Layer Blending Modes in Photoshop

Written by MPS Consultant Jaewoo Lee – for more help with this topic, visit Jae at the MPS during his scheduled hours, visible on our Live Schedule.

Layers are exactly what they sound like; they add different levels to the canvas in Photoshop.  This allows you to put objects on different levels allowing you to move layers around independently or blend layers that are on top of each other.  The layer palette is usually located at the bottom right of the Photoshop work-area (if not, you can find it under the Window > Layers) and the layer blending modes is in a drop down menu located on the top left side of the layer palette.

These layer blend modes take two layers and blend them in different styles.  For the sake of example, I will take two images, one on layer 1, and one on layer 2 (layer 2 on top in this case), and show how they blend together with the different styles.

Layer 1 and 2, respectively.

Normal Mode: The colors of the two layers will not interact in any way, and it will display the full value of the colors in layer 1. The normal mode is the default style of any new layer.

Dissolve: Makes the lower level take on the colors of the top layer.  However often times with dissolve pixilated results occur like above.

Darken: Darken compares the pixel value of the lower level to the upper layer and choose the darker to display.

Multiply: This blend mode will darken the lower layer based on the darkness of the upper layer.  No part of the image will be brightened and white parts of the upper layer will just become transparent.

Color Burn: Color burn will burn the colors of the top layer into the lower layer. Again, no part of the image will be brightened.

Linear Burn: Linear burn works in the similar way as Multiply but with more intensity.

Lighten: Lighten works in the exact opposite way as Darken, by comparing the relative pixel values of the two layers and displaying the lighter one.

Screen: Screen brightens the lower level using the brightness of the upper layer. No part of the image will go darker.

Color Dodge: Color dodge “dodges” the lower layer with the upper layer, and it results in a lighter image. The colors and contrast usually intensifies; the image does not go darker.

Linear Dodge: Works similar to Screen, but the intensity and contrast is higher.

Overlay: This blend mode multiplies the darker tones and screens the lighter areas.

Hard Light: Hard light does the similar thing as Overlay but instead of tones, it does it to colors.

Vivid Light: Vivid light will either burn or dodge the lower layer colors depending on whether the upper layer colors are brighter or darker than neutral gray.

Linear Light: Works like Vivid Light, except it works on the brightness of the lower layer instead of colors.

Pin Light: It acts like Multiply when the upper layer color is darker than neutral gray, and acts like screen if the upper layer color is lighter than neutral gray.

Difference: Reacts to difference in the pixels of the upper and lower layer: Large differences lighten the color and small differences darken them.

Exclusion: Exclusion uses the darkness of the lower layer to mask the difference between upper and lower layers.

Hue: Hue matches the hue of the lower layer to the hue of the upper layer, but leaves things like brightness and saturation alone.

Saturation: It serves the same function as hue but does it with saturation and leaves hue and brightness alone.

Color: Color does similar things as Saturation and Hue, but it matches the hue and saturation of the lower layer to the upper layer but it leaves luminosity alone.

Luminosity:It has same function as the previous several layer blends but matches luminosity while leaving the hue and saturation alone.

These layer blending modes come handy when doing photo manipulation; adjusting brightness and contrast, colors, etc. And can also come useful when trying to blend different layers to achieve different effects. Try making 2 different layers next time and experiment with the given layer blending options to achieve the effect that you desire.

Example 1

Personally, I like to use layer-blending options a lot when I edit photos. You can manually set the brightness and contrast and color saturations using the image options in Photoshop, but sometimes by simply duplicating the layer with the picture on it and altering with some blending options can lead to quick and efficient results.

Lets say the color in the original picture above on the left wasn’t good enough. Simply just duplicated the layer and then putting the top one to the blend mode “overlay” will accentuate the colors by multiplying the darker areas and screening the lighter areas, which will lead to a higher contrast and vibrancy in color (result on right).

Example 2

Or in another case, when people want to add a grungy effect to pictures, blending modes can be used as well. We want to give the picture an old look so lets first made the picture black and white by desaturating it. You can do this by going to image → adjustments → desaturate. Then we can take the grunge effects, which can be made personally by you by downloading grunge brushes online. You can put the grunge design on a white background so you can see the design more clearly. And then after you can set the entire layer to multiply over the original image, and the property of multiply will allow it to completely ignore the white and leave just the dark grunge design over your picture.

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  1. Posted November 4, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    nice site!thank you for the knowledgeable information about colors.more power for the blogger!

  2. Cleo Brown
    Posted February 24, 2011 at 3:09 am | Permalink

    Wow, your tip on duplicating the layer was something I never knew about. Before, I always just manually adjusted the contrast, brightness, hue, etc. Your way is much faster. That one tip alone was worth reading this tutorial.

    I don’t use Photoshop, though. I use Paint.NET. It handles layers the same way, but it’s free (hehe).

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