One of the easiest and fastest ways to tweak and enhance photos in Adobe Photoshop is by using various available blending modes. Understanding blending modes in Photoshop is essential for image editing mastery. In theory, explanation of functions of all the different blending modes may sound a bit complicated but in practice it is a lot easier. Furthermore, since applying these blending modes is very easy, experimenting with different modes is fun and easy as well. In this overview I will go over different groups of blending modes, what each mode is designed to do and general application of each one. Once you get a hand of it, I strongly encourage you to try and practice with blending modes in various editing situations to help you understand them better and achieve very nice effects.
The basic idea behind blending modes is the different algorithms calculating the variance amid pixels between two layers. I know this might sound a bit complicated but all you need to understand is that depending on which blending mode you choose Photoshop will compare two layers and apply changes accordingly. Therefore, to apply a blending mode, Photoshop document has to have at least two layers. These layers can be completely different or just duplicates of each other. If you are not familiar with layers in Adobe Photoshop, you can read all about them here. To see the effect of a blending mode you will need to apply it on the top visible layer. You can discover all the blending modes for layer in the Layers window. If you don’t have the Layers window visible, you can select Window>Layers on the top navigation panel or just press [F7]. At the top of the Layers window you will notice a drop down menu with the default option “Normal” selected. That’s the blending mode selector. “Normal” essentially means there is no blending applied. To select a blending mode, you need to have more than just one layer, then select the top visible layer, click on normal to activate drop down window and select any of the available blending modes.
Note that blending modes are not just available for layers. You can also apply blending modes to brushes. They work just like layer blending modes but by brushing on specific areas you can have blending applied in limited section of an image for a more detailed and precise editing.
Blending Modes Explained
Technically, there are 27 different blending modes in Photoshop CS6, divided into 6 section but we can omit one section with Normal and Dissolve modes since they are not practical for image manipulation. Most of the other blending modes are sensitive to color and contrast change and some of them vary by just applying a stronger effect. In this article I will also mention 50% grey color often because it is the threshold between lighter and darker pixels and therefore will have opposite reactions to different blending modes.
Let’s look at the blending mode lineup. As I have mentioned, there are 27 different modes divided into 6 groups. The first group with Normal and Dissolve mode can be ignored. The next group has Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn and Darker Color blending modes. All of these modes in this group essentially darken pixels. The next group has Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge and Lighter Color modes. This group is essentially inverse of the first one and is responsible for brightening pixels. The next group, which has Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Pin Light and Hard Mix blending modes, is responsible for affecting contrast. The next group has Difference, Exclusion, Subtract and Divide modes. All modes in this group will look and point out the difference between two layers. The final group consists of Hue, Saturation, Color and Luminosity modes. All the blending modes in this group are in charge of color shifts. By the way, to cycle through all these blending modes you can press [Shift]+[+] keys to go down the list or press [Shift]+[-] keys to go back up the list.
Now, that we have gone through general groups let’s take a look into what each specific blending mode does and what they are primary used for. Remember, some of these modes are more useful for your navigation throughout the image and finding differences between changes in layer and not just for achieving drastic final effect. Here is some of the key phrases I will use for my descriptions: the base color means original color of the image, the blend color means the color applied and the result color obviously means the resulting color when original and blend colors interact.
Darken – checks color information in each channel and chooses the darkest. If pixels are lighter than original, they are replaced but if pixels are darker than original than they stay the same. Note that if you are applying this mode to a duplicate later there will be no change since all pixels are the same brightness.
Multiply – checks color info in each channel and multiplies the original color by the blend color. Regardless whether the blend layer is identical or not the result will always be darker. However, if the color is multiplied with solid white it will be unchanged and if multiplied with black it will always be black.
Color Burn – looks at the color info in each channel and always drastically increases contrast between two layers but leaves solid white areas untouched. This always makes the image look much more dramatic but in my opinion it’s a bit harsh on images. However, you can always play with layer opacity to achieve a less drastic effect.
Linear Burn – looks at the color information in each channel and darkens all the colors except pure white. Unlike Color Burn this blending mode doesn’t increase contrast, it just darken the image.
Darker Color – compares all colors in each channel in both layers and displayed the darker of the two. Since no multiplication occurs if the layers are identical no change will occur. This mode is often useful to locate subtle changes between layers.
Lighten – opposite to Darken, looks at the color info in each channel and selects the lighters color from either layer. Pixels darker than the blend color are changed, while pixels brighter than the blend color stay the same.
Screen – opposite to Multiply, looks at color info in each channel and multiplies the inverse of base and blend colors. This mode always brightens the colors and overall image whether the images are identical or not. If the colors are met with solid black, they will be unchanged. Conversely, if the colors are met with solid white the result will always be white.
Color Dodge – goes over color information in each channel and lightens the base color to match the blend color by lowering contrast between those two. However, when the color is black no change will be applied.
Linear Dodge (Add) – looks at color into in each channel and lightens the base color to match the blend color by increasing the brightness. However, when the color is black no change will be applied.
Lighter Color – compares all colors in each channel in both layers and displayed the lighter of the two. Unlike Lighten Blend, Lighter Color doesn’t create a third color since it selects the lowest channel values from the base and the blend color.
Overlay – this mode looks at blend color and based on those colors uses Multiply or Screen effect. If the colors are lighter than 50% gray, it lightens them more and of darker, darkens them. This usually results in much more contrast and vivid colors. However, unlike Hard Light this does not replace the base color, but mixes colors to reflect darkness or lightness or the original. This blending mode is one of the most used modes in photography, however, it can often be too harsh on images and lowering of layer opacity is recommended.
All 50% gray pixels will become invisible in Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light and Pin Light blending modes.
Soft Light – similar to Overlay, this mode looks at blend colors and Darkens or Lightens them depending on their original brightness. Just like Overlay it judges the brightness by 50% gray scale. This mode creates a subtle effect, when compared to Overlay. Personally, this is the mode I use most often in my post processing.
Hard Light – similar to Overlay, this mode uses Multiply or Screen to darken or lighten pixels depending on which side of 50% gray scale they are positioned. However, while Overlay preserves highlights and shadows, Hard Light adds or removes them from an image.
Vivid Light – depending on the blend color, this mode increases or decreases the contrast. If the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, the photo is lightened by decreasing the contrast. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the photo is darkened by increasing the contrast.
Linear Light – depending on the blend color, this mode increases or decreases color brightness. If the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, the photo is lightened by increasing brightness. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the photo is darkened by decreasing brightness.
Pin Light – this mode replaces colors depending on brightness of the blend color. If the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, pixels darker than the blend color are replaced, while pixels lighter than the blend color do not change at all. Conversely, if the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, pixels lighter than the blend color are replaced, while pixels lighter than the blend colors do not change. This will only work with layers that are not duplicates of each other, otherwise this mode will not detect any change and the image will stay the same.
Hard Mix – as its name suggests, this blending mode created a radical change. It checks colors on each channel on the blend color and adds the red, green and blue values to the RGB values of the base color. So essentially, the result will consist of solid red, green, blue, white and black mix.
Difference – checks the color info in each channel and looks at the difference between base and blend colors and which color has a bigger brightness value. Then depending which color has bigger brightness value it either subtracts the blend color from base color or vice versa. If both layers’ colors are identical the subtraction equals zero and the pixels become solid black. If one layer is solid white, the colors invert. If one layer is black, the colors obviously do not change.
Exclusion – goes through similar calculations as Difference mode but the result color has a much lower contrast.
Subtract – checks for color values in each channel and subtracts the blend color from the base color, if any of the value becomes negative it just resets to zero (black).
Divide – as its name implies, this mode checks the color information in each channel and divides the blend color from the base color. I honestly, never use any of the blending modes in this group in my editing.
Hue – takes the hue of the blend color but keeps the saturation and luminance of the base color.
Saturation – takes the saturation of the blend color but keeps the hue and luminance of the base color.
Color – takes the hue and saturation of the blend color but keeps the luminance of the base color.
Luminosity – opposite to Color mode, Luminosity takes the luminance of the blend color but hue and saturation from the base color.
Blending Mode use examples
As I have mentioned before, understanding blending modes in Photoshop is just the first step, but as soon as you have gotten the basics you will need to practice using them in your workflow to really get a good handle on it. There are actually tons of different scenarios where use of one or combined blending mode can really enhance a photo and more importantly, be able to do it in just a few clicks. Here are three examples of different blending modes that can drastically improve an image in just a few seconds:
(Roll over buttons to see other images involved in the process)
First let’s take a look at the easiest one out of the three. In this photo we have a pin-up style postcard with a beautiful girl. It’s a good image to begin with but I think its missing that aged post card feel to it. We can easily change that by combining two images. I am going to add a texture background image to a new layer and then just select that layer to Overlay. That’s it! Now the image has that yellowish tint as well as slightly visible worn texture to it. This whole editing process took me just 9 seconds.
Now let’s look at another image with just a little twist in the editing process. Here we have two red cars on Amsterdam canal. The image is a bit bland. But we can improve it by making a little tweak. All I am going to do is add a Black and white Adjustment layer (if you are not familiar with Adjustment Layers click here). Now my entire image is black and white. I am going to set this new Adjustment layer to Darker Color blending mode but there will be no visible change. For my final step all I have to do is go to tweak the red scale on the Adjustment layer properties panel to higher value, something like 60. And maybe just lower some other scales a bit, such as blues. And there you go a black and white image with two popping red cars. No need for selections or anything complicated.
Finally, let’s look at an image with the use of two different blending modes. Here we have an image of New York City skyline. I would like to place some fireworks above the buildings to make the image a bit more festive. In order for the fireworks to really pop, I have to make the sky a bit darker. So what I would do is create a duplicate layer and set it to Multiply blending mode. This will make the entire image darker. Now I will take a very large eraser brush with maximum feathering and erase the buildings from the top layer with one smooth stroke. This way only the sky appears darker. Now I add two images with fireworks over the dark sky in my document. And set both of those layers to screen. That’s it! Both fireworks lose their dark background and look like they belong on the image. No need for selection or isolation!