PHOTOSHOP TUTORIAL | Graphic Thoughts: Clip Masking Your Way to Fame
Posted Apr 1, 2008

Oftentimes I’m asked, "What is the one coolest power-user function you use in Photoshop—the one you couldn’t live without?" There are lots of slick tricks available in Photoshop, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Clip Masking. Hands-down, it’s one of the most useful functions of Photoshop, and over the years, during my training sessions, it’s invariably one of those things that not everyone in the class is familiar with. So what the heck is Clip Masking and why should you care? Honestly, you may not, but for those of you who would like to put an image inside some text or drop a photo into a preformatted shape, then Clip Masking is the absolute fastest way to do this. In this tutorial I’ll show you a couple of ways to make this work. It’s painless, I promise!

Step 1: Create a Clipping Mask
In this example I want the word "flower" to have a photo of some sunflowers "inside" the letters. I’ve seen people cut out the letters and such, but you’ll see that the clip masking technique is simply the easiest way to achieve quick results without the hassle of cutting or pasting. So, in this case I’ll type the word "flower" on a new blank canvas by choosing File > New, then using the T tool to type the text.

At this point, we’re going to open a photograph of the sunflowers (File > Open). You will now have 2 documents open in Photoshop: your original document with "flower" written inside and your photograph. After making sure that the Move Tool is selected (keyboard shortcut V), what you need to do now is left-click on the photograph and drag it into the document with the text. If you hold the Shift key while doing this, the photograph will land dead center in the next document.

Note that when you drag it into the other document, the photograph will become a new layer in the document that once held just the flower text. I stress this point because I see people simply move the windows on top of each other, but that won’t cut it—you must click and drag the photograph "into" the other document (another "identifier" that you’re doing this right is that you’ll see a + symbol in a square next to your cursor as you make the dragging movement). Ultimately, once you’ve made the proper move, you will see in your Layers palette Layer 1, flower, Background. Simply make sure that the photograph (Layer 1) is on the upper most layer above the text flower layer (it may completely cover your canvas—don’t worry, we’ll change that in the next move).

Now for the fun part. Select the Layer 1 photograph layer, right-click, and choose Create Clipping Mask. You can also move your cursor between Layer 1 and "flower" on the Layers palette while holding the Alt/Option key; when your cursor changes to a different symbol, click your mouse and yet another option is Layer > Create Clipping Mask or Ctrl/Cmd-Alt/Option-G. if you’ve done the right move, you’ll see the photograph instantly pop inside the text. On your Layers palette you’ll also notice that Layer 1 is now indented (Figure 1, below).

figure 1

Step 2: Move the Photo Inside the Text
What makes this function flexible is that you can now still select the photograph (Layer 1) and move it around inside the text (be sure and link the text and the image if you want to move them both around at the same time by selecting both layers in your Layers Palette and clicking the chain link icon at the bottom of the palette).

If at any time you decide you don’t want the photograph inside your text, simply right-click and choose Release Clipping Mask (note: older versions of Photoshop refer to it as a clipping group). At this point, you can now select the text layer and add some of the styles like drop shadows, bevels, etc. (see Figure 2, below, and my last column on Styles).

figure 1

Step 3: Use Clip Mask Images in DVD Menus
At PixelPops, we’ve created many DVD Menu Templates (Figure 3, below) that videographers/photographers all over the world use for their packaging and presentations. Clip Masking makes it easier than ever to drop photos into the templates quickly and easily, because while you may not have a need to drop a photo into text, you might want to create a rounded box (or in this case a film frame) that you will want to replace the photograph on.

figure 1

Using the same technique as described above you would simply find the layer set named Photo Zone and drop your photo into that layer and clip mask it. It’s really at the core of how I do everything when it comes to placing imagery inside of other imagery.

Lance Gray (lance at pixelpops.com) is chief creative pixelmonkey at PixelPops Design, LLC. For questions, thoughts, or ideas, simply email him.