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Creating Real Layer Masks with Free Software

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Photoshop is not the only program able to do layer masks, a  fast and clean way to mix elements from different images in one final picture. You can do it for free with software like GIMP. Or Perfect Layers 2. In this tutorial we show you how.

You do not need to spend money to be able to use Layers and Layer Masks.

A recent quick tip published here about the way to fix a landscape exposure done under extreme conditions and without the use of a graduated filter at the moment the image was captured may have led some people into the idea that only through Photoshop CS6 the trick can be done.

A reader of the article even wrote a comment stating that "unless you have hundreds of dollars to get the over-priced Photoshop CS6, this (tutorial) won’t help you. Would have been nice if Adobe included layers in Lightroom 4."

Gimp is a free software that can be used to do a lot of things Photoshop does.

Well, let me tell you the good news: this tutorial was created to show other ways to do exactly the same. And for free in some cases. I am not familiar with all the software around, but I do enjoy trying as much. And I am very keen on free software that in many cases does cover the needs of a large percentage of users.

Programs like, which is free, offer you layers, and the next version 4, will have layers masks, something that is essential to do the kind of treatment shown in my article Double Expose for Better Landscapes.

But there are other options besides Photoshop. One of them is within the Adobe family, Photoshop Elements, that since version 9, launched in September 2010, has layer masks as an option, just like the big brother has. Users of Adobe Photoshop Elements had long envied that and other options, and since that version they've had layers masks working exactly the same way as in Photoshop, for around 100 dollars.

I am not familiar with Paint Shop Pro, although I used it as my preferred editor for years, back in the nineties (and I did pay for it, being shareware then), but it also has layer masks. And it costs about the same as Photoshop Elements, so there is choice.

On the free front there are options, too. For this article I choose as the first example GIMP, which is usually presented as the most powerful free Photoshop alternative... with the worst interface. It is in fact a strange program to use for Photoshop users like me, even with the GimpShop version that tries to emulate the Photoshop interface.

This said, Gimp includes all the needed tools and features for professional image editing such as layers, filters, color correction, artistic effects. It also has a huge support community and can be extended with numerous plugins that add functionality. And hey, it works, as I just discovered!

Perfect Layers 2 from OnOne Software is a very easy-to-use tool to work with layer masks. And it is absolutely free.

This latest build - GimpShop 2.8.0 - represents over 17 years of development and collaboration. The GNU Image Manipulation Program (or G.I.M.P) is an Open Source program designed, maintained and supported by a team of international volunteers. This latest version of GimpShop incorporates, the creators say, "support of 16 & 32-bit color, a highly intuitive user-interface, a huge array of filters & dynamic brushes and leading-edge advanced tools that power users and professionals demand in high-end, high-priced photo and image manipulation programs like Adobe Photoshop."

My second choice is, again, free for all users. And although it can be used together with Lightroom or Aperture, to let you integrate layers and layers mask in your workflow, it also works as a standalone program, meaning that you do not need to have other program to explore the possibilities of layer masks.

Still, I would advise you to get a full image editor and work with Perfect Layers 2 as an extension. A fabulous one, as you can find out here. Read more about it after the GIMP tutorial.

Using Layers Mask in GIMP

This tutorial will help you to start using layers and layer masks in GIMP. You can download the program GimpShop 2.8 from Gimp webpage. Give it a try. After all is free.

GimpShop version 2.8 tries to emulate the layout of Photoshop menus but it is still a convoluted interface that needs some time to get used too.

1. Not an Intuitive Interface

GIMP does not have the most intuitive interface, but lets you work with masks and layer masks as Photoshop does. If you are not familiar with the program, you will probably start by opening both pictures in different documents and windows.

You have to look around for a while until you get familiar with all the commands in Gimp.

2. How to Open All Layers at Once

It is better to go to File menu and choose Open as Layers, and open all the files you want using that option. You'll get a warning about color profiles, if there's a mismatch between the file profile and the profile in use, as you get in Photoshop, and once you answer that your files will start to open.

Once you get the files opened as layers you discover a new set of options in GimpShop 2.8

3. Layering the Images

You will see GIMP placing each layer over the previous, while in the right side panel the info for the images shows, much the same way Photoshop does. For this example, I placed the image with the sky exposure on top and the image with the ground exposure under it.

The "Add a Mask to the Layer" menu offers you all the options you need to fully control your masks.

4. Many Options for Layer Masks

Right clicking on the top image you open a new panel where you'll find the "Add a Layer Mask" option, opening a new panel with a lot of new options. Choose the one you need for the specific purpose and you're ready for the next step. For this example, I used the "White Mask."

Once you get the masks in place the work flow is similar to Photoshop.

5. Paint to Reveal

Now you just have to paint black over the area you want to reveal, in this case the bottom area, where the sunflowers are.

Painting black conceals the pixels in the layer you're working in, revealing what is under. You can choose the brush size, opacity and feathering, and start painting. The more careful you are doing this process, the better the result will be.

The results will always depend on how much time you take to edit the image.

6. The Final Image

The final image in GIMP will look something like this. Not much different, in fact, from the result obtained from Photoshop. So it is possible to do layer masks for free with software available for download from the Internet.

Working with Perfect Layers 2

Perfect Layers 2 is the fast and easy way to create layered files in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. With Perfect Layers you can create and edit multi-layered Photoshop files directly within Lightroom or use it to combine images from within other applications such as Apple Aperture, iPhoto or Adobe Bridge. Use it to change skies, composite multiple images together and retouch portraits using the built-in blending modes.

The program lets you combine multiple images into a layered Photoshop-compatible file. Adjust layer size, position, blending mode and opacity. Use the built-in layer masks and masking tools to blend multiple layers together.

Once images are brought into Perfect Layers, they are merged as separate layers that the user can easily reorder and position besides changing blending modes and opacity. In addition, photographers can selectively blend, or mask layers together using the Masking Brush and Masking Bug developed originally for PhotoTools and FocalPoint, other tools from OnOne Software catalogue.

Perfect Layers saves its work as native layered Photoshop. Similar to using a layer mask, you can paint with the Masking Brush to reveal or hide areas of a layer. With the Masking Bug, you can quickly create gradient masks for making vignettes and graduated filter effects. Both tools work together and are non-destructive and can even be re-edited with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements.

Download Perfect Layer 2 from OnOne Software.

Perfect Layers 2 has a clean interface that has similarities with Lightroom

1. The Masking Bug

Perfect Layers 2 has a unique tool to do the work with layers easier. It looks like a bug you place over the image once both files are open. The bug has antennas or legs, and adjusting their size you get different options in terms of layer and mask opacity and feather. There are video tutorials at OnOne Software website that explain it all, and there's also a 40 page manual distributed with the software. Which is free!

The Masking Bug tool is one of the interesting features of this free program.

2. Adjust the antennas!

You can choose between a rectangle and round bug depending on the area you want to mask. You start by placing the bug, rotating it and defining the size it will cover on the image.

The antennas on the Masking Bug let you control different features of this magic tool.

3. Masking Bug Opacity and Grid

Because the Masking Bug Tool sits on top of your image you are able to adjust its Opacity if it is interfering with the image. The Masking Bug Tool Opacity lets you control how visible the Masking Bug tool outline appears on screen. The tool also has a Grid Tool that controls if the grid that appears under the Masking Bug is on or off. Normally it is set to Auto, where the grid will appear while you are adjusting the Masking Bug only.

While the Masking Bug controls a whole area, nothing stops you from using the Masking Brush to adjust portions of the image

4. Retouching the Masking Bug

The Masking Bug lets you control a whole area at once, but if you want to work on specific areas you can use the Masking Brush. The mask created by the Masking Brush sits on top of and overrides the Masking Bug. You can add to a Masking Bug with the Masking Brush when the paint mode is set to Paint-Out. You can subtract from a Masking Bug with the Masking Brush when the paint mode is set to Paint-In.

If you make a mistake with the Masking Brush, you can remove it without affecting the Masking Bug using the Erase mode. It is so easy to use you will soon forget about other methods of using masks. Believe me!

It is also possible to work without using the Masking Bug, simply painting in or out areas of the masks created in Perfect Layers 2.

5. Use the Plain Old Mask

If you do not want to use the Masking Bug you can use Perfect Layers the regular way, just using the Making Brush to reveal or hide areas of the image. To use the Masking Brush, select it on the right side panel. Make sure you are on the layer you wish to hide. For this example, I chose to place the ground image on top, just to show that it can be done different ways.

I choose Paint Out, to hide the areas of sky in the image and reveal the darker tones from the layer under it. As I brush, the underlying layer appears. If a mistake is made you can use the Undo command from the menu, choose Undo Stroke from the Edit Menu or toggle the paint mode and brush over the mistake.

Making the masks visible lets you see exactly the area you're working in, important in transition points between different areas of the image.

6. See Where You are Painting

Perfect Layers 2 allows you to view the mask for each layer with the Masking Brush and Masking Bug. You can use the panel (Masking Pane) on the right side to choose between the different options for Mask viewing.

A final effect chosen from those present in Perfect Layers 2 gives the image an extra punch in color and contrast.

7. And a Touch of HDR

Perfect Layers 2 is now distributed with Perfect Effects 3, a collection of 25 professional effects that you can apply to your picture. So I could not resist, in the end, to use the Faux HDR option in the program, to create the final illustration in this tutorial. Now go and try this yourself.

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