Introduction to Layers and Masking

If you aren’t familiar with using layers on your photos, don’t worry - it’s very straightforward.  Basically it allows you to place a copy of your image on top of the existing image.  That new copy on top is a layer.  

You can make adjustments to any layer and apply them to the finished work.  This allows you to build your photographic vision a step at a time while maintaining control over every aspect of your photo. 

In short, this is a magic trick, and it’s a damn good one.  The power of layers is so immense that you just cannot ignore it.  Truthfully, this is the BIG THING that caused me to switch from Photomatix over to Aurora HDR.  Aurora makes this process simple and this gives you such amazing capability and control over your image that you will end up using layers on every single photo.  I frequently have 4-5 layers per photo and sometimes more.

Why use Layers?

Using layers gives you ultimate control over the outcome of your photo edits.  You can create a layer to make a color adjustment to a single portion of your photo, and then use a brush to paint it in.  You can then create a new layer to increase details for a specific object or section of your photo, and then once again just brush it onto your photo.

You can create a layer and add a Preset to your photo, and then turn around and create another layer and add another Preset to your photo.  You can create a layer to apply noise reduction across just a portion of your image.

Honestly, the options are limitless and restricted only by your imagination.  Here is a video I did, from my "Making the photograph" series, showing me stacking multiple layers to create my final photo.

How to add a Layer

To add a layer, just click on the big + sign in the upper right section of your screen (it is next to the word Layers, just under the Histogram, and the + sign is aqua blue in color).  It will create a layer and default to naming it Layer 1 (or if you already have some layers, it will name it whichever number comes next in sequence).  You can change the name to be whatever you want it to be, and I do this most of the time.  I generally name the layer based on whichever edit I am going to perform there.  For example, if I am adding a Preset, I may name the layer after the Preset name.  It helps keep me organized.  You can see this in the video above.

Now, once you have created a new layer and added a Preset to it, you have a few options.  

  1. Leave it as is.  It will apply at 100% opacity across your entire photo.
  2. Adjust the opacity of the layer.  It will still apply across your entire photo but at a reduced intensity.
  3. Brush in the adjustment to select parts of the photo.  

If you leave the layer with the preset “as is”, then you will have the full effect of the Preset applied across the entire photo at full strength.  You may like the look of this effect and this might totally be what you want to achieve with your shot.  If that’s the case, you are all set.

However, if you like the look of the Preset but want to adjust it somewhat, you have two options:

  1. You can reduce the opacity of the layer, which will reduce the amount of the Preset visible across your entire photo.  To do this, you just click on the word Opacity right above your layer, and move the slider to get to the desired opacity percentage setting.  As you reduce it, the visible intensity of the preset on this layer is reduced accordingly.  I frequently use this to soften up the amount of a Preset, usually because I like it but at 100% it just looks way too overdone.
  2. Your second option, and the more powerful one, is to grab an adjustment brush and brush the adjustment onto the portions of the photo where you want to have it visible.  This is very simple yet very powerful.

Let me show a couple of examples to help clarify this.  In the screenshot below, I have created a new layer, named it Layer 1 - Realistic Dreamy (after the preset I selected), and applied it at 100% opacity across the entire image.  This is Option 1 of 3 from the above list.

But let's say I decide that the preset is a little too intense for me, so in the screenshot below I have reduced the opacity of that layer down to 70%.  The preset is still applied across the entire photo, but it is less intense.  This is Option 2 of 3 from the above list.

But after some inspection, let's say I decide that I really just want the effect to apply to the sky and nothing else.  This is where the power of combining layers and brushes really shines.  First thing I do is click on the paintbrush icon in the upper right of the screen and select the size, opacity and softness of my brush.

Then I begin painting.  This is creating a mask on the photo.  Anywhere that you paint is where the effect will apply to the photo.  You can see in the screenshot below that my mask covers the sky (and note that it is still at 70% opacity, which you can change at any time).

That is how you apply an adjustment to a specific part of the photo.  In the screenshot below, I have hidden the mask so you can see that the effect is only in the sky.

And that, my friends, is the power of layers.

You can quickly and easily create a new layer and make some adjustments (either by adding a preset or using the right-hand menu items individually).  You can then target them to specific portions of your photo to realize your vision for the shot.

I often use 4-5 layers on a photo and sometimes even more.  I stack layers like pancakes!  I will use multiple presets across several layers, all applied selectively with layers and brushes.  The best part is that all of this happens in Aurora HDR.  You no longer need to use other programs to get this accomplished, and it's super quick and easy to do it all.  I generally process a photo in 15-20 minutes, start to finish, including multiple layers, presets, brush adjustments, effects - all of it!

There are some additional features in the right click menu of your layers panel.  These come in really handy when you are working with layers and help you quickly make working with masks even easier.  

  • Show Mask - this will show you the area you have been working on, and is represented by a red layer of “paint” over the image which illustrates the mask
  • Invert Mask - this inverts your mask, basically creating a mask completely opposite to what you have done - this is very helpful when you want one type of edit to part of the photo, and a completely different type of edit to the exact opposite parts of the photo
  • Clear Mask - this removes all work on the current layer and allows you to restart at the beginning
  • Fill Mask - this fills the mask with 100% opacity
  • Create Luminosity Mask (we will cover this in detail later) - this makes a mask based on the brightest areas of the image so you can quickly apply adjustments to the brightest parts of your image
  • Copy / Paste mask - quickly copy a mask from one layer and apply it to another layer - very helpful when you have multiple edits for the same parts of a photo - therefore you do not have to create a mask each time

Stacking Presets for additional creative options

When I first started using Aurora HDR, I would add a Preset to start with, and then add a layer to make some brush adjustments manually.  If I needed further adjustments, I would add another layer and once again brush in any adjustments.  Then one day I had the realization that I could just stack one preset on top of another (each on different layers) to get more creative options and interesting looks in my photos.  

This realization that I could stack Presets on each subsequent layer - instead of making manual brush adjustments - was the birth of an new and interesting creative angle for me in my use of Aurora HDR.  It has taken me in all sorts of directions and I now use this technique on every image.  It's very simple to use and very powerful.  

Just create a new layer, select a Preset and add it to the layer, and then adjust the opacity or brush in the Preset selectively on that layer.  It's the same options you have as I illustrated with the beach photo in the screenshots above.  

For a more thorough example of how I use this technique, I encourage you to watch this video, which is specifically about me stacking Presets.  This is something I highly recommend that you try - it can really impact your photos!

Tutorial for stacking multiple presets on different layers in Aurora HDR Pro, then selectively brushing them in to make targeted adjustments to your photo. If you want to test out Aurora for yourself, you can download a free copy here: If you decide to buy it, use coupon code JIMNIX to save 10%.

OK, now we are getting somewhere, aren't we?  I hope you are having fun, or at least getting excited about Aurora HDR, because it is the best software out there, period.  I know you are going to love it.

Now that we have covered all of that, we are going to dive into some creative HDR implementations.

Let's go to the next page!