Blend Modes


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The layer blend modes are right on top of the Layers Palette in a drop-down menu.  When you open a new document it defaults to "Normal".  

They were somewhat of a mystery to me for some time until I started learning just how awesome, amazing and powerful they are.   Like you, I was using them from time to time when some tutorial instruction said to use a particular mode but I had no real understanding of what was happening.

This tutorial will take a look at the 5 most useful Blend Modes and you are going to absolutely love what you learn and your digital imaging projects will go to a new level.  The information is especially useful for digital photographers.

The images that will benefit the most from these changes in blending are generally the ones with some kind of challenge or other ...
  • old, heirloom images that were squirreled away for years
  • poor scans of more recent images
  • poorly exposed images (blame it on the light meter) 

Photoshop
Photoshop Elements


Both of these very popular digital editing programs use Blend Modes and they all use the same names.  That means this tutorial will cover both and Photoshop will be used for all of the screen shots.

The blend modes for each of the programs is outlined in red below ...

blend mode photoshop blend mode elements
Photoshop Elements


It really doesn't matter which version of your favorite program you use because the Blend Modes are universal


What Are Blend Modes?


The really long and detailed explanation of blend modes is this:

Each blend mode gives you a different way for
one layer to interact (blend) with the layer(s) below it.

There are 5 modes that you really need to know.  They are ...

  • Multiply
  • Screen
  • Overlay
  • Color
  • Luminosity

Let's look at each one - and be prepared to be amazed ...!

Multiply


Multiply is part of the darken group (Photoshop and Elements) and what it does is - well - darken!

The most widely used analogy to describe Multiply blending is to imagine two identical slides pressed together and placed in a slide projector.  Because there are two slides the light has to penetrate twice as much as it would if there is only one slide.

This makes a light image darker and it's dead simple to do!

Some things to consider when using the Multiply  ...

  1. You can duplicate the original layer and change the blend of the new layer to Multiply, or

  2. You can add a Levels or Curves Adjustment layer and click OK without making any adjustments and then change the blend to Multiply.  The result is the same but having the Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer means you can make further adjustments.

  3. If the change in the blend mode does not produce the results you want then Ctrl-J/Cmd-J the top layer to double the effect.

Take this old image as an example.  

blend mode original
Original Image

blend mode palette
Levels Adjustment Layer added and changed to Multiply

blend mode applied
After changing to Multiply


The resulting image may be a bit too dark and that can be easily rectified by double clicking on the Levels Adjustment Layer and changing the Levels sliders to taste or by lowering the Opacity of the top layer.

That annoying color cast is still there but having better contrast makes the rest of the adjustments much easier.

It's easy, it's effective and isn't it the coolest thing?

Screen


The second one we will look at is Screen.  The analogy for this one is the same slide in two different projectors being projected onto a screen.  Twice the light will make a lighter image, right?  That is what will happen - a dark image will become much lighter.

Screen is the opposite of Multiply and that means it makes a dark image lighter.  

The same considerations from the Multiply hold true for the Screen ...

  1. You can duplicate the original layer and change the blend of the new layer to Screen or

  2. You can add a Levels or Curves Adjustment layer and click OK without making any adjustments and then change the blend to Screen.  The result is the same but having the Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer means you can make further adjustments.

  3. If the change in the blend mode does not produce the results you want then Ctrl-J/Cmd-J the top layer to double the effect.
A different image ...

blend mode screen original

Original Image
blend modes screen palette

Levels Adjustment Layer Added and

changed to Screen Blend
blend mode screen 1st level

Image after first change
This is still a bit dark so another Screen Blend Mode will help
blend mode palette 2

Second Levels Adjustment Layer added

by pressing Ctrl-J/Cmd-J
blend mode second level

Final Image

The image can be further modified by double clicking on the Levels Adjustment layer and moving the Levels sliders till you like the results.  The Opacity of te top layer can be lowered as well.

Overlay


Overlay is kind of a cross between Multiply and Screen.

What Overlay does is
  • Lighten dark areas ,and
  • Darken light areas
It is especially useful with an image that is kind of flat with poor contrast - Overlay improves contrast.

Overlay is applied exactly the same as the previous two ...

  1. You can duplicate the original layer and change the blend of the new layer to Overlay or

  2. You can add a Levels or Curves Adjustment layer and click OK without making any adjustments and then change the blend to Overlay.  The result is the same but having the Levels or Curves Adjustment Layer means you can make further adjustments.

  3. If the change in the blend mode does not produce the results you want then Ctrl-J/Cmd-J the top layer to double the effect.
Let's take this picture of Tabitha - ya - I know I use her pictures a lot but she is so darn photogenic!  It's not that the other two dogs are not - it's just that Tabitha is sweet and nice she knows she is a pretty girl.

OK - enough about Tabitha - on to the image.  This one was taken one winter evening as she was eyeing a stick to swing about.  She does that, you know.  She gets a long stick and swings it around and whacks shins and dogs alike - it is her "weapon of shin destruction".

The image is lacking contrast and needs a boost ...

blend modes overlay The original image of Tabitha
blend mode overlay palette The Layers Palette with the Levels layer changed to Overlay
blend mode overlay after The result of changing to Overlay - if the effect is too strong either lower the opacity of the Levels layer or double click the Levels layer and modify Levels


Color

Color has nothing to do with shadows and highlights - it has to do with color.

When a layer is set to Color you can paint on the layer and the underlying texture will show through.  This mode is particularly useful when colorizing a black and white image.

This is the image that will be used ...

blend mode color


This is a good image but it is a bit flat and it could use some contrast - hey - we know about blend modes - lets use Overlay and see how it looks!


blend modes overlay The original image after changing to Overlay - adding more contrast.
blend mode palette The layers palette - each part of the coloring was done on a separate layer and there were so many layers that it was easier to manage them if they were grouped together - Color Blend Mode is the name.

The rather long, full layers palette is on the right column near the top of the page.

blend mode color end The colorized image using Color - note how the texture of the original image is still visible


This is a great alternative to using a bunch of Hue and Saturation Layers and of course an Intuos4 was used for accuracy.

Luminosity


The last of these really cool blend modes is Luminosity and it generally works in conjunction with either a Levels of Curves Adjustment layer.

When either a Levels or Curves Adjustment layer is applied to an image the overall contrast will change and it may affect the color of the image as well - more contrast equals more color saturation.

Changing the blend mode to Luminosity after the adjustment layer is applied tells your digital editing program to ignore the color information while keeping the change in contrast.

In a nutshell - Luminosity blends the lightness without changing color.

This is a difficult thing to show on a webpage but lets take a shot at it ...

blend mode luminosity original The original image
blend mode curves A Curves Adjustment Layer Added
blend modes curves The Curves adjustment layer to improve contrast
blend modes after curves The image after the Curves adjustment completed
blend mode blend change Blend mode changed to Luminosity
blend mode after change The final image - it is difficult to see a lot of change so you will need to try it for yourself on an image - the change is readily apparent on reds and blues

Unsharp Mask (Photoshop)

Another common use of Luminosity is with the Unsharp Mask to sharpen an image.  It is a great way to sharpen an image but it tends to sharpen both the lightness values and color which can lead to a halo effect around objects.

Luminosity will ignore the color information and filter out halos in the highlights.  This is done by using the Fade Command in Photoshop.

blend modes fade


There you go - five blend modes that will dramatically improve your digital photo editing.

Give them a try - you will love them!



Page Links

What are Blend Modes?

Multiply

Screen


Overlay


Color


Luminosity

Example Layer
Palette

blend mode all layers








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