Photoshop Techniques: Get control over Layers & Groups with Vector Masks

Vector Masks are a feature in Photoshop that has been around for awhile. In fact, it’s been around so long I can’t even remember when it was first introduced as a new feature. Yet it’s one of those things that I never see being used!
This is for Photoshop users that could benefit from a little more control over their Layer content, especially in regards to masking. It’s such a useful way to control your content that I can’t believe it doesn’t get used more than I’ve seen. I get asked about Vector Masks quite often, especially when I send one of my files over to someone like a buddy of mine that can’t seem to get his head around this thing, so my goal here is to get more folks into Vector Masks.

I’m using a masthead that I created for one of my website’s pages for the example here. The final image needed to be rectangular with one nice beveled corner and some black space around it. I created several different mastheads for the site and all from within this one file.

STEP 1
STEP 1

The first image (STEP 1), is a quick look at the file already in progress. The first thing to do is get organized. I will be creating several versions of the same format for this Masthead, so I start by grouping my layers accordingly. I have two folders in the file for now. The bottom folder has some common stuff that will be used repeatedly. The folder on the top level contains art specific to the Masthead that I’m creating at the moment.

STEP 2
STEP 2

Next Step (2). Create a Path for making the Mask. My shape is pretty simple this time, so I grab the Rectangle Tool and select Paths from the 3 choices in the menu bar (top left corner by the #2). This will allow you to draw a Vector shape without any Color Fill. When you select the style from those 3 little icons in the menu at the top, you get 3 choices: Shape Layers, Paths, and Fill Pixels. This time we need Paths. Shape Layers will work also to get started, but it’s an extra step in this case.

You can also copy over a path from Illustrator if you’ve set up your artwork there. I frequently build files that start out in Illustrator to get all my shapes created, then bring them into Photoshop to give them their appearances.

*A little Side Note tip: The little green icon in the image above highlights another Layer Mask related topic.  I’m using Layer Styles on all of these images to quickly give all of my callouts the same Styles, like the red stroke and drop shadow around the boxes. This is an example of using Layer Styles options to control objects in layers that use Layer Styles with Masks. When you have Layers Styles active and you apply a Mask to the Layer, you may see an effect like the one below on the left side. If you don’t want to see the Layer Styles where the layer has a Mask, you need to open the Layer Styles dialog box and check “Layer Mask Hides Effects” option. This will hide the Stroke and Drop Shadow where the mask is being used.

* Side Note: Layers Styles Tip
* Side Note: Layers Styles Tip
STEP 3
STEP 3

STEP 3 (Above Image). After you’ve created your Path, you should convert it from a “Work Path” to a regular Path to save it. A Work Path will be written over the next time you create a Path, so double-click on the Work Path in the Paths panel, name it (or not – leave it named Path 1 if you don’t care). Now your Path will be there next time you need it.

Edit your Path if you need to. In my case, I just needed to create one bevelled corner in the lower right hand corner. Pretty simple.

Below is a quick look of the art so far, with the Path ready for making a Mask.

Where it's at so far
Where it's at so far
STEP 4
STEP 4

STEP 4 (Above). Now that you have a Path ready to use for a Vector Mask, it’s all downhill from here. Select (highlight)  the Layer or Layer Group that you want to Mask by clicking the Layer, then select the Path you created for your Mask.

STEP 5
STEP 5

STEP 5 (Above). Almost there! When you have your Layer/Group and Path selected, go up to the Layer menu and scroll down to “Vector Mask” > select Current Path. That’s it. You should now have a nice clean Vector Mask showing up on your Layer or Layer Group.

So now you can drag, place and duplicate tons of art into your Photoshop document and as you put it into your masked folder, everything will be nicely contained and clipped to your custom shape. This custom shape can be anything, but the way. If you decide your Vector Mask is the white areas on a Cambell’s Soup label and your going to try to become this millenium’s Andy Warhol, you can do that!

When you’ve decided 237 layers is enough in that folder, make a new Layer Group and apply your Vector Mask to keep on truckin’.

I know what you’re saying. I can hear it now. You’re saying “Well, idiot… I could have done the same thing with a regular Layer Mask. Are you stupid or what?” And I say to you, sure, I may be a little stupid, but your missing the coolest part! Now that you have a Vector Mask on your Group and all your Layers are nicely contained within, you are still free to add a Layer Mask to the Group and tweak & fidget for several more hours. You can actually use your Layer Mask now to fade and blend areas, or screen back other areas that you only want to show a little of. So there’s that.

And then, my well educated friends, there’s another hidden bonus you may or may not have thought about and may or may not give a crap about, and that is…. PDF. Yes, you can save a nice tiny, compressed version of your latest Andy Warhol impression to email over to your friend who works at the cool printing shop where you get to slip your own stuff in for free after hours, and it’ll print with nice clean, crisp edges just like it would if you printed an Illustrator file. If you used an entire headline as a Vector Mask to fill with a sticky puppy fur texture for whatever reason, all those vector paths tag along in the PDF file and print out as clean as if they were still live type. The only thing you will notice is that if you did save a really compressed PDF small enough to email, the resolution of the bitmap areas will still look like a crappy JPG. It won’t be nearly as noticable though, because your Vector Masks are giving that low res image at least a few nice clean lines.

So there ya go. They say you learn something new every day. I hope that’s true for even one person that reads this, and it’ll all be worth it!

Later Gaters…

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