask channel show

With the layer mask selected click the view mask icon, then paste the copied greyscale image. (Edit > Paste).

layer mask channel hidden

To view the image without the “red” maske overlay deselect the view Layer 0 Mask icon again.

image with layer mask

The finished result provides transparency for black maske areas and semi transparency (opacity) for grey areas in the mask. Use the painting tools to expand the mask if required (when placing over larger image files), and move the mask to preferred position over the image (remember to UNLINK first when doing this, as you’d be moving both image and mask simultaneously otherwise.)

Save the file as a native Photoshop file (retain layers) then place it into your favourite page layout appliation … InDesign CS 🙂

final result in indesign


There are a number of methods to create the above generated affect, and this tip merely outlines one of the many methods available in Photoshop. Thanks for asking the question Josh!

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  1. whateven whateven
    April 7, 2013    

    Thank you, I was getting frustrated with this but your solution solved my frustration.

  2. Taeba Taeba
    September 9, 2012    

    Thanks! It’s a such a great saving of time!

  3. gregaiken gregaiken
    May 6, 2012    

    thanks TONS! you just helped me out of a bind.

  4. FlashJog FlashJog
    December 28, 2011    

    thanks ,
    i’m using gimp but this article is really help me
    (it give me a clue about how i could do “create mask form image” in gimp)

  5. Patrick Patrick
    October 10, 2011    

    Thanks for the guide. Very easy to follow!

    • October 14, 2011    

      Thanks Patrick, glad it was helpful.

  6. Steve T. Steve T.
    June 25, 2011    

    Thanks, both methods – with channels and alt clicking work great !

    I wonder why such an obvious feature was not implemented in more intuitive way in Photoshop ?

  7. March 14, 2011    

    thanks @sd 🙂

    yeah, masking certainly has changed in recent versions of Photoshop. I should rewrite some of these older posts when I have some free time 🙂

  8. sd sd
    March 11, 2011    

    Thanks a lot for this tip because I had been looking for it for ages! I’ve been using it for a while now and just discovered this extra bit, so I thought I’d share: without going into channels, alt clicking on the layer mask and pasting seems to work as well (I’m using CS5 ext and windows).

  9. dollarbindot dollarbindot
    February 22, 2011    

    first google result for “convert layer to mask”, I knew there must be a way! Clear and concise, gradient blur amongst others will be much more accurate in future

  10. fred eric fred eric
    November 26, 2010    

    was looking for this for ages. and it’s so easy!!

  11. Cari Jansen Cari Jansen
    July 1, 2010    


    thanks for the feedback. glad the tip was of help.


  12. gabrielkfl gabrielkfl
    June 27, 2010    

    Thank you very much. Works great.

    Much easier to create layer masks this way. I get to work on it with as much detail as I want and can make shades out of images.

    Really good. Saved my life. Thanks. ^^

  13. Riikka Riikka
    July 22, 2009    

    Many thanks for this tip, it is still valid and works perfectly, five years on.

    • Cari Jansen Cari Jansen
      July 22, 2009    

      @Riikka: Glad it was of help 🙂 Always nice to get feedback from readers 🙂

      I’ve been thinking I should re-record some of the older tutorials one day in the latest version 🙂 but never seem to have enough free time to do that and end up recording other stuff instead 🙂



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