Photoshop: "Smart Masks" - Masks that are Smart Objects

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sometimes i build files with many layers that need to have an identical mask and my only solution has been to duplicate the mask to the new layers - which works fine until i have 20 layers with the same mask and suddenly i have to update them all - which means deleting 19 masks and replacing them with the updated one. instead i propose an option to create a mask and associate layers to it so that no matter how the layers are structured you can update one mask and it updates on all layers associated to it. this would be great with both pixel based masks as well as vector masks. for the record I also want to be clear that this is for scenarios where the layers cant simply be placed into a group or be clipped to a layer beneath, which i admit comes from not being as careful with layer structure as I could be - but that would be a left brain function when I am operating in right brain mode
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Jake Penrose

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Posted 6 years ago

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PECourtejoie, Champion

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Some have pondered about a "nodes" mode, where elements could be linked to others, but I doubt it is implementable in an existing program.
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This reply was created from a merged topic originally titled
Photoshop: Smart Masks.

I want to be able to apply some kind of "smart mask" to different layers in my documents.

I have documents where many different layers need to have the same mask. The original document with which I generate this mask consists of different layers and adjustments. When I am changing the mask I have to copy and paste it in every single layer again manually.
At this moment it would be practical to have a "smart mask" that works the same way as smart layers. This way I only have to change the "smart mask" and every instance of it would change simultaneously too.

This would save lots of work.
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christoph pfaffenbichler, Champion

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Have you considered using a Smart Object with Blend if-settings in a Group and Clipping Masking the Layers that should be masked to that Group (and copies of it)?
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This reply was created from a merged topic originally titled Smart Layer Masks (A mask as smart object).

There are times that I have more then one identical layer masks. But when editing one mask, I need to copy and paste it to the others, to keep all the identical masks in sync.

In After Effects I can PreComp a couple of layers, and use this nested comp as a luminosity mask to effect an underlying layer. I can have multiple instances of this nested comp. So when I change something inside that nested comp, all the instances update automatically.

I would love to see this in photoshop. It would be awesome to have something I call an Active Layer Mask, or a Smart Layer Mask. Where the mask is like a smart object. When editing this mask, it updates to all the instances of this Smart Layer Mask.
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christoph pfaffenbichler, Champion

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These topics also seems similar.

Maybe add your +1 to them all ...
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Jim Ainsley

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This reply was created from a merged topic originally titled Photoshop: Smart masks.

This is my most wanted feature in Photoshop: Smart Masks. The idea is fairly self-explanatory: non-destructive masks which operate like smart objects, so you can scale them without losing quality.


1. Never lose quality
You could repeatedly transform a Smart Mask, making as many adjustments as you like—all without any softening of the mask.

2. Update multiple masks at once
You could apply a Smart Mask to multiple objects—any changes to the mask automatically apply to all objects that use it.

3. Animated mask movement
For me, this is the biggest reason for Smart Masks - it would allow you to scale and rotate masks during animation (which is currently impossible).


Below I will address some of the criticisms people may have of this idea...

• "Why not just use a clipping path based on a smart object?"

—Because clipping paths only work when masking objects with no transparency.

• "Why not use a vector mask instead?"

—In many cases, vector masks aren't useful as they only allow hard shapes, rather than degrees of transparency.

• "We're only talking about masks - is it such a big deal if they become softened slightly?"

—Personally, I like to have precise control over exactly how sharp my masks are. But the damage can be much worse than a 'slight softening': If you scale a mask down to a small size then scale it back up again, you can quickly end up with heavy pixellation/smoothing, posterization, and a loss of fine detail.

To give an example, let's say you want to add a little texture or a pattern to a background, so you set up an adjustment layer and mask it using a texture image (eg. a pattern of decorative lines and curls). It looks perfect... but once you've created that mask, you can never really go back and make adjustments to its scale or rotation, because you're damaging the texture.

• "Why not just set up your mask inside the smart object itself?"

—This works fine when you're simply cutting objects out—but not when you're masking objects to some other independent shape.

For example, suppose I have an image of a car, and I want to put a bunch of people inside the car. So I put all those people into a layer group, and mask that layer group to the shape of the car's windows. It looks perfect... but then if I start scaling or rotating the car, the window mask degrades. And if I want to animate the car moving towards the screen, that is impossible because you can't animate masks scaling or rotating.

• "If you're doing animation, why not just use Premiere?"

—Premiere is great for general video editing but it is poor software for animating objects. It does not support simple things like bitmap masking, grouping multiple objects, selecting/transforming multiple objects at once, displaying images at 1:1 size, or pixel-perfect positioning. It is impossible to line up a mask with an image, and certainly to move the two around together. This is why I use Photoshop for my animation.


I am not saying that Smart Masks is an absolutely essential feature which has to be implemented. Most people have got along just fine without it, and many of the above problems can be solved by using either clipping paths or vector masks. Not to mention that most people don't really care too much if masks lose a little quality over time—they are only masks after all.

However, there are definitely some times when I know that Smart Masks *would* be extremely helpful for me, and certainly for animation.

I think the ability to create Smart Masks would definitely be beneficial for Photoshop, and would give some users a "good feeling" inside, knowing that all our masks are all set up as indestructible "smart" objects, and therefore we can adjust them over and over, without having to think about how many times we've modified them.

However, I submit this suggestion humbly, with great respect and appreciation to the Photoshop developers. If they don't feel there is much need for the feature then that is fine by me.
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That was exactly my point, Jim (see my previous post). I think this feature would be most valuable.
I use the PreComps as nested layers in After Effects a lot. Being able to use any type of smart object (image or mask) as a smart mask would help out a lot, as you wrote in your post.
I'm glad more of us share the same idea. And I am sure many more users would be more that greatful :)
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Jim Ainsley

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Agreed Edwin.

Also, for the record, let me mention another problem: the inability to have multiple masks.

To me, masks are the heart and soul of Photoshop, as important as layers. Virtually every layer I make has at least one mask (very often two, and occasionally more). So I feel it's high time that Adobe reformed how masks work, to allow multiple masks per layer. Currently you can only have one raster mask per layer.

Of course, we all know you can get around this by using nested layer groups, each group having its own mask. Sure, this method works, but it feels kind of disorganised and unprofessional. When you're looking through your layers and you see a bunch of layer groups, your mind is subconsciously thinking: "Which of these groups are actual GROUPS and which are just mask containers?"

Photoshop should allow each layer (or group) to have a stack of multiple masks which you can drag to re-order. This stack of masks could be 'expanded' and 'collapsed' like you do with layer styles.

There is already a request for this, which was made 5 years ago. I have just added my voice to it and encourage others to do the same:

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Greg Fleurdépine

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This reply was created from a merged topic originally titled Layer masks as smart objects.

I've seen a few threads about this, but basically only found workarounds. Working in Archviz I regularly need to update my post-processing depending on projects versions. I've automated a good part of the process thanks to smart objects, but layer masks as smart objects would be the last thing needed for a super fast workflow. I'm sure I'm not the only one who really needs this. Is this a planned feature ?
Thanks for your time.