The Essential Guide to Blend Modes in Photoshop

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Design Principles 101

Design Principles 101

Photoshop may have started as a Photographer’s tool, but it’s evolved into a versatile creativity catalyst. You can build fantastic images from scratch, blend images together, correct colors, and achieve just about anything else imaginable. Blending images and textures together isn’t always an easy thing to do; Sometimes you can’t convincingly meld images together, and you can’t always rely on simple techniques like opacity or layer styles. But, blend modes can help you design dazzling effects and beautiful imagery where other methods fail.

Blend modes change the way that an image within a layer reacts to the images in the layers below it. Many times, you can choose the right blend mode and save yourself from the tedium of erasing of masking out unwanted parts of an image. This strictly depends on the contents of each image — both the top layer and the ones underneath.

Understanding how each blend mode works will help you to understand when to use certain blend modes to achieve the results you want. Our sample image can be found here. We will apply different approaches to each image to help you understand what each blend mode does.

Normal

This is the default blend mode — the starting point where an image acts like a full-featured image. There isn’t much to say about this setting, except that it is the default setting where no blending is applied.

Blend Mode: Dissolve

The dissolve blend mode determines the amount of opacity for a given layer. Where the layer is 100% in opacity, it leaves those areas untouched. Where areas are more transparent, they are dissolved proportionally. For example, an area with 10% opacity will be less dense in speckles than an area with 50% opacity.

Normal

blend-modes-photoshop-gradient

Dissolve Applied

blend-modes-photoshop-dissolve

You can see from the example above that where the gradient was solid black, no dissolve was actually applied. Where the gradient starts to fade away is where we begin to see  more and more erosion.

Blend Mode: Darken

The darken blend mode compares the darken layer with the layer below it, and it displays the darker pixel information of the two. The lighter pixel information is discarded and the combined layers as a whole become darker.

Before Applying Darken

blend-modes-photoshop-before-darken

After Applying Darken

blend-modes-photoshop-darken

Notice that the shadowy areas of the stone become darker. Where the green gradient fades more at the top, the image is darkened less. This is because both the gradient and the stones are fairly light, so not much darkening occurs. If we applied a darker gradient over this area, those stones would become darker as well.

Blend Mode: Multiply

Multiply is pretty simple; it does what it suggests. It multiplies the color in the blend layer with the color in the layer below it. The only time color change doesn’t take place is when an area is white. The result is always a darker color. This can be good for bringing details into shadowed areas. Any part of the image or blend layer that is pure black will remain black.

blend-modes-photoshop-multiply

The gradient above transitions from dark grey to white. Notice at the top (where the gradient is close to white) that there is hardly any change in the image. At the bottom, where the gradient is dark grey, the image becomes much darker.

Blend Mode: Color Burn

Color burn is a great blend mode for creating contrast. Using a dark color to blend here will highly intensify the results. The effect is similar to using Photoshop’s burn tool to darken and increase contrast in an image. In the image below, you can see that there is no change where the gradient is white. But, where the gradient was dark, the color of the stone wall was intensified. As the gradient starts to fade away, the blend mode creates more subtle results.

blend-modes-photoshop-color-burn

Blend Mode: Linear Burn

Linear burn is very similar to color burn. At first glance, you may not recognize a difference. However, linear burn doesn’t produce the same intense colors that you will find with color burn. Linear burn lowers the brightness of the image, so the colors aren’t affected as much. It doesn’t affect contrast like color burn does. In the image below, notice how linear burn’s color change isn’t as intense as it is with color burn.

blend-modes-photoshop-linear-burn

Blend Mode: Darker Color

Darker color looks at the blend layer and the layer below, determines the darker color, and shows it. If you are using a solid color, you will most likely get a solid area of that color, unless your bottom layer is varied with dark and light areas. Notice in the image below that the dark areas of the gradient appear to be grey. In the white areas nothing changes.

blend-modes-photoshop-darker-color

Blend Mode: Lighten

Lighten does just the opposite of darken. It compares the pixel information of the top layer and the layer below and chooses the lighter color of the two. Notice in the image below that the shadow areas of the image become lighter. White effects this blend mode, as it will always register as lighter and will lighten any dark area.

blend-modes-photoshop-lighten

Blend Mode: Screen

The screen blend mode does the opposite of multiply. Screen actually multiplies the inverse of your bottom image with the blend mode layer. The result is that the image will become lighter. The only areas that aren’t effected by this are the ones that are solid black or solid white. In the example below, notice that almost the entire area is lighter, except where the top portion is pure white.

blend-modes-photoshop-screen

Blend Mode: Color Dodge

Color dodge is the opposite of color burn. It actually works similar to Photoshop’s dodge tool, but as a blend mode. Notice in the example below that the area that is grey is fairly consistent, but where the gradient starts to turn white, the dodge effect is more prominent. The affected area becomes nearly white.

blend-modes-photoshop-color-dodge

Blend Mode: Linear Dodge

Linear dodge makes areas of an image brighter. Black areas are unaffected, but dark grey through white will be lightened. This effect is similar to screen, but as you can see, it is much stronger. It is also stronger than color dodge as well. Notice how linear dodge affects the shadow areas in between the stones and lightens them, but color dodge showed hard edges within the image’s shadows.

blend-modes-photoshop-linear-dodge

Blend Mode: Lighter Color

Lighter color works like darker color, but achieves the opposite effect. It determines which is the lighter color and discards the darker color. Black will produce no results, but white will definitely show up, as you can see in the example below. You can definitely tell where the part of the gradient starts to turn white.

blend-modes-photoshop-lighter-color

Blend Mode: Overlay

Overlay is an interesting blend mode, because it multiplies the dark areas and then screens the light areas. Areas that are 50% grey aren’t affected. Notice in the image below, the area of the gradient that is 50% grey looks normal, but the bottom is darker and the top is lighter.

blend-modes-photoshop-overlay

Blend Mode: Soft Light

Soft light creates a lighter or darker color, depending on the color of the blend mode layer. If the blend mode color is lighter than 50% grey, it will create a slightly lighter color. If it is darker than 50% grey, it will create a slightly darker color than the bottom layer. If the blend mode color is 50% grey, then you will see no change. Notice in the image below, the area that is 50% grey appears unaffected. The black and white areas are lighter and darker.

blend-modes-photoshop-soft-light

Blend Mode: Hard Light

Hard light is just like soft light, but much more intense. The reason is that it affects contrast as well. Using pure white will result in white, and using black will result in black. 50% grey won’t produce a change at all. Anything more or less than 50% grey, but not pure black or white will drastically lighten an image, as you can see in the example below.

blend-modes-photoshop-hard-light

Blend Mode: Vivid Light

Vivid light is similar to soft and hard light, but it is even more intense than they are. Anything darker than 50% grey is burned and anything lighter than 50% grey is lightened and the contrast is lowered. Notice how you get the “burned” effect in the dark area of the gradient. Notice in the white area of the gradient that the sky is lightened, and there is far less contrast.

blend-modes-photoshop-vivid-light

Blend Mode: Linear Light

Linear light works just like vivid light, except instead of adding contrast, it raises or lowers the brightness level depending on whether the blend layer is light or dark. Notice the white area of the gradient is brighter, and the dark area of the gradient is darker. You don’t get as much of a “burned” effect from linear light as you do with vivid light.

blend-modes-photoshop-linear-light

Blend Mode: Pin Light

Pin light basically performs the darken and lighten blend modes simultaneously. If the blend layer is lighter or darker than 50% grey, then it is replaces the bottom layer’s color information. If the bottom layer is darker in the dark areas or lighter in the light areas, then you won’t see a change. Notice in both the black and white areas, the color is almost solid.

blend-modes-photoshop-pin-light

Blend Mode: Hard Mix

Hard mix acts like the color burn blend mode, but there are no gradients or gradual changes in color. Notice that the white areas show as pure white, but the dark areas are all burned, with a very high amount of contrast.

blend-modes-photoshop-hard-mix

Blend Mode: Difference

Difference subtracts the inverse of an image from the blend mode. The blend mode has to be a light color in order for this to happen. It inverts the bottom layer’s colors and subtracts it from the blend mode color. If an area of the blend mode is black, you won’t see any change. You can see this in the image below, where the black area of the blending mode fades away and the image appears normal.

blend-modes-photoshop-difference

Blend Mode: Exclusion

The exclusion blend mode works similarly to the difference blend mode, but it doesn’t produce such harsh results. The reason for this is that it doesn’t create as much contrast. The areas of pure black cause no changes to take place. Notice how the middle area that is roughly 50% grey creates a muted grey result.

blend-modes-photoshop-exclusion

Blend Mode: Subtract

The subtract blend mode is simple. It subtracts the blend mode color from the layer below. Pure black isn’t affected, because you can’t subtract a color and get anything darker than black, so it fades away.

blend-modes-photoshop-subtract

Blend Mode: Divide

Divide does just what it says; it divides the blend mode layer’s colors by the pixels in the bottom layer. The result is a drastically lightened image overall. Notice how the black areas of the gradient are almost pure white. The pure white areas of the blend mode fade away.

blend-modes-photoshop-divide

Blend Mode: Hue

Hue changes the hue of the bottom image to the hue of the color of the blend mode. This doesn’t affect saturation or the lightness or darkness of the image. Notice in the image below, our black to white gradient actually desaturates this area of the image.

blend-modes-photoshop-hue

In the image below, we changed the black to white gradient to a blue to white gradient, which shows how the hue of the brick wall has been changed to match the blue hue of the gradient. This all takes place without darkening or lightening the image.

blend-modes-photoshop-hue-2

Blend Mode: Saturation

Saturation changes the saturation of the bottom image to match the saturation of the blend mode color. We used a blue to white gradient to demonstrate this. Notice below in the second image that areas have become more saturated, and in some areas the image has become overly saturated, as you can see with the pink and purple bricks.

blue-to-white

blend-modes-photoshop-saturation

Blend Mode: Color

The color blend mode applies the hue and saturation of the blend mode to the layer below it. This doesn’t alter the lightness or darkness of the image, as you can see below. It simply changes the colors of the bricks to the same hue of blue that is seen in the gradient itself.

blend-modes-photoshop-color

Blend Mode: Luminosity

Luminosity applies the brightness of the blend mode layer’s color to the bottom layer. Notice in the blue areas, the colors are muddy. White areas become white and black areas become black.

blend-modes-photoshop-luminosity

Conclusion

Blend modes are an essential part of Photoshop. You can apply blend modes to layers, different layer styles, and even brushes to get different results. Sometimes having the ability to blend two images together is just a matter of finding the right blend mode.

It is extremely handy to be able to discard a light, dark or grey area of an image with a flip of a button. Many popular effects are creates by applying a combination of a filter and a blend mode, or multiple blend modes between different layers. The combinations are endless, and the effects that can be produced are unmatched by any other feature.

What is your favorite blend mode? Do you know any tricks for using/combining blend modes to get great results? Share your experience in the comments section below.

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  • http://www.panphotos.co.uk John Pedley

    A very useful, clear and helpful article on a topic that I’ve had difficulty in getting to grips with.
    Thanks James.

    Kind regards

    John

  • http://www.jlorenzo.com.au Jon Miller

    Excellent article on a subject I struggled with for many years. Excellent example used to show the difference.