The layer blend modes are some of the most powerful creative tools that you can use in Photoshop to create non-destructive yet instant results for effects. This is very effective in blending smoke/thrown baby powder against a dark background as I did in one of my recent photo shoots. Compositing something as organic and semi-translucent as smoke would take a really long time if I were to simply mask it out. In fact, it’s probably will not look no where as real as if I simply use the Lighten and Screen blending mode.
Here is the before photo with just the talent on a grassy field. He is lit similarly to Joel Grimes’ Soft Edge Sports Lighting, with two Einstein strobes and Paul Buff parabola silver modifiers for side lights, and an Einstein with a gridded beauty dish for key light.
And here is the shot with the smoke layers, plus a Black & White adjustment layer in overlay blend for contrast and Hue/Saturation adjustment layer for the grass.
To get this effect, I use a combination of 9 separate smoke layers in a loose 3×3 grid and I use either Lighten or Screen blending mode. Lighten and Screen modes are part of the “Lighten” blend group in Photoshop. This group essentially lightens the image of the base layer below the blend layer.
The difference between Lighten and Screen is how the blend layer interacts with the base layer. The way it works is Photoshop compares the blend layer pixels to the base layer pixels. With Lighten, Photoshop looks at which pixel is lighter between both layers and keeps whichever is lighter. Anything black or near black on the top layer is replaced by the bottom layer.
Screen is different because rather then just replacing the blend layer pixel that is darker with the one base layer, it multiplies the inverse of the blend and base colors. This means that colors that are neither black or white in both layers gets blended in together, resulting in a lighter color.
Below is an example of how this works based on a great tutorial on Photoshop’s Five Essential Layer Blend Mode
The top blend layer consists of a black to white gradient, as well as a black square, a 50% grey square, and a white square. The bottom base layer is a solid green color. In normal mode, you can see the top layer in its regular state.
When you change the top layer to Lighten, any part of the top layer that starts to get darker than the green layer underneath starts to get replaced by that green layer. The black gradient and square is completely replaced.
And when you change the top layer to Screen, anything that is not black or white gets blended, including the 50% grey square.
For my photos, I shot the smoke separately and brought them all into Photoshop on top of the original image. The smoke itself is close to white, so they would be visible, while their background would disappear, allowing the image below it to come through. I played around with both blending modes, as well as each smoke layer’s opacity to get the best look.
Here is the smoke layer by itself w/ the blending modes, opacity, and some masking already set on it.
That is the thing with any of the blending modes, they are experimental, but they are also non-destructive. You can play around with them, even change their stacking layer, until you find the best mix.
Finally, add some zoom blur and noise, and you have yourself a very cool smoke effect that takes very little time to composite.
To learn more about Photoshop’s powerful blending modes, be sure to read these articles:
You can see more of work at my website: Fotosiamo.com