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By Kevin Stohlmeyer |

Which Should You Use: A Path or a Mask in Photoshop?

Should I save my selection as a Path or as a Layer Mask in Photoshop? I get this question a lot when it comes to creating a silhouette in Adobe Photoshop. The answer ultimately depends on how you answer the following questions.

What kind of subject are you attempting to silhouette?

The subject that you are trying to isolate and where you plan to use it will determine which approach to take. Does your subject have hard, smooth edges like a box or computer monitor? Or does it contain soft, fuzzy or fine detailed transitions like hair or fur?


If it has hard edges, like the one above, you may want to consider using the Pen Tool to preserve the appearance of your subject. While it takes practice to get good at using the Pen tool, you can quickly outline your subject and chances are, you’ll be done.

If your subject has fine detail, like hair, along the edges, such as in the image below, you should use a combination of your favorite selection tool (or tools) and the Refine Edge command to create a layer mask.


Where do you intend to use the image?

The other question that you need to ask yourself is where you intend to use the image.

Let’s say you’re going masking these images and exporting them for use on a website. If this is the case, you’ll definitely want to make sure your selection was saved as a layer mask. Just make sure that you save your file in the .png file format to preserve the transparency from your mask.

If you plan to use the image in another application, such as Adobe InDesign, you will benefit by saving your selection as a Path. InDesign not only supports Clipping Paths, but also standard paths saved in a Photoshop file. You can activate the paths using Object>Clipping Path>Options inside InDesign. This allows you to choose which path is visible in InDesign without importing multiple image files.

While, InDesign supports layered Photoshop files that include layer masks—programs outside the Adobe family of products may not support a native .psd format that contain multiple paths in one file. In cases like this, you may have to save your images separately as a .png file to support transparency if you are using a mask or designate a clipping path specifically and save as an .eps format for paths.

What are you more skilled at using?

While many people struggle while using the Pen Tool inside Photoshop, it really is worth the time and effort it takes to become proficient with using it. Consider watching my Photoshop tutorial Creating an accurate path using the Pen tool or Pen tool basics by Julieanne Kost to learn how to improve your skills with the Pen Tool.

If you need to improve your skills creating masks for subjects with soft or detailed edges, watch my video on Creating a layer mask from a selection as well as Selecting soft-edged objects using Refine Edge.

To learn more about when to use a path or mask, check out my Photoshop training course Processing Product Photos with Photoshop.

Kevin Stohlmeyer is a designer, digital illustrator, and Adobe Certified Instructor. Check out his courses on lynda.com. 

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