This article is the first in our series Photo Editing 101 by Ian Pullen. This series will cover all of the basics of using Photoshop for editing photos. If you’re just getting started with Photoshop or photo editing, or if you’re looking to improve your skills in this area, this series will provide an excellent foundation. If you want to make sure that you don’t miss future articles you can subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Twitter, Google+, or Facebook.
Blending Modes in Photoshop appear in several places, depending on what you’re working on. They’re constantly available in the Layers palette, where they can be used to combine multiple layers. However, you’ll also find them in many of the painting tools, such as the Brush tool and Clone Stamp tool.
It would be easy to think that these are really just creative tools that have less relevance to photographers, however, within the context of the Layers palette, they can offer some quick alternative ways to achieve common image adjustments.
If you’re a newbie when it comes to Blending Modes, in this article, I’ll give a description of some of the base concepts of these modes and how they work and also share with you some practical examples of how you might choose to employ them into your post production work flow.
What are Blending Modes?
Put simply, these are alternative ways to combine the pixels of one layer with the layer or layers below. It also applies to how pixels produced by a painting tool are combined with the layer or layers below, but I’m going to focus purely on their use with layers as this is of more use to most photographers.
How Do Blending Modes Work?
Each Blending Mode works in a different way, though sometimes results may look very similar, but the basic concepts apply equally between them.
To understand how each one works, we first need to understand the difference between the Base, Blend and Result colors. Also remember that each of these applies on a pixel level, with each pixel of an image being treated individually.
- The Base Color applies to the bottom layer or, if there is more than one layer already blended together, the result of this combination.
- The Blend Color applies to the color of the top layer to which the Blending Mode is being applied.
- The Result Color, unsurprisingly, is the color value that is produced by applying the Blending Mode.
How Can Photographers Make Use of Blending Modes?
Firstly, you need to make a duplicate layer of the image you’re working on by going to Layer > Duplicate Layer.
If you’ve never used Blending Modes, you can apply them by clicking on the drop down menu at the top of the Layers palette that defaults to Normal and select from the list. In Normal mode, the pixels from the upper layer produce the Result color and there is effectively no blending applied.
While some Blending Modes can produce some dramatic and unnatural results, the screen shot shows Hard Mix, there are also several modes that can give quick and effective adjustments to many photos.
For example, there are several modes that can be used to adjust image contrast, others to lighten or darken a photo and there is also a quick and easy way to non-destructively apply various mono-tones to your photos.
How Do You Darken a Photo?
The first group of modes will generally darken your image. Note that because we’re using duplicate layers and the way some modes work, Darken and Darken Color have no effect.
This is Multiply (above) and this works by multiplying the Base and Blend colors. If one of these colors is black, the result is black and if one is white, the other color will be the result.
Color Burn darkens the Base color by increasing the contrast with the Blend color.
Linear Burn darkens the Base color by decreasing the brightness based on the Blend color.
How Do You Lighten a Photo?
There are also a group of modes that lighten images, though again some have no result on duplicate layers.
Screen selects the lighter of the Base and Blend colors.
Color Dodge lightens the base color by decreasing contrast with the Blend color.
Linear Dodge lightens the Base color by increasing the brightness based on the Blend color.
How Do You Increase Contrast in Your Photos?
The next group offers several modes that are useful for increasing contrast. I won’t describe how they work, as it’s getting more complex and the results are what matters.
Soft Light (above)
Hard Light (above)
How Do You Make a Photo Monotone?
Finally there’s a quick and easy way to use blending modes to make your photos mono-tone.
Rather than duplicating the base layer, add a new blank layer and fill it with a solid color. Now switch the mode to Hue and the image will take on the tone of the blended layer. Note that if you use black or white, the result will be the same with the image changed to black and white. The screen shot shows the result of a white layer in my case.
Not all of the Blending Modes that we’ve looked at will be suitable for adjusting your photos, but remember you can dramatically reduce the effect by adjusting layer opacity. This can produce much more natural and pleasing results than you might expect with a layer at 100% opacity. The main image on this page shows Linear Burn reduced to 25% which is a much more pleasing result than the screen shot in the body text.
See more articles in the Photo Editing 101 series.