Three Basic Blending Modes in Adobe Photoshop

One of the most overlooked features in Photoshop is blending modes.  Adjustment layers, masks, selection tools, etc are all fantastic, but there are times when they cannot be used to achieve the desired result, or when using a simple blending mode can save significant work.  The drop down menu for blending modes can be found at the top right corner of the Layers palette, by default it is set to "normal."  Clicking on this menu will display a number of intimidating-looking choices.  Of all the available options for blending modes, there are a few that are best to learn first.

Before I begin to describe specifics, it is important to understand what a blending mode is.  A blending mode describes how the effect of a layer is visualized.  Thus, each layer has its own individual blending mode, set to normal by default.  Any layer can have a blending mode; however, you cannot assign a blending mode to a group, or a "folder" of layers.  Like an adjustment layer, a layer's blending mode is never permanent; you can always change it back to normal if the results are not pleasing.  

Blending modes can be used on any type of layer, however, they work better on certain kinds.  You can use an adjustment layer in conjunction with a blending mode to make a change, or use an unchanged or blank layer and let the blending mode do the work by itself.  

In the blending modes drop down menu in Photoshop, there are six "families," or categories.  The very last category: hue, saturation, color, and luminosity, are some of the most important, and the best place to start experimenting.  I will discuss the last three ahead, since they are the three most used.  

BlendingMode Image 1.jpg
"Where to find the drop down menu for blending modes in Adobe Photoshop CS3."

When doing tonality (brightness) adjustments in Photoshop, a strong change often results in not only a tonal shift, but a color shift as well.  This, in laments terms, is because the adjustment is affecting three channels of color: red, green, and blue.  The luminosity blending mode, however, will cause the adjustment to only affect the brightness of the image.  Using luminosity mode, it is possible to make any number of contrast or brightness changes, without worrying about shifts in color or saturation.  When working inside of Photoshop, I like to have control over as many individual elements of adjustment as possible, and by separating brightness changes from color changes; I am able to make extremely precise adjustments to both.  

BlendingMode Image 2.jpg
"The image on the right has a heavy contrast curve, adding significant drama to it.  But the contrast significantly warmed up the sand and added a lot of blue to the clouds.  By changing the blending mode to Luminosity for the image on the left, I was able to retain the subtle colors in the image, but add that dramatic punch of contrast."

Conversely, you can use the color blending mode for the opposite result.  Making color adjustments, especially dramatic ones, frequently will change brightness as well.  By changing the blending mode of a color adjustment layer to "color," the brightness is no longer affected.  This blending mode is excellent for changing the color of an object, without resulting in unusual changes to the highlights and shadows.  

The saturation blending mode is the least used of the three discussed here.  As you can see, there is a pattern in the naming convention of these blending modes.  When adjusting image saturation, say using the "hue/saturation" tool, setting the blending mode of that layer to saturation will leave brightness and color alone, to a degree.  This is not only an excellent tool for increasing saturation, but decreasing it as well.  When converting to black and white, or to a muted color palette, the saturation blending mode can be extremely useful.  

I would encourage anyone working within Adobe Photoshop to experiment with blending modes.  It is easy to leave the setting at "normal" and forget about it, but by using a few more of the tools that the software offers, the amount of precise control you can have over your images can increase dramatically.  

jf.gifJoshua Lehrer | Website
Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant.  He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer.  He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.