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Blending Fun

April 15th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot  |  2 Comments


I know. I wish this article were about margarita recipes too – ohhh for the research I’d have been able to do. But the blenders I’m talking about today are Photoshop’s Blending Modes. Please folks, try to contain your excitement.

There are a lot of ‘ah-ha!’ moments that come with learning Photoshop. A couple of the big ah-ha’s for me were how working in layers allows you make changes to your image without committing to them permanently, and how working with layer masks lets you selectively hide or show just the parts of a layer that you are interested in. These two concepts really hit home with me because they appeal to both my inner laziness (I don’t like to have to do things twice) and inner control freak (I like to make my images as perfect as possible).

If you’ve experienced the thrill of the layer and layer mask ah-ha’s, it’s time to strap in and get ready for using blending modes to really do some useful wild things to your images.

But before we go there, you might be wondering what in the Sam Hill blending modes are. The simple answer is that when you have one layer on top of another, Photoshop uses blending modes to determine how a layer visually affects the layers underneath it. You can find list of blending modes on top of the Layer Palette:


The default blending mode is called Normal and it just shows you every pixel in the top layer, effectively hiding all the layers below it. Not very exciting.

But what about some of those others, like say Multiply? What do they do?

You probably know that digital images are made up of pixels and that each pixel is a color represented by three numbers, usually in RGB (red, green and blue) format, and that each of those numbers can be anything from 0 to 255. The purest red is represented as 255,0,0, the purest blue is 0,0,255, and so on. Everything that Photoshop does is basically just fancy math applied to those RGB numbers.

When you choose Multiply as a blend mode, Photoshop takes the numerical value of each pixel in the top layer, and multiplies it by the value of the pixel below it. It then divides the result by 255 so that the final value falls between 0 and 255.

I’m going to guess that you don’t read blogs to learn about math so let me just show you what it looks like. Here is an image in which the background has just been duplicated to a new layer. The blend mode is still at the default setting of Normal.


But when you switch the blend mode to Multiply, look what happens.


The image gets markedly darker since each pixel has been multiplied by the pixel directly underneath it. This technique might not seem incredibly useful at first, but what if we were starting with an over-exposed image? (Which I never take of course.) Below is an over-exposed image on the left and that same image copied to a new layer and set to Multiply on the right.


You can see that Multiply brought life back to the picture, recovering some of the lost detail in the trees, and making the gray dress black as it should be.

If you only need to darken your image a little, you can adjust the opacity of the top layer to dial in the amount of effect that suits your taste. If you need to darken it more, you can duplicate the layer again and have two or more layers set to multiply.

The opposite blending mode to Multiply is called Screen. The math is funkier, but the effect is that pixels in the top layer make pixels in the bottom layer lighter. Here’s that first photo again and then a version in which background has been duplicated to a new layer and set to Screen.



Again, maybe not super useful on a well-exposed image, but it can really help an image that was underexposed when it was shot.


In all honesty, I’d never use blending modes to adjust my exposures these days. There are much better tools like Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw for that part of my workflow. But I do use techniques like this all the time on almost every finished image I produce. What for? Nondestructive dodging and burning.

The real beauty of this technique comes by combining a Multiply layer and a Screen layer with a layer mask, so that you can selectively control which areas of the image to lighten or darken. Here’s how I set it up:

1) Duplicate the background (command-J on Mac/control-J on PC).

2) Name the new layer Darken or something similar.

3) Option-click the Add Layer Mask button addlayermask on the bottom of the Layers palette (On the PC it’s Alt-click)

4) Set the blending mode of the layer to Multiply.

5) Duplicate the Darken layer (command-J on Mac/control-J on PC).

6) Name the new layer Lighten or something similar.

7) Set the blending mode of the layer to Screen.

At this point my layers palette will look something like this:


8) Choose the brush tool. (Set the brush color to white, the opacity to 20% and the brush size to whatever feels right).

9) In the Layers palette, click on the black layer mask’s thumbnail of the Darken layer to select it.

10) Now in the image, burn in areas by painting with the brush anywhere you want to darken the photo.

In my image, I want the model to stand out more, so I’m going to burn in the areas of the truck, the road, the sky, and the construction machinery in the background.



Looking at the white areas of the layer mask’s thumbnail, you can see the parts of the photo that I burned in.

11) In the Layers palette, click on the black layer mask’s thumbnail of the Lighten layer to select it.

12) Now in the image, dodge areas by painting with the brush anywhere you want to lighten the photo.

In my image, I just wanted to make the shadow side of the model’s face a touch lighter.


You can see the areas that I dodged as the white parts of the Screen (Lighten) layer mask’s thumbnail.

The best part of dodging and burning this way is that I can change my mind about what I did later. Let’s say I was up all night editing images. (Again, not something I ever do.) The next day I’m reviewing my files and I notice that I went waaay overboard on some of the dodging and burning. No problemo! I saved the images as Photoshop files thus preserving all the layers, so all I have to do is open the offending images and paint in black on the layer mask where I want less of a dodging or burning effect.

So, Normal, Multiply and Screen are only three of the twenty-five blend modes available in Photoshop, you’re probably wondering what all the others do.

Well, I’m not going to tell you.

Kidding. Well, I’m sort of kidding. This article would be crazy long and cause your eyes to bleed if I tried to discuss and give examples of every blend mode.

The best way to understand what all the different blend modes do is to play around with them. Experiment, have fun, and just explore the effects of each different mode. You’ll find that you have some favorite ones that you go to again and again. Here are some of the ones I use over and over.

Overlay is a cool blend mode because it takes the dark parts of your image and makes them darker while at the same time making the light parts of your image even lighter. The effect is that it adds contrast and increases saturation giving the image a definite pop. In fact, it’s usually too much pop, so I invariably have to reduce the opacity of the overlay layer to lessen the effect.


The Soft Light blend mode is Overlay’s suburban cousin. It also adds contrast and increases saturation, but not as dramatically as Overlay. Because it’s not as strong an effect Soft Light can be run at 100%. I’ll often jump back and forth between Soft Light and Overlay to see which works best with the image I’m editing.


In all of the examples I’ve demonstrated so far, the top layer has been the same as the bottom layer. This doesn’t have to be the case. You can create interesting effects with blending modes when the top layer is different than the bottom layer. A common example of this is adding texture to an image.

Let’s use this texture to grunge up the image of the model in front of the truck.


When working with textures you will find that you have to tweak and experiment with every image. For this image I put the texture in a layer on top of the photo. I set the texture layer to the Hard Light blending mode. Hard Light is similar to Overlay, but it adds even more contrast.


I had to play with the opacity of the texture layer to get the amount of texture I wanted. In this case it turned out to work well at 50% opacity. I also had to add a layer mask and paint the effect off of the model. People just don’t look good with textured skin.

When working with textures, I will often use the Soft Light, Overlay, Hard Light or Multiply blending modes.

And finally, here’s an effect that reminds me of an image that’s been reproduced on a bad photocopier. (Don’t ask me why I’d want an image that looks like it was reproduced on a bad photocopier… this is art!) This technique uses the Hard Light blend mode as well, but in this case I’ve desaturated the top layer. This gives the image a lot of contrast, but plays with the colors in peculiar ways. Again the top layer needs to have it’s opacity reduced. I might finish an image like this by adding some noise for grain or even by adding a texture added on top.


Do you have unique effects that you’ve created using blend modes? Bust them out in the comments section.

About Earl Christie

Earl Christie has written 40 post in this blog.

Earl is a Boston wedding photographer who finds love and magic and wonder in everything he shoots.



  1. Skin Deep – How I Retouch A Face :: ShootStyle says:

    June 9th, 2010 at 9:04 am (#)

    [...] of the image. I could use some of the dodging and burning techniques I demonstrated in my earlier Blending Fun article, but instead I think I’ll plug another maker of cool Photoshop Tools. Yin/Yang is a dodging [...]

  2. Skin Deep – How I Retouch A Face | Boston Wedding Photographers says:

    June 16th, 2010 at 8:43 am (#)

    [...] finish it off. I could use some of the dodging and burning techniques I demonstrated in my earlier Blending Fun article, but instead I think I’ll plug another maker of cool Photoshop Tools. Yin/Yang is a dodging [...]

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