If you google “Photoshop Blending Modes,” you’re going to get a lot of technical tutorials that may be hard to understand. As it happens, these powerful tools that we can use to create incredible, textured composites are fairly easy to use. To simplify things, we made what we are calling “the Ultimate Visual Guide” to understanding Photoshop blending modes so that you can quickly create your own great composite images with textures.
Video: The Ultimate Visual Guide to Understanding Photoshop Blending Modes
Guide to Understanding Photoshop Blending Modes: Table of Contents
- Introduction: Creating Textures
- Understanding Composite Images and Photoshop Blending Modes
- Working with Different Blend Modes
- Exploring Darken Blend Modes
- Using Lighten Blend Modes
- Playing with Contrast Blend Modes
- Incorporating Inversion Blend Modes
- Blending with Component Blend Modes
- Conclusion and More Information
1. Introduction: Creating Textures
To create Photoshop textures, we start with basic craft papers. Then, we physically crumple them, scratch them, tear them, and even light them on fire to create unique and interesting textures. At that point, we then digitize the papers into 20+ megapixel high-resolution files. All of the textures featured in the video above and the article below (plus over 200 more) are included in our Photoshop Paper Texture Pack. We designed these handmade, high-resolution textures to take your photography to the next level. You can, however, create your own as well for the purposes discussed in this article.
2. Understanding Composite Images and Photoshop Blending Modes
Texturing refers to the process of placing a texture image over a photo and blending the layers to create a composite. To demonstrate, we have a WtB (White to Black) test image with White, 25% Grey, 50% Grey, 75% Grey, and Black, which we will layer over our photo so we can show you exactly how the different Photoshop Blending Modes work in practice.
When we choose a Photoshop Blending Mode, we are essentially asking Photoshop to blend our selected layer with the layer below based on whatever Blend Mode is selected. So essentially, depending on the mode, pixels from the top layer are going to alter the color and luminosity of those on underlying layers. This will make more sense as we continue with our demonstrations.
Right now, lets take a look at the available Photoshop Blending Modes, which are located in the “Layers” tab in Photoshop. See in the image below for more details. When you first look at the blend options, you might be overwhelmed by the choices. However, they’re actually split up into 6 easy groups. Each of these groups have Blend Modes that operate similarly in function. If you want to alternate between the different Blend Modes you can press “Shift +” or “Shift -” to cycle through them quickly.
3. Working with Different Blend Modes
Normal Blend Mode
At 100% Opacity the default, the “Normal” Blend Mode simply shows the image on top, and we can’t see anything underneath it. When we drag the Opacity down to 50%, the selected layer becomes more transparent, which allows us to see the image below.
However, the Normal Blend Mode isn’t actually “blending” the two layers together. Instead, it’s simply making the selected layer more transparent. This, in turn, reveals the layers below. But, even though it isn’t technically “blending” pixels, it is still a very effective tool when making composite images. So, when we drop our opacity on the White to Black layer down to 50%, we can still see all of the tones, only we see them at 50% opacity.
Dissolve Blend Mode
When we choose the Dissolve blend option, the pixels will dissolve or granulate when we lower the Opacity of the top layer image. You may wonder why it is considered a “normal” Blend Mode when the effect is quite strange. But once again, the Dissolve Blend Mode isn’t actually “blending” pixels it is again simply selecting areas to reveal versus areas to conceal. This is why it is also in the Normal Blend Mode grouping.
At a low Opacity the Dissolve Blend Mode is useful when you want to create granulated or grainy effects over an image or layer.
[Related Reading: How To Take A Single Portrait & Create Numerous Looks Using Photoshop Blending Modes]
4. Exploring Darken Blend Modes
When using Darken Blend Modes, white is our neutral point. This means that anything that is darker than pure white is going to darken the image below to varying degrees all the way to full black. In all of the sample images below, you will see that white area in the White to Black (WtB) layer isn’t affecting the image layer below.
Darken Blend Mode
All of the Photoshop Blending Modes in the Darken grouping are going to darken the layer below with varying degrees of contrast/tonality. In the Darken grouping, white is your neutral color. So basically, if the selected layer has white, this will not affect or darken the layers beneath. This makes sense because how would you darken with white after all? Anything though that is a darker tone than pure white on your selected layer will begin to darken the layer below.
Using the standard “Darken” blend mode in the Darken Grouping, we can see that at 100% opacity, anything that isn’t white is pulling down the tones of the underlying image in a very linear fashion. Because it is so linear, we generally don’t use the Darken Blend Mode at a high opacity because it is simply too overpowering. But, when backed off to 65%, you can see that it has a much more gradual affect over the underlying image, and it can actually be quite useful in creating sort of a darkened and faded look as you can see in the image above.
Multiply Blend Mode
The Multiply Blend Mode combines the contrast and the luminosity of the top and bottom layer together, which ranks it among the most useful Photoshop Blending Modes that we use frequently in compositing. With the WtB layer shown below at 100% Opacity, we can see the image layer clearly up until we see the full black tone darkening the image completely.
We can also see that the Multiply Blend Mode creates far more image contrast most noticeable in the 25-75% range when compared to the standard Darken Blend Mode. Look to the Multiply Blend Mode when you want to darken AND add contrast to your underlying layer.
Color Burn Blend Mode
The Color Burn Blend Mode is darkening the image below, and it does that by essentially adding contrast and burning the colors down. This gives our image a very high contrast burned look. At 100% Opacity the Black is completely dark, but when you lower the Opacity of the WtB layer to 50% it blends much nicer.
In looking at the 50% opacity example above, you can see over the 50% grey area just how much more saturation and contrast is boosted with this Blend Mode than with the other Darken Blend Modes.
Linear Burn Blend Mode
The Linear Burn Blend Mode is another great darkening effect that washes out the image, and one that we frequently use. It is similar to that “linear” style of burning that we saw in the standard Darken Blend Mode. But, it is a little more subtle throughout which makes it an awesome blend mode for creating dark vintage fades. Particularly, look at the 75-100% black area in the image below. You can see how it has a very pleasing darkened and faded look over the underlying layer while it still retains more contrast than the standard Darken Blend Mode.
Darker Color Blend Mode
This Photoshop Blending Mode simply blends the darker colors of the selected layer, and I don’t use it too often. When this Blend Mode is at 100% Opacity, we see the darker Greys and Blacks being added to the image. While we can of course adjust the opacity, I prefer to use other Photoshop blending modes.
5. Using Lighten Blend Modes
The Darken Blend Modes and Lighten Blend Modes are exact mirror opposites of each other, so you can expect them to blend exactly the same way, but simply be inverted.
Lighten Blend Mode
In the Lighten Blend Mode grouping the Black becomes our neutral point, and it’s not effecting anything in the layer below. Again, if we are “lightening” an image, then you need brighter colors in order to do that. So black is neutral, and anything brighter than black will affect the layer below.
At 100% Opacity we see the White adds 100% brightness, which will simply cause the underlying layer to go white. Remember, with the Lighten Blend Mode in particular, that if the underlying layer is already bright to begin with, you will need brighter tones to actually “Lighten” the underlying layer. For this reason, we can see the 25% Grey fairly clearly and we can barely see the edge on the 50% grey, but anything darker than that is almost completely transparent. This is because the majority of the underlying image is brighter than 50% Grey.
Screen Blend Mode
With the Screen Blend Mode we can see more of the different tones at 100% Opacity. The Black is again neutral, but we can see the 25%, 50%, and 75% Greys making the image brighter and adding some fade to the image. This is a great Blend Mode for when you want to create a brightened and faded look to an image or texture.
Color Dodge Blend Mode
The Color Dodge and Color Burn Photoshop Blending Modes are the exact opposite of one another. This particular Blend Mode is brightening the image and adding colors. These are powerful blend effects so you want to lower the Opacity to get a more subtle look.
Linear Dodge Blend Mode
Linear Dodge is like a toned down version of the Color Dodge Blend mode. The Color Dodge has more contrast as opposed to the flatter look of Linear Dodge. If you feel like the Color Dodge is adding too much contrast then try Linear Dodge. Again, Linear Dodge is another great blend mode that we are frequently using to create a bright and flat fade.
Lighter Color Blend Mode
The Lighter Color Blend mode is a little more aggressive in terms of applying the White areas of the top layer to the bottom layer. At 100% Opacity we see the 25% Grey being blended heavily into the underlying layer, while every darker than 25% Grey is basically transparent because of the bright exposure of the underlying layer. Again, this isn’t a blend mode that we are frequently using.
[Related Reading: The Power Of Using Blending Modes In Photoshop | Aaron Nace]
6. Playing with Contrast Blend Modes
In the Darken Blend Modes, White was the neutral point. Black is the neutral point in the Lighten Blend Modes. In the Overlay Blend Modes, the 50% Grey is the neutral point, and anything that isn’t 50% grey will add contrast and brightening, or add contrast and darkening to the layers below. Contrast Blend Modes are very effective and frequently used.
Overlay Blend Mode
When using the Overlay Blend Modes anything darker than 50% Grey will darken and add contrast to the underlying image and anything brighter than 50% Grey will brighten and add contrast to the underlying image. This is one of our most frequently used Photoshop Blending Modes.
Soft Light Blend Mode
The Soft Light Blend Mode works similarly to the Overlay Blend Mode, however it does it in a slightly softer and more subtle way. The left side of the image below has a nice bright fade being applied to the image while still retaining decent contrast, and on the right side there are some nice colors and contrast being added. You can essentially look at this as a softer Overlay Blend Mode and that makes it extremely effective.
Hard Light Blend Mode
The Hard Light Blend Mode is an aggressive Blend Mode and you’ll want to lower the Opacity on it for the best results. At 100% Opacity the Hard Light Blend Mode keeps the Whites completely white and the Blacks completely black. In addition, the blend isn’t as subtle and rich in showing underlying tones when compared to the Soft Light Blend Mode which makes it a little less useful, particularly at high opacities.
Vivid Light Blend Mode & Linear Light Blend Mode
The Vivid Light and Linear Light Blend Modes add a lot more contrast than you would get in the Soft or Hard Light Blending Modes. While we use these blend modes (Linear Light) frequently in retouch, we aren’t using them too often in compositing and texturing unless we really need to add a lot of “punch” as they are very strong effects.
Pin Light Blend Mode & Hard Mix Blend Mode
The Pin Light and Hard Mix Photoshop Blending Modes are quite extreme in their effect. Each essentially posterizing the color below it by destroying color graduation. These blend modes can be effective when you need to create a posterized effect, but again we are generally not going to be using these blend modes in texturing and composites as they are a bit too extreme.
7. Incorporating Inversion Blend Modes
These Photoshop Blending Modes are inversion or cancellation blends, because depending on the underlying layer, it’s either going to invert or cancel out the colors. We’re typically not using these for our texture pack, but we want to show what they look like compared to all the other Blend Modes.
Difference Blend Mode and Exclusion Blend Mode
Subtract Blend Mode and Divide Blend Mode
8. Blending with Component Blend Modes
For the Hue, Saturation, and Color Blend Modes we’re going to get a black and white image because the overlying image has no color on it. With these “Component” Blend Modes, you are getting exactly that, the component of the selected layer blended to the layer below. The first 3 Blend Modes in this grouping are “color component” blend modes and since our WtB layer has no color, it simply turns the layer below to black and white as you can see below.
Hue Blend Mode | Saturation Blend Mode | Color Blend Mode
Luminosity Blend Mode
When we flip to the Luminosity Blend Mode we see the Luminosity levels being affected on the layer below. This Blend Mode is affecting the layer and pixels below simply based on brightness levels, so it’s basically changing the brightness levels on the layer below to these even tones.
These Component Blend Modes are useful when you want to add simply the color or the brightness from a texture onto an image.
Conclusion & More Information
We hope you all enjoyed this article on Photoshop Blending Modes for photographers and creative professionals of all levels. If you’d like to dive deeper, our Photoshop Paper Texture pack also includes step-by-step video tutorials to guide you along the way. We designed the Photoshop Paper Texture pack to work with wedding photography, fine-art photography, newborn photography, landscape photography and much more.