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Know when to choose which blending mode

Added on Monday 15th of February 2010 12:50 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3/CS4

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows



I love using different layer blending modes but feel like I’m always guessing which one I should use and sampling each one until I get the look I’m after. Is it possible to know ahead of time what a blending mode will do to my image so I can make more educated guesses?


You sure can! While we’d never discourage experimentation, you can stay one step ahead of the curve when you know how each layer blending mode affects the underlying pixels. Garnering this knowledge will help you make more educated choices when applying layer blending modes.

Let’s take a peek at the list of blending mode options. Open the Layers panel (Window > Layers) and click on the Blending Mode pop-up menu to display the options. As shown in Figure A, Photoshop separates the blending mode options into six groups. There’s a method to this madness! When you know what each group of blending modes do, it’s easier to select the one you need for your images.





To follow along as we explore the blending modes, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, extract the file blending.psd, and open the file shown in Figure B. Then, select Layer 1 in the file and, as you read this article, experiment with each blend mode from the Blending Mode pop-up menu.





The first set of modes is Independent blend modes. You can see their results in Figure C. In each of these blend modes, pixels on the top layer blend (or replace) pixels on the lower layer:


            Normal. This is the default setting for any layer. There is no mixing between the blend and the base colors.

            Dissolve. This mode removes top layer pixels at random. It only affects feathered and anti-aliased edges by giving them a spreading granular effect.



Darken modes emphasize the dark areas of each layer. You can see the results of the Darken blend modes in Figure D. They emphasize the lighter tones of the top layer:


            Darken. This mode analyzes the blend and base colors and uses the darkest colors from both layers to create the result.

            Multiply. This mode multiplies the base and blend colors and results in darker colors. White blend colors become transparent, making this mode ideal for combining scanned drawings with colors placed on a base layer. This mode also increases the density in a washed-out image.

            Color Burn. This mode reveals the light tones of the lower layer.

            Linear Burn. This mode reveals the light tones of the lower layer with less contrast.

            Darker Color. This mode is similar to Darken, but it analyzes colors from all of the channels. When using this mode, only the darker pixels on the blend layer are visible.



The five Lighten modes make the top layer’s dark tones transparent. You can see the results of the Lighten modes in Figure E:


            Lighten. This mode makes the dark areas of the top layer transparent to the layer below. This is the opposite of the Darken mode. Photoshop retains the lightest colors from the base or blend in the result.

            Screen. This mode is similar to Lighten with less contrast—it’s often used to open up shadows in dark images. Screening always lightens the blend colors. Black tur...