Mastering Blending Modes

I have been mucking around in Photoshop for almost a decade and it seems like every new feature I learn is followed by a mountain of new stuff that I have no idea about.  Blending modes came into my conciousness some time ago, but I never really understood them or how to use them effectively.

Now, years later, I have been trying to fill in the holes in my understanding of various data technologies, and blending modes is at the top of my list!  Join me as we begin an exploration in hopes of mastering blending modes…

Get in the Mode

Lets start out by examining the Normal blending mode, which is the most commonly used, and the Dissolve blending mode, which is almost never used.  They are also the simplest to understand.

  • Normal – The default blending mode, it means that the layers do not blend at all
  • Dissolve – Finds pixels with opacity differences and forces color onto them, I wont be using it too much

Now we examine the Multiply set of blending modes.

  • Darken – Evaluates which color is less bright, the base color (color layer beneath blended layer) or the blend color, and uses whichever color is darker.
    • Darken can make objects beneath a layer appear above a layer, and vice-versa
  • Multiply – Takes color information from base color and multiplys it with the blend color (color from blended layer).
    • Blending will always be darker
      • darker the colors are, the darker the multiplied color will be
    • Multiplying by white will remove the white from the blended layer, while multiplying by black will leave only black

In general, you will use Multiply more than Darken as it is much more useful, especially with mid-tone colors

Continuing with the Multiply set of blending modes, we get to:

  • Color Burn – Evaluates base color layer and blend color layer, then increases contrast between two colors to darken the base color
    • eliminates white from the blend layer
    • if colors are very different, then blend will leave a lot of digital artifacts, linear burn offers smoother transition
  • Linear Burn – Very similar but treats whites differently.  Whites in base layer are now darkened to reflect the blending layer.  This mode detects differences between base and blend, then darkens the base to reflect the blend.
    • when blending with color, use Linear Burn over color burn.
    • when blending with grayscale, linear burn is more noticable while color burn is elegant and contrasty.
  • Darker Color – Considered to be a better implementation of the darken blend mode, Darker Color
    • whereas darken becomes more of a blending mode when dealing with color (as opposed to replacement mode, which it really is), Darker Color simply chooses whichever pixel is darker, blend or base, and displays that, regardless of color

Screen Blending Modes

Now we move on to the Screen set of blending modes, they are thought of as the polar opposite of the Multiply blending modes.  All modes make black disappear and white completely white.   Multiply makes things darker, screen makes things brighter:

  • Lighten – Photoshop evaluates base and blend, and chooses whichever pixel is brightest
    • Similar to darken, this is a pixel replacement blend mode, but when used in conjunction with color, creates a nice blending
  • Screen – Takes color information from base and blend, multiplies it, then inverses it, making a lighter color (opposite of Multiply).  Resultant color will always be brighter than base and blend colors.
  • Color Dodge – Evaluates pixels between blend and base and reduces contrast until base pixel more closely resembles the blend pixel
    • creates a muddy appearance because contrast is being altered, more pixelized
  • Linear Dodge – Evaluates the base and blend pixels then increases brightness of base to more closely resemble the blend
  • Lighter Color – A more aggressive replacement blend mode to lighten, replaces dark with light pixels without any color blending from lighten.

Overlay Blending Modes

Let us continue our exploration of blending modes by moving to the Overlay set of blending modes.  Overlay modes remove the mid-tone greys from between the two layers.  Specifically, 50% grey is rendered completely invisible.

  • Overlay – Takes base color and mixes in blend color to remove mid-tone greys
    • Overlay gives a brighter result when working with colors than Soft or Hard Light
    • Works by detecting luminous values in base layer, then comparing that with luminous values in blend.  If base is brighter than 50% grey, it produces a screen effect and lightens.  If the base is darker than 50% grey, it produces a multiply effect and darkens.  If it is 50% grey, it is removed.
  • Soft Light – Same idea, but uses blend layer to start from, and mixes in base layer
    • much more subtle than overlay
  • Hard Light – Similiar idea to overlay, but with more contrast

Those three are the most useful in the Overlay set, but there are 4 other blending modes to discuss, so we trudge on…

  • Vivid Light – Compares base to blend, if blend is lighter than 50%, contrast is reduced between base and blend.  If darker than 50%, contrast is increased
    • leads to interesting results when used with color
  • Linear Light – Compares base to blend, if blend is lighter than 50%, resultant pixel brightness is increased.  If darker than 50%, brightness is reduced.
  • Pin Light – Compares base and blend, if blend is brighter than 50% grey, base pixels brighter than 50% grey are displayed,  If blend is darker than 50%, only base pixels darker than 50% are shown
    • this is a replacement mode, as opposed to a blending mode
    • has a higher tolerance when working with grey pixels
    • more striping in colors
  • Hard Mix – Forces composite colors to be fully saturated or fully luminous
    • no grey values, result is 100% white, 100% black, or 100% saturated color

Inversion Blending Modes

We’ve come so far and learned so much, there are only a few more blending modes to understand.  Lets continue on with the Inversion Blending Modes!

  • Difference – Creates a selective inversion effect, where black in blending mode is completely removed, white does a complete inversion (negative), and the rest of the greys and colors display negatively depending on the brightness value.
    • the brighter the base value, the more negative the resultant blend
    • similar colors are rendered in black
  • Exclusion – Also a selective inversion, where black is removed and white is set to completely negative, but greys are excluded in this mode
    • greys in the blend layer are left alone
    • similiar colors are rendered as grey
  • Subtract – Similar to difference in that black is removed, but white in the blend is rendered black.
    • only full black is rendered invisible
    • Subtract actually inverts colors in the blend layer and then overlays the result upon the base layer
  • Divide – Considered the opposite of subtract, divide removes white and changes black to white with greys becoming much lighter
    • blend colors are still inverted, but screened onto the base layer, as opposed to overlayed or multiplied like in the subtract blend mode
      • this means base color pixels get lighter

The inversion blending modes are often used for alignment purposes.  If you have two images in alignment, changing the top layer to an inversion mode will result in either a complete black or complete white (excluding exclusion, which makes grey), meaning the layers are aligned properly.  They are not used for artistic effect very often, but be creative!

Another common use is copy a layer onto itself and set the blend to divide.  Then, if you blur the image a small amount, you get a white outline effect.  If you blur it a bunch, you get s strong key effect which blows out the whites.

Component Blending Modes

Whew!  What a journey!  We are almost there!  This is the last set of blending modes, known as the component set.  Lets dive in!

  • Hue – This is your colorization layer.  Examines hue of the blend layer, then takes all base colors (not black, white, or greys) and changes them to reflect the hue color
  • Saturation – Takes saturation information from blend layer and applies that level of saturation to the colors in the base layer
  • Color – Another colorization layer, but much more aggressive, takes hue and saturation (the two aspects of color) and applies them to the luminous values of the base layer
    • unlike hue, color will affect the greys and whites of the base layer
  • Luminosity – Opposite from color, this detects the luminous values from the blend and applies them to the color values from the base.

Color and luminosity are known as commutative effects, in that they will produce the same results with differently ordered base and blend layers

Its Been Fun

Thanks for joining me on my exploration of blending modes.  I don’t often write up a conclusion to my notes, and I won’t begin now.  Have a great day!