Blend Modes in Photoshop: Tips and Tricks

Article by Bill Fritz

In Adobe Photoshop, blend modes are one of my favorite and most frequently used tools to alter the image quickly and conveniently.  In Photoshop CS6 there are a whopping total of 27 blend modes to choose from.  Each one has its unique look and purpose.  For those of you who are not familiar with the blend modes and what they do, here is a quick run-down of their names and purpose.

Normal mode

Normal mode is the default. The colors of the two layers will not interact in any way.
Dissolve Mode

Dissolve makes the lower layer take on the colors of the top layer, and how much depends on the opacity of the upper layer.

Darken

Darken compares each pixel value of the upper layer to its counterpart’s pixel value of the lower layer and chooses the darker of the two to display.

Multiply

Multiply darkens the lower layer based on the darkness of the upper layer. No part of the image will get lighter. Any applied tone darker than white darkens the lower layer. White becomes transparent.

Color Burn

Color Burn burns in the color of the upper layer with the lower layer. No part of the image will get lighter.

Linear Burn

Linear Burn works like multiply but the results are more intense.

Lighten

Lighten compares the two layers pixel for pixel and uses the lightest pixel value. No part of the image gets darker.

Screen

Screen brightens by lightning the lower layer based on the lightness of the upper layer. The result is always lighter, and makes it a good mode for correcting exposure in photos that are too dark.

Color Dodge

Color Dodge dodges the lower layer with the upper layer, resulting in a lighter image. No part of the image will be darkened.

Linear Dodge

Linear Dodge works like screen but with more intense results.

Overlay

Overlay multiplies the light colors and screens the dark colors.

Soft Light

Soft Light will multiply the dark tones and screen the light tones.

Hard Light

Hard Light multiplies the dark colors and screens the light colors.

Vivid Light

Vivid Light will dodges or burn the lower layer pixels depending on whether the upper layer pixels are brighter or darker than neutral gray. It works on the contrast of the lower layer.

Linear Light

Linear Light is the same as Vivid light but it works on the brightness of the lower layer.

Pin Light

Pin Light changes the lower layer pixels depending on how bright the pixels are in the upper layer. It acts like Multiply when the upper layer color is darker than neutral gray, and acts like screen if the upper layer color is lighter than neutral gray.

Difference

Difference reacts to the differences between the upper and lower layer pixels. Large differences lighten the color, and small differences darken the color.

Exclusion

Exclusion uses the darkness of the lower layer to mask the difference between upper and lower layers.

Hue

Hue changes the hue of the lower layer to the hue of the upper layer but leaves brightness and saturation alone.

Saturation

Saturation changes the saturation of the lower layer to the hue of the upper layer but leaves brightness and hue alone.

Color

Color changes the hue and saturation of the lower layer to the hue and saturation of the upper layer but leaves luminosity alone.

Luminosity

Luminosity changes the luminosity of the lower layer to the luminosity of the upper layer while leaving hue and saturation the same.

People say to me all the time, “There are so many blending modes!  Do you even use all of them?”. The answer is yes, and no.  I have used each blending mode at least once, but in an everyday scenario I probably use about ¼ of them on a regular basis.  That does not mean that some are better than others, it just means that I find some more useful in my editing workflow.   Let me show you a few things that you can use them for.

Vignettes

What is a vignette?  Vignetting is a reduction or increase of an image’s brightness or saturation at the periphery compared to the image center.  This is a great way to draw your viewers’ attention to the center of other area of the frame.  There are a few ways to create a vignette in Photoshop such as the “Lens Correction” filter, but I prefer to use blend modes since it allows me to choose where I place the focal point and how the vignette affects the image using the blend mode of my choice.

Step 1: Open up a photo in Photoshop.  This will be the image I will be using to demonstrate with.

Step 2: Create a new blank layer by pressing CTRL+SHIFT+N on PC.
Step 3: Select the RADIAL Gradient Tool. You want make sure the colors are BLACK to TRANSPARENT.

Step 4: With the new blank layer still selected, click and hold the center of the photo and drag to one of the corners, then let go.  You should have something like this.

If you have a black circle in the middle the gradient is backwards.  Undo your last gradient (CTRL+Z). Up at the top of the screen there are options for the Gradient tool.  Check the “Reverse” option to fix the gradient and try again.
Another option you have is to accentuate a certain area of the photo with the vignette.  To do this repeat this step but click the area of interest with the gradient tool and dragging out instead of clicking the center of the photo.   In my photo I wanted to accent the old brick building on the top right of the frame.  Here is what that gradient looks like.

Step 5: At this point the effect is not very flattering.  This is where the Blending Modes come into play.  As I said earlier, you have 27 options to choose from.  Some may be a bit harsh but that is ok.  You can lower the opacity of the layer to find the right effect you are after.  Here are a few examples of the vignette in different blending modes.


So, now you can really see that the possibilities and control is endless.  If you want to brighten up the edges you can use white instead of black.  Experiment with the blend modes!

OTHER USES

Although Vignettes are a great way to bring the attention to a certain area of an image, sometimes your photography may call for a different kind of selective accentuation.  Maybe you want to lighten an area, or darken and area, or even just add some more contrast.  Blend modes can do all of those things and more!

Whenever I need a quick contrast boost to my images, whether it is to the entire image or just part of it, I will try using blend modes first instead of creating adjustment layers or other methods.  Why?  Because it’s fast and it usually looks pretty good!  To increase contrast I will duplicate the image I am working on to a new layer (CTRL+J) and then set this duplicated layer’s blend mode to SOFT LIGHT or OVERLAY.  Overlay is the stronger of the two and Soft Light is a more gentle contrast.

Before

Overlay

Soft Light


I left the layers’ opacity at 100% so you can see how much contrast these blend modes really can add.  Of course, you can lower the opacity to taste.  If you only want to add contrast to a certain area of the image add a Layer Mask to this duplicated layer and fill the mask with black.  This will hide the entire effect.  Then using a white brush, paint in the effect where you want it!

To increase or decrease brightness in an image you can follow the same steps.  Use the blend mode Screen for brightening and Multiply for darkening.  In the following examples you will see the original image, the image with a “Screen” Layer, and an image with a “Multiply” layer.

Before

Multiply

Screen

I like how the “Screen” Blend mode lightened up the shadow areas, but I also like how the “Multiply” blend mode darkened the highlights.  How can we use two different blend modes in two different areas of the photo?  Simple!

Step 1:  Duplicate your original image twice (CTRL+J two times).  You will now have 3 layers, the original, and two duplicates.
Step 2:  Add black layer masks to both of the duplicated layers to hide them.  Then set the blend mode of one of them to Screen and the other to Multiply.
Step 3: Select the layer mask of the layer in the “Screen” blend mode and use a white brush to paint in the areas you want to brighten.  Do the same for the areas you want to darken with the Multiply layer.

Here is my image Before and After using the Screen and Multiply blend modes.

Before

After

As you can see, blending modes can play a huge part in a photographer’s work flow.  I only showed you what can be done with a couple of the blending modes out of 27 of them!  Take the time to become familiar with each one and what they do.  It will bring your editing and creative control to the next level!

-Bill Fritz
Fritz Photography
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www.fritzphotographyct.com
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  • ZubbuZ

    Thanks very much for that Bill! I knew what each of them did in a round-about way, but it was good to read through specific definitions of each :)