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Mastering Photoshop’s Blending Modes

Blending modes are both a mystery and a source of great design power. Each blending mode controls how one layer’s pixels are affected by those in another layer (or by a tool from the Tools panel). Most users give up on blending modes because the technical definitions of each mode get very tricky. The secret is to not worry too much about the technical issues and to learn how to experiment.

Design “Rules” for Blending Modes

Rule #1—Don’t try to memorize how each blending mode works: The good news is that they are grouped by similar traits. As you make your way through the list, you will notice a gradual progression through styles. The first group darkens your underlying image, whereas the second lightens it. The third set adds contrast, and the last two generate dramatic results by comparing or mapping values. Depending on your sources, some blending modes will generate little or no results. Sound confusing? Keep reading.

Rule #2—Experiment: The best way to use blending modes is to just try them out. Clicking through a long drop-down menu is boring. A much better alternative is to select the Move tool and then use the Shift++ keyboard shortcut.

Rule #3—Exploit them: Do you need a quick visual pop? Try blending a blurred image on top of itself. Do you need to tint an image? Place a solid or gradient on top of the image and change to Hue or Color mode. Blending modes are available for every filter (choose Fade Filter from the Edit menu) and all the Brush tools.

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With 27 blending modes to choose from, keeping them straight can be tough. Fortunately they are grouped together by similar function. Here are clear and simple definitions as well as a sample of how each blend mode behaves.

Fig 9-03 Mode 01 Original

In this example, the colored swirl will be blended with the underlying photo to illustrate each mode.

Fig 9-04 Mode 02 Overlay

Normal The default mode performs no additional change to how layer contents interact.

Shift+Option+N Shift+Alt+N

Fig 9-05 Mode 03 Dissolve

Dissolve Creates a random replacement of the pixels with the base or blend color.

Shift+Option+I Shift+Alt+I

Fig 9-06 Mode 04 Darken

Darken Pixels lighter than blend are replaced; darker ones are not.

Shift+Option+K Shift+Alt+K

Fig 9-07 Mode 05 Multiply

Multiply Is similar to drawing strokes on the image with magic markers.

Shift+Option+M Shift+Alt+M

Fig 9-08 Mode 06 Color Burn


Color Burn Evaluates each channel; darkens base by increasing contrast.

Shift+Option+B Shift+Alt+B

Fig 9-09 Mode 07 Linear Burn

Linear Burn Evaluates each channel; darkens base by decreasing brightness.

Shift+Option+A Shift+Alt+A

Fig 9-10 Mode 08 Darker Color

Darker Color Uses the lowest value from both layers to create resulting color.

No Keyboard Shortcut

Fig 9-11 Mode 09 Lighten

Lighten Evaluates each channel; it then uses base or blend color (whichever is lighter).

Shift+Option+G Shift+Alt+G

Fig 9-12 Mode 10 Screen

Screen in a lighter color. It is useful for “knocking” black out of a layer.

Shift+Option+S Shift+Alt+S

Fig 9-13 Mode 11 Color Dodge

Color Dodge Evaluates color information and brightens base by decreasing contrast.

Shift+Option+D Shift+Alt+D

Fig 9-14 Mode 12 Linear Dodge

Linear Dodge (Add) Evaluates color information and brightens base by increasing brightness.

Shift+Option+W Shift+Alt+W

Fig 9-15 Mode 13 Lighter Color

Lighter Color Uses highest value from both layers to create resulting color.

No Keyboard Shortcut

Fig 9-16 Mode 14 Overlay

Overlay Overlays existing pixels while preserving highlights and shadows of base.

Shift+Option+O Shift+Alt+O

Fig 9-17 Mode 15 Soft Light

Soft Light Effect is similar to shining a diffused spotlight on the image.

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Shift+Option+F Shift+Alt+F

Fig 9-18 Mode 16 Hard Light

Hard Light Effect is similar to shining a harsh spotlight on the image.

Shift+Option+H Shift+Alt+H

Fig 9-19 Mode 17 Vivid Light

Vivid Light Burns or dodges by increasing or decreasing the contrast.

Shift+Option+V Shift + Alt+V

Fig 9-20 Mode 18 Linear Light

Linear Light Burns or dodges by decreasing or increasing the brightness.

Shift+Option+J Shift + Alt+J

Fig 9-21 Mode 19 Pin Light

Pin Light Is useful for adding special effects to an image.

Pin Light Shift+Option+Z Shift + Alt+Z

Fig 9-22 Mode 20 Hard Mix

Hard Mix Enhances the contrast of the underlying layers.

Shift+Option+L Shift + Alt+L

Fig 9-23 Mode 21 Difference

Difference Evaluates each channel and subtracts or inverts depending on brightness.

Shift+Option+E Shift + Alt+E

Fig 9-24 Mode 22 Exclusion

Exclusion Is similar to the Difference mode but lower in contrast.

Shift+Option+X Shift + Alt+X

Fig 9-23 Mode 21 Difference

Subtract Looks at the color in each channel and subtracts the blend from the base.

No Keyboard Shortcut

Fig 9-26 Mode 24 Divide

Divide Looks at the color in each channel and divides the blend from the base.

No Keyboard Shortcut

Fig 9-27 Mode 25 Hue

Hue Uses luminance and saturation of the base and the hue of the blend.

Shift+Option+U Shift+Alt+U

Fig 9-26 Mode 24 Divide

Saturation Creates color with luminance and hue of base and saturation of blend.

Shift+Option+T Shift+Alt+T

Fig 9-27 Mode 25 Hue

Color Preserves gray levels. It’s very useful for coloring and tinting.

Shift+Option+C Shift+Alt+C

Fig 9-30 Mode 28 Luminosity

Luminosity Is the inverse effect from the Color mode.

Shift+Option+Y Shift+Alt+Y

Rich Harrington books

About Richard Harrington (43 Articles)
A certified instructor for Adobe and Apple, Rich is a practiced expert in motion graphic design and digital video. Rich is a member of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals Instructor Dream Team, and a popular speaker on the digital video circuit. Rich is an internationally published author. His book, Photoshop for Video, was the first of its kind to focus on Photoshop’s application in the world of video. He is also a contributing author for Apple’s Aperture, iLife ’09 and iWork ’09, Video Made on a Mac, and Producing Video Podcasts. If you want even more Photoshop training, check out his book Understanding Adobe Photoshop CS4. If you have an iPod touch or iPhone, you can get <a href="http://tinyurl.com/upapps">Rich’s Training in your Pocket</a>

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