The answer is clipping. I’ll tell you that right up front. If you would like to apply an adjustment layer to just one layer in Adobe Photoshop, use the clipping feature. It’s that simple.
Have you ever worked on a file in Photoshop and thought about adjusting only one area of an image? For instance, let’s say you have a lovely couple standing together outside and you wanted to emphasize them and only them. You wanted the background to sort of disappear, or at least fade out a bit. How would you go about doing that? If you apply an adjustment layer to the entire photo and try to emphasize the couple like that, sure, you’ll get your emphasis, but it’ll be applied to everything, even the background. Conversely, if you attempted to de-emphasize the background, everything would be de-emphasized the same way as the previous example was. There has to be a way to separate things into their own layers and then apply adjustments to just those layers. I’m sure you already know that there is. It’s the reason I’m sitting here writing right now.
In today’s post, I’m going to work through a short project that will demonstrate exactly how to select an object in a photograph, apply a layer mask to that object and then how to clip it to only one layer. The result will be an image that contains separate elements inside of it. While this demonstration will be simple and brief, the ramifications of it will be far reaching. This is the method professionals use when they’re doing these types of things. Remember, layer masks, adjustment layers and clipping are used every single day by the best image editors in the world.
Today’s Demo Photo
I’ve probably used this photo before. I thought it was perfect for this post though, so I decided to use it again. My plan is to select the couple and then apply a layer mask to them, so they’re isolated from the background. I’ll continue on and apply the adjustment layers from there.
Selecting the Couple
I’m going to use the Quick Selection Tool to make today’s selection. Since there isn’t anything terribly challenging about this selection, I’ll leave it rough so I can move on at a decent pace.
Before I do anything though, I’m going to duplicate the photograph layer by clicking on it and dragging it down to the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. That will give me two identical layers. Then, I’ll use the Quick Selection Tool to make my selection.
I’ll size and then drag the tool around the inside edge of the couple. If I’m careful, I’ll end up with the dotted marching ants around the selection (the couple). If I mess up and draw outside the lines, I’ll just press and hold the Alt key on my keyboard to unselect that area. Here’s my selection.
Can you see the dotted lines? They’re around the outer edge of the couple.
Adding a Layer Mask
The next step will be to add a layer mask. Since I have a selection, adding a layer mask will make it so just that selection is visible with everything outside of it invisible. To add the layer mask, I’ll head down to the bottom of the Layers panel and click the Add Layer Mask button.
If you take a look at the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel above, you’ll see that the visible part is white and the hidden part is black.
Adding an Adjustment Layer
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that I wanted to somewhat brighten up the couple. To do this, I’ll apply the Brightness/Contrast adjustment from the Adjustments panel. Once it’s been applied, I’ll push the Brightness slider to the right for a value of 30 and the Contrast slider to the right for a value of 15. That will brighten everything in the image as well as add some contrast too.
While this is nice and all, it’s not exactly fitting with my plan for making the couple stand out from the background. As I just mentioned, everything is now bright with some contrast thrown in for good measure. How do I separate the effect of the adjustment layer so it only affects the top layer – the one with the mask applied to it?
Clipping an Adjustment Layer
Before I go any further, I’d like to have you take a look at the current Layers panel. Check this out.
What I’ve got is the adjustment layer on top, affecting both the masked layer of just the couple as well as the layer beneath that, which includes the background. My goal now is to make it so the adjustment layer only affects the middle layer. To do this, I’ll head up to the Layer > Create Clipping Mask menu item and click.
Now, if I go back and look at the layers in the Layers panel, I’ll notice that the top adjustment layer has been indented. That means it’s clipped to the layer directly beneath it and it’s not affecting the layers below any longer.
Let’s now take a look at the couple.
If you’ll notice, the couple is brighter, while the background has been untouched. This is perfect. To celebrate, I think I’ll add another adjustment layer. I’ll go ahead and add the Vibrance adjustment and clip it just as I did the previous one. I would like to add some additional color to the couple as well.
Darkening the Background
At this point, I think I’m ready to darken, or de-emphasize, the background. To do this, I’ll click on the bottom layer in the Layers panel and then I’ll apply the Brightness/Contrast adjustment again. This time, the adjustment layer will appear directly above the bottom layer, so it automatically won’t affect anything above it. I don’t need to clip it to anything.
When the Properties panel for this adjustment opens up, I’ll push both sliders to the left. For the Brightness, I’ll make the value -40 and for the Contrast, I’ll make the value -50. This will darken the entire scene behind the couple and it will also dull it out somewhat so all those branches don’t distract from the couple. Now let’s take a look at the final Layers panel, just to get a clear idea of what’s happened.
And now, let’s take a look at the final image.
Pretty cool, right? It makes the photo look much more 3D.
I hope I clearly explained how to use clipping in Adobe Photoshop to have an adjustment layer affect only the layer directly beneath it for some very nice effects. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section below or you can ask any question you wish in the discussion forum. Thanks for reading!