How to master Photoshop Blend Modes

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The power of layers in Photoshop, and how they interact with each other, is amazing! But how do designers combine layers? That’s where Layer Blend Modes come in handy. Layer Blend Modes make Photomontages look believable and not like they were simply pasted together.

Throughout this tutorial, I will show the different blend options and the cool ways they make layers interact with each other. But first, let’s discuss the name of the 2 layers we are going to use in our examples:

  • Base layer - the lower layer
  • Blend layer - the top layer

Make sure your Layers Palette is open (Windows > Layers, or press F7), then take a look at the Blend Mode Drop-down:

 

The Layer Blend Modes we are going to learn about are:

  • Normal
  • Dissolve
  • Darken
  • Multiply
  • Color Burn
  • Linear Burn
  • Darker Color
  • Ligthen
  • Screen
  • Color Dodge
  • Linear Dodge (Add)
  • Lighter Color
  • Overlay
  • Soft Light

Normal

The Normal Blend Mode is the default value and is the simplest mode. In the image below, I used a sky as my base layer and a sunflower as the blend layer. When I set the Blend Mode to Normal, each pixel blends 1:1 on the base layer. It’s similar to if you cut-out a newspaper photo and glue it on top of a new sheet of paper.

 

Dissolve

The Dissolve Mode is similar to the previous mode. However, the Normal Mode makes the sunflower transparent when you use the opacity slider, where as the Dissolve Mode only transfers a few pixels to the base layer.

Pixels will randomly be transfered, so you can only control the amount that is removed… not the exact pixels that are removed. In the image below, I used an opacity of 80%.

Darken

With the Darken Mode, pixels from the base layer and pixels from the blend layer well be compared to each other — the darker color will be applied as a result. Any lighter pixel on the base layer will be replaced with the darker pixel from the blend layer, and vice versa.

The Darken Mode can be used to create a watercolor effect. Let’s test it! First, duplicate the image and use the Gaussian Blur Filter with a 3 pixel radius.

Then, set the Darker Blend Mode and you should get a watercolor effect:

Multiply

The Multiply Mode darkens the base layer depending on the darkness of the blend layer — the result color will always be darker. If the blend layer has White, it becomes transparent.

I love to use this blend mode on photos that are too dull and light. In this example, I used an image from dreamstime… you’ll notice the original image is light but we can darken it by simply selecting the Multiply.

Color Burn

Color Burn darkens the base layer colors by increasing its contrast and reflecting the blend layer colors. Play around with the opacity because this Blend Mode doesn’t usually give a great result at 100% opacity. I love to use Color Burn for tonal correction because it quickly changes the mood of any image.

In this example, I used a simple sky as the base layer. And on a new layer, I painted over the clouds using:

  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow

Then, I set it to Color Burn and lowered the opacity to 65%:

And volia! We have a whimsical sky for a new upcoming whimsical book… maybe? :)

Linear Burn

Linear Burn decreases the brightness of the base layer and reflects the blend layer colors. I used the same example as above so that you can see the difference of these two modes:

Darker Color

Darker Color compares the values from the base and blend layers, then only displays the lowest value. I’ve created an orange blend layer above the sky image then used Darker Color:

As you can see, only the lighter pixels from the clouds get painted.

Lighten

Lighten Mode is the opposite of the Darken Mode — the pixels from the base layer and blend layer are compared but this time, any colors that are darker are replaced by the lighter color from each layer.

Screen

Screen brightens the base layer depending on the lightness of the blend layer. This is a good mode if you want to correct a dark photo.

Color Dodge

Color Dodge decreases the contrast of the image which results in a brighter image. Color Dodge is used when you want to paint highlights into your image.

In this example, I gave the woman’s hair more highlights. I create a Color Dodge blend layer above the base layer with the woman, then lowered the opacity to 30%.

Linear Dodge (add)

Linear Dodge increases the brightness of the base layer and reflects the blend layer. In the image below, you can see the difference of Linar Dodge and Linar Burn when they are both set to 50% opacity:

Lighter Color

Lighter Color compares the values from the base and blend layers, then only displays the lighter value. This is the opposite of the Darker Color Mode. Notice the orange is now showing on the darker values:

Overlay

This is a combination of the Multiply and Screen Modes — it multiplies the dark areas while it screens the lighter areas. Areas which are 50% don’t get affected in this color mode.

This Blend mode can be use for different kind of effects. For example, you can create a dreamy effect:

  • Duplicate your base layer (woman)
  • Use a Gaussian Blur Filter with a 4 pixel radius
  • Set the layer to Overlay and lower the opacity until you are happy with the result

Overlay Mode is also a perfect way to watermark your designs. Just set Text layer to Overlay and adjust the opacity.

Soft Light

Soft Light darkens or lightens the base layer depending on the blend layer. If the blend layer is darker than 50% Gray than the image is darkened. If the blend color is ligther than 50% Gray, then the base layer is lightened.

As an example, I used an image from dreamstime:

On a new Soft Light layer, I painted highlights and shadows around the eyes, lips and nose. You’ll notice her brown eyes are lightened… which looks nice.

I worked a little more on her lips by darkening them which gives a shadow effect:

You can also play around with her eyeshadow and hair to really see the effect:

Here is a small animation of the before and after image. Please note that this was just a quick example to show the possibilities of this mode, while also giving you inspiration. This is, of course, not professional work I would hand out to a client.

Conclusion

This tutorial shows how important Blend Modes are in any pixel-based program, like Photoshop. Whether you are working on photo manipulation or creating a design from scratch, Blend Modes are the key to an believable result. A great understanding of Blend Modes will increase your design skills a lot!

Any questions or tips about Blend Modes? Please post it in the comments.

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