Welcome back to Mike Hoffman for the latest in his Blend Mode series. Links to previous parts can be found at the bottom of this post.
In earlier parts of this series, we’ve seen that Screen is the blending mode of glows and lightening, and Multiply is the blending mode of shadows and darkening. Furthermore, we’ve seen that black is a magic color in Screen mode, turning invisible; while white is a magic color in Multiply mode, also turning invisible.
In today’s tip, we’ll look at the first of the “contrast” blending modes, the Overlay blend mode. Overlay has similar properties to both Screen and Multiply, in that it is capable of both darkening AND lightening, at the same time. In doing so, it has the ability to enhance the contrast in your images. We’ll take a look at this capability, and in the next couple of installments we will see how Overlay blending opens the door for many types of creative enhancements to your images.
As I’ve said, Overlay can both lighten and darken, with a simple rule. Any pixels with a lighter color set to Overlay mode will lighten the image, similar to Screen. Any pixels with a darker color set to Overlay will darken the image, similar to Multiply. And, Overlay has its own magic color: 50% gray. Any pixels filled with 50% gray are said to be “overlay neutral,” and will become invisible when Overlay blending is applied.
Here’s a quick example. Let’s take this typical landscape snapshot. The sky is bright and somewhat overexposed, while the mountains and hills are a little too dark:
Let’s create a new layer over the background, and color black in the sky (where we want to darken things) and white or light gray over the landscape (where we want to brighten the image). I’ll cover how to create this black and white layer easily later on in this series:
Now, we simply set the blend mode of the new black and white layer to “Overlay,” and immediately we can see that the sky is darkened, while the desert landscape is lightened. We can, of course, use our opacity slider to adjust the intensity of the effect.
Now, this example was a bit simplified, and we hit the entire image at once without a lot of control in specific areas. Let’s take a look now at a practical application of this principle, in which we’ll use Overlay blending to dodge and burn our image, non-destructively, in a very controlled way. We’ll start with this image of o Pacific coast cliff at sunset. Nice, but definitely lacking in contrast:
Now, we’ll use Overlay blending in a non-destructive way, to enhance the contrast and to dodge and burn the details of this image to provide a much better impact to the photo. Start by Alt-clicking (or Option-clicking if you’re on a Mac) the “create a new layer” icon in the Layers panel. This brings up the new layer dialog box, like so:
First, we’ll name our new layer “Dodge & Burn,” as that is how we will use this layer. Now, we’re going to use this dialog box to set the blend mode of the new layer to “Overlay,” and when we do, a new option becomes available at the bottom of the dialog box: “Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray).” Remember that we mentioned above that 50% gray is the magic color of the Overlay mode, it becomes invisible. We’ll check this option, and click “OK.”
Now let’s take a look: We have our original background layer, and above that our new Dodge & Burn layer set to Overlay blend mode. You can see form the layer thumbnail that the layer is filled with 50% gray, but because we have the blend mode set to Overlay, the grey color becomes invisible.
Now were ready to create the magic. Recall that in Overlay mode, dark colors darken and light colors lighten. We will simply paint on our Dodge & Burn layer with black or white color, and wherever we paint, we’ll see the result immediately in our image. A light touch is important! Let’s start by setting our colors to the default black foreground color (press the “D” key) and select a soft, round brush. Press “1” to set the brush opacity to 10%. We’ll zoom in on the cliff area, and start gently painting over the shadow areas with the intensity at 10%. Every time you go over an area with a new brushstroke, you will add density:
If you want to see the effect you’re having on the Dodge & Burn layer, you can turn off the eyeball for the background layer momentarily and see what you’ve been painting (or set the Dodge and Burn layer temporarily to Normal blend mode):
Switch the eyeball back on, making sure you still have the Dodge & Burn layer selected and in Overlay mode, and continue painting all the shadows.
Once you’ve made progress, switch to white color (by pressing “X” to exchange the foreground and background colors) and start painting the highlight areas, again with a soft round brush at 10% opacity. You’ll see the highlights become brighter, further separating them from the shadows and adding contrast. Note that this all is nondestructive:
Here’s a look at before and after:
And here’s a look at the Dodge and Burn layer in Normal blend mode.
If you make a mistake, you can change your brush color to 50% gray (128,128,128) and paint at 100% opacity to get back to the neutral and invisible gray, then go back to gentle painting in low opacity black and white. Finally, after much dodging and burning, we have the full mountain before and after:
Notice the dramatic increased contrast, which is adjustable by changing the opacity setting of the Dodge & Burn layer.
Overlay mode allows us to increase the contrast in a number of ways, by darkening shadows and lightening highlights. Next week, we’ll look at how to use this technique for sharpening, and how we can reverse the technique to apply smoothing, too. Stick around!
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