If you’ve used Photoshop long enough, you’ll begin to realize that there is nothing you can’t do with Photoshop. You can extract people and objects from their background, paint anything digitally, create anything from scratch, retouch images, correct colors and more. One of the fundamental tasks in Photoshop when doing any of these things is using blend modes. What is a Blend Mode? A blend mode is found in 3 main areas of Photoshop. You can find blend modes in the Layers Panel, in the actual Layer Styles of each layer and in the Options bar when you are using brushes.
These are essential places to use blend modes to achieve effects that you can’t achieve anywhere else. Layers by default are 100% opaque. This means that the pixels are solid and you cannot see what is below. When you are working on images and you have several layers, they will stack on top of each other. Instead of physically changing the pixels permanently, you can use blend modes to have that layer act in a certain way with the layer below. The pixels become somewhat transparent, depending on what the effect is. If you don’t like what the effect is, you can try a different blend mode, a different opacity, or something else altogether. The beauty is that the effect isn’t permanent unless you merge that layer with the one below.
Different Blend Modes and What They Do
In the examples below, you will see how a warm color, a cool color, and 50% gray reacts with an image. Different blend modes serve different purposes. Below is what will be placed over our example image:
You can download the sample image from here. This is pretty straight forward, as this is the default blend mode for all layers. The layer is 100% opaque, showing no pixels below it, unless you lower the level’s opacity.
Dissolve creates a particle effect on areas of your image. If the area is solid, then it doesn’t have much of an effect (It might roughen up the edges a little), but if your layer has a gradient in it, it breaks the gradient down into a particle-like effect. I added a gradient mask to each column, as shown below.
The darken blend mode takes the layer that your blending and applies it to the layer below. If the pixels are darker than the blend mode layer’s pixels, then they will show through and darken the top color, but if they are lighter, then they won’t have an impact on the darken layer.
Multiply does just that. It takes anything that isn’t pure white, and multiplies it by anything else that isn’t pure white to darken areas of your image.
Color burn increases contrast in areas that are already dark, but intensifies the lighter colors, giving them a harsh colorized effect.
Linear burn lessens brightness in an image while still intensifying lighter colors. The darker your blend mode color is, the stronger the burn effect is. For example, notice how the area of blue is hardly recognizable. 50% gray isn’t far behind, but the orange area is easily viewable.
Darker color looks for any part of the image that is a darker color and brings the image below it out. For the gray and orange portions; the tree, the sand and water are darker than these colors, so it excludes those areas from having a color placed over them. Notice the areas of solid color where the sky is in the image. As you can see in the darker blue area the only thing that is lighter are the dark areas in the sand; that is because the clouds are already light.
The lighten blend mode examines your image and anything darker than the blend mode’s layer color is replaced with the lighter color. Anything lighter, the blend mode’s color isn’t affected.
The Screen blend mode lightens the image overall. The way it works is that if any of the screen blend mode layer is black, it won’t affect the layer below, but if it is white, or anything but black, it will lighten the image below it. One thing to keep in mind is that if a portion of the image is already light, screen won’t have as much of an affect on it as it does the darker areas of your image.
Color Dodge brightens the image and lessens the amount of contrast. The brighter the blend mode layer’s color, the stronger the effect will be. Notice the yellow (originally orange) portion of the color dodge blend mode below. There is less contrast between the sky, the leaves, the water, and the sand, but the darker areas, such as the rough areas of the sand and the foliage in the distance change from dark, to an intense orange.
Linear dodge is like the screen blend mode, in the fact that it lightens images, but it has a much more intense effect. Notice that the bright orange tends to blow out areas of the image, but the gray and blue portions significantly lighten those areas of the image.
Lighter color takes everything that is not lighter than the blend mode’s layer color and lightens it, while at the same time filling it with its color. Notice the only area where the blue shows through is the dark areas of the sand.
Overlay is one of the most commonly used blend modes. What Overlay does is that it multiplies the dark areas of your image, while screening the light areas of your image. That is why the 50% gray area has no affect on the image. In the blue overlay, anything that isn’t white is tinted blue, in the orange overlay, anything that isn’t pure white is tinted orange. Many people will use overlay to add texture layers to flat images.
The soft light blend mode layer lightens the image below or applies a colorcast-like effect. 50% gray doesn’t show up here, or any of the other blend modes involving light. The effect is that if the color is bright or a light hue, it will lighten the layer below. If it is dark, such as the blue, then it darkens that area of the image.
Hard light is an intense blend mode that has a drastic effect, depending on the color of the blend mode layer. Orange intensifies that portion of the image and since it is light, the contrast is increased, while the dark blue darkens the image overall giving the beach an evening look.
Vivid light is another powerful blend mode that is like hard light, but instead of lightening and darkening an image, it literally dodges and burns the image layer below, depending on if your blend mode layer is dark or light. You can see the intensity in the orange portion and the burn effect in the sand on the blue portion of the image below.
Linear light is like the vivid light blending mode, but it lightens or darkens the overall image by changing the brightness. The other methods change the contrast between lights and darks. You can tell the difference by looking at the orange area of the image. The shoreline foliage in the distance is more washed out than it is with the vivid light example above.
Hard mix produces hard results by using a high amount of contrast. It produces a gritty effect that lacks depth. This blend mode disregards gradation and produces jagged edges and sharp contrast, much like a threshold effect.
The difference blend mode finds the difference between your blend mode layer and the layer below. The result creates very wild colors. Notice in areas with colors that are similar, the color of the image hasn’t changed much, such as the blue area over the sky portion of the image. You will notice a difference when you look at the sand, because there is a lot of red and orange color information in that part of the image.
The exclusion blend mode is very similar to the Difference blend mode, but the outcome isn’t as intense. Colors tend to be inverted, depending on the colors found in the image and within the blend mode.
Subtract does just what its name implies. It subtracts the blend mode layer’s color information from the image below. If you take all of the orange color from the image, you are left with a blue image, if you take out all of the blue color information, you are left with an image that has an orange appearance.
Divide takes the blend mode layer’s color and divides the image layer below by that color. If that color is present, then that portion of the image is lightened, as you can see with the extremely blown out area where our blue portion is located. Orange is removed from the middle area, leaving a light blue image area behind. The 50% gray area simply lightens the image below. It is too much though, in the white portion of the shore, where the image is blown out.
Hue affects the areas of an image in the layer below that has color information. It changes the hue to match the blend mode’s layer colors. Notice how 50% gray removes the color information completely from the image. The gray portions of the image layer, such as the clouds, are left untouched while the blue in the sky, water and sand are altered by the orange and blue colors.
Saturation effects the overall saturation of the image. With the highly saturated orange, notice how that portion of the image now has more saturated colors. The blue doesn’t have much saturation, and the 50% gray layer has none. It actually desaturates the image below.
The color blend mode is great because it basically acts like the colorize option that is available in a hue/saturation adjustment. You can brush color onto a new layer and it will colorize the image below. This works especially well on a grayscale image. You can lower the opacity to lessen the effect, but this blend mode gives you a lot of great control over colorizing part or your entire image in Photoshop.
The luminosity blend mode. Since none of these colors have a great deal of luminance, the results are blocky and drastic. This tends to give an image the appearance of the poster edges filter.
Knowing what each blend mode does can help you to decide which blend mode to use to fix common problems. For example, if your image is too dark. To quickly fix this, you can hit command/ctrl+J to duplicate the layer and then set that layer’s blend mode to Screen. Set the opacity to 80% and you should have a much lighter image. This solely depends on the brightness of your original image and should only be used on a per-image basis. Here are the results below:
You can also use blend modes to add texture or effects to your work. Below is an example of using the Overlay blend mode to add texture to text so to give a rugged feel. Create your text:
Find a texture that you like and bring it into a new layer above your text.
Set the blend mode to Overlay. If the background isn’t white, or you use a different blend mode, you can always use a clipping path to clip the texture layer to the form of the text
Notice that we get different effects from setting the blend mode to Screen:
Blend modes are an essential part of Photoshop, and when they are used correctly, you can create some amazing effects, correct colors, and produce professional results. Blend modes are used in retouching, digital painting, compositing and more. Blend modes affect how one layer interacts with the layer below. Understanding blend modes can save you time and send your work to the next level.