Introduction to Blending Modes

Photoshop Elements Blending modes
What Are Layer Blend Modes? Layer blend modes provide us with different ways for a layer to interact with, or "blend" with, the layer or layers below it. Without layer blend modes, the only real way we have of blending layers together is by reducing the opacity (or fill) of a layer, which usually doesn't give us very interesting results. But with blend modes, not only do they unlock a world of creative possibilities, especially when we combine them with layer masks, they can also be extremely helpful when it comes to editing, retouching and restoring photos, and they can save us a whole lot of time. You don't need to know everything there is to know about layer blend modes in order to use and benefit from them in your daily work. As of Photoshop Elements 6 there are 24 blend modes in total (including the default "Normal" mode). With names like 'Dissolve", "Color Dodge", "Linear Burn", "Difference", and "Exclusion", it's a bit overwhelming Here's a little secret. You don't need to know everything there is to know about all the different blend modes. In fact, when it comes to day-to-day photo editing work, there's really only five (well maybe 6) blend modes you need to know. That's right, not 24, just 5!. What are they? Multiply, Screen, Overlay, Color, and Luminosity. Understand how and when to use these five blend modes and your life of photo editing with Photoshop Elements becomes a whole lot easier.

Elements Editing Mode

To use Element's blending modes you need to be using Element's Edit panel

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Where to Access the Blending Modes

On the bottom right of the Element's window, you should find the Layers palette. By default, the blending mode is set to Normal. Note: You can only use the blending modes if you have more than one layer in your image. If you are in Edit mode and cannot see the Layers Palette, go to the menu Window > Layers and make sure the Layers option is checked.

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What are the blend modes

When you click on the small, down-pointing arrow beside the word Normal and the drop-down menu appears, showing you a list of all the blend modes, it may seem at first like there's no rhyme or reason to it, especially when you're not sure how each of them works. If you'll notice in the color coded diagram, you'll see that the blend modes are actually divided up into different groups. The top two - Normal and Dissolve, make up the first group. Below them, Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, and Linear Burn make up the second group, and so on. There's six groups in total. The image above shows you how the blending modes are grouped by function. This mostly works. However, the Normal and Dissolve blend modes have absolutely nothing to do with each other. Not to worry. You could easily go your whole life never using the Dissolve mode, since it's pretty much useless, especially when it comes to photo editing, whereas Normal is the default blend mode that all layers are automatically set to.

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Notice that the Multiply blend mode is included in the Darken group. If you remember, it's one of the five blend modes you absolutely need to know and one of the modes we'll be taking a closer look at in a moment. Next, the Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, and Linear Dodge modes make up the Lighten group. Each one of them has the effect of lightening the image. Notice that the Screen blend mode is included in the Lighten group, another one you need to know and one of the ones we'll be looking at. Below that, the Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Pin Light, and Hard Mix modes make up the Contrast group. Each one both darkens and lightens the image, boosting contrast. Notice that the Overlay mode, another one you need to know and one we'll be looking at, is part of the Contrast group. You will also want to remember the Soft Light mode, which is just a lest contrasty version of Overlay. Next up is a group we're not going to be looking at in this discussion, the Comparative group, made up of the Difference and Exclusion blend modes. Both of these modes are for comparing pixels between layers and neither one of them is used very often, especially in photo editing. Very rarely would you have a use for the Difference mode, and you'll use Exclusion almost as much as you use Dissolve, which is to say pretty much never. Finally, we have the Composite group, also known as the HSL group, which stands for Hue, Saturation and Luminosity, which just happen to be the names of three of the four blend modes included in this final group, along with the Color mode. The blend modes in this group all have something to do with either the color or luminosity (lightness) values in the layer, and the Color and Luminosity modes make up the last of the five essential blend modes you need to know when it comes to editing photos and images in Photoshop Elements.


The first one we need to look at is Multiply, and as we saw in the diagram above, it's found in the Darken group, so right away, we know it has something to do with darkening an image. In fact, it's the only blend mode from the Darken group you really need to know, and it also happens to be the most
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widely used blend mode of all.

Using Multiply

Lets get to work. Open the image Cannery.jpg in the Sample Files folder. As with any photo, the first step in editing it is to evaluate the image and determine what will make it more pleasing. While this photo is reasonably nice, there are two enhancements that will quickly make it better. 1. The first is to fix the too light section in the upper left. That doesn't entail blending modes but we'll fix that anyway, to practice whole image edits. 2. The second problem is the lack of punch for the image. That's where the Multiply blending mode will come in.

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Duplicate the layer

Click on the Background layer in the Layers Palette. While holding down your mouse button, drag it to the New Layer icon in the palette.

Two layers

You should see this.

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Adjust Levels

In the Enhance menu select Adjust Lighting > Levels.

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Adjusting Levels

1. Click and drag ontthe middle slider of the dialog box. Look at your image. 2. Adust by eye untill you've gotten good detail in the bright area and release the slider. For this image a value of 30-35 seems to work 3. Click the OK button

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Fixing the rest of the image

Well, we've fixed the washed out corner, but the rest of the image looks pretty bad. Fortunately, that's easy to fix.
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Erasing our over-correction

Select the eraser tool from the Toolbar.

Adjust the Eraser

Select a big soft brush. Brush Mode=Brush. Opacity=100%. We want a soft edge so the transition between the erased section and the non-erased will be smooth and undetectable.

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Erase the Over-corrected section of the photo

We don't want the dark part of the layer, so we'll just erase it. Be careful not to erase the light triangle on the left. Let the edge of the brush slightly overlap the shadow and go to town.

The New Image

There's more work we could do with the eraser, like dropping the size down to about 20-30 and opacity to 40-50% and going over the dark vertical shadow on the left and maybe lightening up the area around the small dooway, but you can practice that on your own.

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The left side of the image is still light but you can now see a lot more detail and the photo looks better.

The Layers Palette

Look at the icon for the top layer and you will see that it only shows the upper corner. 1. While holding the Command key down, click on both layers to select them. 2. Click on the double triangle in the right upper corner of the palette.

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Merge the Layers

Select Merge Layers to simplify the image.

Duplicate the Merged Layer

Click on the Background layer in the Layers Palette. While holding down your mouse button, drag it to the New Layer icon in the palette.
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Select Multiply

Choose the Multiply blending mode from the drop down menu.

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The Multiplied Image

That gives our image a lot of punch, but it's too dark and has too much contrast.

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Adjust the Opacity

Adjust the Opacity slider on the top level to a setting you like. I think something around 75% looks good. Crop if you like and save the image. We've turned a bland image into something with some punch.

Screen Blending Mode
The Screen blend mode is found in the Lighten group, along with the Lighten, Color Dodge and Linear Dodge blend modes, so we know that it lightens the image in some way. Screen is actually the exact opposite of Multiply, and while the Multiply blend mode gets its name from the math that goes on behind the scenes when we set a layer to the Multiply mode, Screen gets its name from its real world analogy. Imagine once again that your photos are on slides. If you were to take two of them, place each slide in a separate projector and shine both projectors onto the same screen, the combined images on the screen would appear lighter than either image would appear on its own. Since the Screen blend mode is so good at lightening images without lightening the darkest areas (areas of pure black or close to it), one of its most common uses in photo editing, retouching and restoration is to brighten images that have had their highlights fade over time, or images that suffer from underexposure.

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Using Screen Mode

Open the image Cat.jpg

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Duplicate the Background Layer

1. Just drag the Background Layer icon 2. to the the New Layer icon

Set the Blend Mode to Screen

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Screen Blending Mode Result

This has done a nice job of lightening the cat and bringing out details, but as in the Multiply example, part of the photo is "overcooked."

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Erasing the Bad

1. Select the Eraser tool and set its size to a soft brush of 100. 2. Set the opacity to around 40-45%

The Result

Since only part of the image was too bright, erasing just above the cat and to the left of the chair leg touches up just the part of the photo we want. Note the preview icon in the Layers Palette.

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The Adjusted image

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Overlay Mode
Next, we're going to look at our third essential blend mode, Overlay, which both multiplies and screens images at the same time. The Overlay blend mode both multiplies dark areas and screens light areas at the same time, so dark areas become darker and light areas become lighter. Anything on the layer that is 50% gray completely disappears from view. This has the effect of boosting image contrast, which is why one of its most common uses in photo editing is to quickly and easily improve contrast in faded images.

Open the Sample Image

Choose Door.jpg. As you can see the photo is pretty washed out. It might benefit from Multiply but would have more contrast if the lights were lighter, so we'll use Overlay. It's often the case that you have a choice of more than one blend mode. Don't worry. Experiment.

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Duplicate the Background Layer

Select the Overlay Blending Mode

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The Result

The image definately has more contrast, but in this case, it's too much.

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Adjusting Opacity

In the Layers Palette, adjust the Opacity Slider until the door is the way you want. This is about 50% here. The bushes are still a bit too intense, but we'll use our trusty eraser to fix that.

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With a soft brush, size 100, and an opacity of around 40%, brush out the top layer to reveal the lower contrast Background.

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The Erased Top Layer

You may want to take a couple of passes with the brush. It's often helpful to use a low opacity brush and subtract the layer a bit at a time to gain more control of the result. Save the

The Final Image

You may want to adjust the Opacity slider for the top layer to get just the right effect before you save the image.
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Color Blending Mode
Every layer blend mode we've seen so far in our look at the essential blend modes for photo editing in Elements has either darkened images, lightening them, or both. The Multiply blend mode ignores white areas and makes everything else darker. The Screen blend mode ignores black areas and makes everything else lighter, while the Overlay blend mode ignores areas that are 50% gray and makes dark areas darker and light areas lighter, improving image contrast. Our fourth essential blend mode in Photoshop Elements has nothing to do with shadows, highlights or image contrast and everything to do with color. In fact, by no sheer coincidence, it's named the Color blend mode. It's found in the Composite group of blend modes along with the Hue, Saturation and Luminosity modes. The Color blend mode is actually a combination of the first two modes in the Composite group, Hue and Saturation. When you change a layer's blend mode to Color, only the color (that is, all of the hues and their saturation values) from the layer is blended in with the layer or layers below it. The luminosity (lightness) values of the layer are completely ignored. The Color blend mode is perfect for when you want to add or change the colors in an image without changing the brightness values. As we'll see on the next page, Color is actually the exact opposite of our fifth and final essential blend mode, Luminosity, which ignores all color in the layer and blends only the lightness values.

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Open the Sample Image

Open the image Southern Belle.jpg

Add a New Layer

Let's say we want to keep the overall image black and white but to add more interest to the photo, we want to make the roses on the woman's bonnet red. The Color blend mode makes it easy. First, we'll need to add a new blank layer above our photo, so we'll add one by clicking on the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette.
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Renaming the New Layer

This adds a new blank layer above the Background layer. By default, Photoshop names the new layer "Layer 1", but since we'll be using this layer to colorize the roses, double-click on the layer name in the Layers palette and rename it to "Roses":

Changing to Color Blend Mode

If we were to simply begin painting on this layer with the Brush Tool, we'd be covering up the photo underneath, and that's because the new layer's blend mode is currently set to Normal. Since we want to add color to the image without affecting the tonal information, we need to change the layer's blend mode to Color.

Select the Brush tool

Click on the Brush too icon in the Toolbar.

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Adjust the Brush Tool

1. For this image a brush Size of 19px with a soft brush type is a good place to start. 2. Make sure that the Opacity is set to 100%. 3. Check to make sure that the brush blending mode is set to Normal.

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Brushing on Color

zoom in on the roses and begin painting over them. Notice how we can still see the light and dark areas of the roses underneath the color we're painting thanks to the Color blend mode's ability to blend our new color with the image below. If you find the brush Size to be too big for close detail, adjust it smaller. If you paint outside the lines, use the Eraser tool to get that color back where it belongs.

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Red Roses

The roses are now red but a bit too bright.

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Lowering the Opacity of the Top Layer

As with any adjustment in Photoshop it's often helpful to over color or over correct, then fine tune the final product with Layer Opacity. This image looks a lot nicer with an setting of 50-70%, depending on taste.

The Final Image

While it's often effective to add color to just one element in a photo, you can selectively paint colors to the entire image to create an old time tinted effect. Of course, this is just one example of how useful the Color blend mode is, and it's certainly not limited
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to restoring old photos. The Color mode is just as handy for changing colors in your new digital photos. To change someone's eye color, for example, simply select the person's eyes, add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, drag the Hue slider left or right to select the color you want, and then change the blend mode of the Hue/Saturation layer to Color.

Luminosity Blend Mode
Our fifth and final essential blend mode for photo editing in Photoshop Elements is Luminosity. Like the Color mode, Luminosity is found in the Composite group of blend modes along with Hue and Saturation, and is actually the exact opposite of the Color mode. Whereas the Color mode blends the colors of a layer while ignoring lightness values, the Luminosity mode blends the lightness values while ignoring the color information! In photo editing, changing the blend mode of a layer to Luminosity is often a final step. For example, a very common photo editing technique is to use either a Levels or Contrast adjustment layer to improve overall contrast in an image, and in many cases, this works perfectly. The problem you can run into, though, is that Levels and Contrast affect not only the lightness values in an image, they also affect color. By increasing image contrast, you're also increasing color saturation, especially in reds and blues, and sometimes you'll even see a shift in colors. Too much color saturation in a photo can wipe out important image details. By changing the Levels or Contrast layer to the Luminosity blend mode, we easily avoid the problem by telling Elements to ignore the color information completely.

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Open the Photo Wooden Stairs

The photo is adequately exposed but pretty flat. In this section, we'll not only look at how to increase the contrast using the Luminosity blend mode but get an introduction to Adjustment Layers.
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Click on the Adjustment Layers icon

You'll find the Adjustment Layers icon just to the right of the New Layer icon in the Layers Palette.

Choose Brightness/Contrast

This not only automatically creates a new layer for the adjustment, it saves digging through the levels of choices in the Enhance menu.

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Adjust Contrast

1. Slide the Contrast slider to bring out the detail in the bricks. Don't worry that the image turns very red. 2. Click OK.

Select the Luminosity Blend Mode

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The Finished Image

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Bonus Step
By now you've gotten an idea of what you can do by using Layer to adjust all or part of an image. For a bonus, we'll go through using a handy method of enhancing the contrast and sharpness of an image using blending modes and the High Pass Filter. This has an advantage of making an image sharper without causing the jagged edges or strange pixelation that using the normal sharpness adjustment can produce.

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Open the Image

Choose Barbeque Spices.jpg. Ever wonder how magazine photos always seem to have a little extra oomph that normal photos don't? Besides the fact that pro photos have pro lighting setups, they are also edited to make them "punchier."
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Duplicate the Background Layer

Add a High Pass Filter

From the Filter Menu, select Other > High Pass
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Adjust the Filter

1. The High Pass Filter will create a strange gray and glowing look to your picture. As you know, we can fix that with Blending Modes. Choose a setting that will make the egdes in the photo stand out clearly. Here try a Radius of between 4 and 6. 2. Click OK.

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Choose a Blending Mode

Remember the Overlay mode that adjusts both the light and dark pixels? Here is will turn the strange glowing look of the top layer to increase local contrast for the photo.

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The Result

This is a little over the top but demonstrates how the High Pass filter can give an image more contrast and grab-you impact. To fine tune the image, you can adjust the opacity of the top layer to mellow the picture out a bit.

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Or for a less dramatic bend, try using the Soft Light mode instead of Overlay. Soft Light does pretty much the same thing as Overlay but just a little softer.

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