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Author Talk: Scott Valentine on the Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop (Podcast Transcript)

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Peachpit Press publisher Nancy Ruenzel talks to award winning photographer Scott Valentine about his new book, "The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop." Often photographers and Photoshop users are stumped by blend modes. Scott discusses why blend modes are so hard to understand despite being an essential tool for photographers an digital artists.

This interview is a transcription of the video podcast, Scott Valentine on the Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop.

From the author of

Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel: Today I have a special guest on Author Talk, Scott Valentine, who is the author of the new release The Hidden Power of Blend Modes in Adobe Photoshop.  Scott, we welcome you to Author Talk.

Scott Valentine: Well, thank you for having me.

Nancy:  Scott’s a rather eclectic personality, maybe even a Renaissance man.  Boy, you have a degree in Physics and minors in Music and Theater.  I know you play the guitar, but you’re also super technical.  You’ve got both sides of the brain covered here.  So I feel like we’re going to have a great conversation today.

Scott: Well I hope so.  There’s a lot of stuff to be interested in out there. 

Nancy:  There sure is, and blend modes is something that tends to stump a lot of photographers because they can be used for so many effects, not just for basic image corrections.  So, I think it was John Nack, in his foreword of your book, said “blending modes can draw even blank stares from seasoned Photoshop vets.”  Why are they hard to understand and why did you decide to write this book?

Scott: Well, I think blend modes are difficult for a lot of people because they tend to look at them as single effects.  They’ll scroll through the list from the dropdown menu or the layers panel and find something that looks interesting to them, but if they don’t really like that particular look, they’ll go on to the next one.  Most people will stop there.  Sometimes, they’ll do a little opacity, but a lot of times folks don’t spend the time to figure out exactly what’s going on with the blending.  Photographers in particular should look at blend modes as almost glass or gel filters for their images.  They can be used to enhance contrast or reduce it, and there’s a bunch of special effects that can happen.  But in the end, what’s really going on is blend modes are a function.  They take an input from the layer beneath, they combine it with the input on the current layer, and then they give you a virtual output.  So what’s really nice about that is it’s non-destructive, and I think that’s also something that trips people up.  They don’t expect the blend modes to be as easy to use or as quick and lightweight as some of the filters in Photoshop.  And that’s really one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because I believe that there’s an awful lot of power--which is why the word is in the title--in using these fairly simple tools, but in a much deeper way than simply scrolling through the list.  Some of the blend modes--actually there are eight of them--behave differently to the brand new fill slider that’s in the layers panel, which is different from the opacity slider.  And that can get some really interesting effects.  A lot of people don’t know it.  It’s a really simple thing to do.  So I wanted to make sure that I brought this out and really enhanced the ability of photographers and graphic designers and illustrators to use these tools in much more flexible and dynamic ways. 

Nancy: That’s interesting.  I like the way you’ve put it--it’s non-destructive.  It’s a good way to think about how it’s different from other kinds of tools within Photoshop.  And who did you write it for?  As you were writing, were you thinking of that Photoshopper or illustrator or artist who knows that program fairly well but does not understand blend modes, or were you writing it for everyone from beginner to advanced?

Scott: Well, when I first started out I wanted to target more advanced users, because I really felt that’s where an asset would come in.  I see a lot of people who have two or three or four favorite blend modes and maybe they’ll adjust a little bit of the opacity or blending, but they don’t really use it to its full extent.  In the course of writing and developing the proposal, even, in talking with my managing editor, we decided to try and cover as many bases as possible and still keep it concise.  So the book is actually split up into areas--different technical areas that suit a curriculum very well.  There’s the foundational area for anyone who’s curious.  They can go back in and look at the equations.  They can understand how the blending relates to real world effects.  Then there’s a general techniques section, which hopefully would expand another set of tools for people to use.  They can go back and experiment in many different ways.  And so that covers the intermediate users who may only know to turn a blend mode on and off.  And so we’ve covered quite a range there.  Some of the techniques are fairly advanced and targeted for professional users, while some of the other techniques, later in the book for graphic designers, are kind of fun experiments that just about anybody can try.  So we really tried to cover a wide gamut of users. 

Nancy: Yeah, well you do a great job of that.  There’s so much beautiful artwork and the kind of artwork that basically begs the question: wow, how did they do that?  And so you’ve got, in your book, the recipes of how they did it, but also just really beautiful imagery to keep your attention, and I think there are lots of interesting techniques listed here.  I’m looking under Design and Painting: the checkerboard patterns, illustrated gloss, or 3-D depth map.  So it seems to me that anybody at any stage of learning Photoshop would want this book, whether you are new to Photoshop or you’ve been, as you said, using blend modes for some time but only using them in a very limited way.

Scott:  Yeah, and it’s an important point.  There are actually a number of users out there who have a few special favorites that they’ll always go to.  But even in talking with some of the advanced users out there, many people weren’t completely aware that you could use blend modes with, say, adjustment layers and that blend modes actually show up in layer effects and layer styles.  So they’re scattered throughout Photoshop and, as it turns out, calculations is a power tool for using blending, for developing selections, or tonal corrections or things like that.  So it’s pretty interesting stuff, and I really hope that a lot of different technical capabilities and artistic capabilities can be brought to bear with some of the stuff that I’ve presented in the book. 

Nancy: Great. I’m just noticing that you’ve got a section here on defining all of the blend modes, so it’s almost like a reference for you so that you can go back and take a look: what is the actual definition of that.  And you’ve got these great infographics that show what a color burn actually is and what it looks like and what the formula for it is, almost.  So this is the technical side of it and that, surely, is an interest area for you given your technical background. 

Scott: That was actually one of the more interesting parts for me to write because I had to go research the equations.  I looked a lot of things up online, but then I went back and I tried to set up some reference files where I could actually read the color values, in and out, so I could verify a lot of the equations.  But what I really like about that section is that it puts colors into a new perspective with blend modes.  You get to see the patterns.  You get to see how individual colors relate to each other.  So that part was actually a lot of fun and it brought out the experimentalist in me. 

Nancy:  Well you know I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done before.  Have you?

Scott: I have not seen it previously.  That’s why I thought it was so much fun to go in there and try to find the best way to present how those colors relate to each other. 

Nancy: No, I think this a new contribution to the industry, unless someone out there has seen this before.  Let us know.  But you have to check out this chapter where Scott really shows us the color fields and what happens; how the color information in each channel is there and how it divides the blend color from the base color, which is fascinating. 

Scott:  And I’ve also made some of those files available on my website so that if somebody wants to look at the reference files that I used they can simply download them.  That information, the link to that information is in my book.

Nancy: Great. That’s terrific. And then, of course, you’ve got an appendix on the blend modes, as referenced.  So you’re showing what an image looks like with each blend mode and, well you tell us a little bit about how you put that together.

Scott: Well, the appendix in the back is actually something that would be pretty standard fare.  Looking at color fields and gradients and how they interact is interesting, but it doesn’t always give you a good measure of what a blend mode will look like when applied to your image.  And so what I did, I chose a couple of images that would stack up well under a variety of conditions and I just basically made an ongoing table so it would be easier for, say, photographers or designers, who don’t really care about the reference section so much, they can simply go through and look at the thumbnails and say oh okay, well I want to enhance contrast or I want to do a special effect, let’s say the hard mix blend, and see what that looks like. 

Nancy: Yeah.  Well, it makes it very easy to reference.  If you’re a visual person, boy that really helps to take a look at it.  And I love the chart that you put together at the end where you showed which blend modes work with which tools, because not all tools in Photoshop work with blend modes. 

Scott: Yes, that was actually a little trickier to put together than I thought.  I was hoping to find some internal reference in the Adobe help files but there was no single compendium that actually listed all of the blend modes and all of the tools and how they interact.  So that one took a little bit of research and I really enjoyed that because I’ve even found myself going back to the end of my book and saying oh well, I wonder where I can find these particular elements. 

Nancy: How fun. Well, that could be a new contribution as well.  I haven’t seen a list like that anywhere.  So thank you for putting it together, and can you tell us about the writing process of the book?  Was it what you thought it would be?  Now you’ve got a little distance from it because you finished about, what, four or five weeks ago, or even longer?

Scott: Yes, I think we finished in late May or April, somewhere in there. So the writing process this time was a lot smoother. I’d actually published a previous book under Adobe Press, and in that one it was all a learning process for me and my co-author.  This time around I took a much more organized approach using project management tools.  I used a variety of writing tools and, at the end of the day, I’d come home--you know I have a full time job--so I’d come home in the evening, have dinner with the wife and kids, and sit in an easy chair with a laptop and a Wacom tablet and just plink away.  And so it took, I don’t know, six or seven months to put everything together.  There were some stressful moments, but overall I enjoyed the process. I learned a lot.  I’m putting together additional proposals and I hope even the next book effort will go faster than this one with at least as good a content. 

Nancy: Great. Well I tell you, your editor, Nancy Petersen, found you great to work with and said, “Boy, what a great communicator.”  She loved your emails too.  There was always a word in every email that she would have to look up.  You sprinkled into your emails some fun and arcane words that would make the back and forth enjoyable.  So she thanks you for that. 

Scott:  Oh, and that communication was really important.  That actually made the book worthwhile while I was writing it.  I have to give credit to the entire editing team.  Everybody was not only quick and accurate, but just a lot of fun to work with.

Nancy: So Scott, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you what your favorite blend mode is.  Do you have one?

Scott:  I don’t know that I have one.  I’ve worked with all of them so frequently now in experimenting for this book that I’ve kind of got a love for all of them.  One of the underdogs though, I think I’d have to point out, is the hard mix blend mode.  It’s something that’s very misunderstood.  It’s almost a problem child but, as I mentioned earlier, it reacts differently to the fill slider than the opacity slider and the main utility for using a hard mix mode, right now for me, is enhancing contrast in darker areas.  The hard mix mode actually splits the channels that you see in RGB instead of the continuous tone that pushes everything to red, green, blue, cyan, magenta and yellow.  And so you get only the six process colors coming through.  At first you can look at that and don’t really understand how that could be useful, and even when you’ve lowered the opacity slider you get these hard jagged edges around these color bands, but lowering the fill opacity brings back some really nice rich contrasts in these saturated areas.  So I think that’s probably my favorite underdog blend mode out there. 

Nancy: Great story.  I love it.  An underdog blend mode!  We’ll have to get that out to the world, and I hope folks enjoyed this conversation as much as I did.  Thank you so much, Scott, and thanks for your contribution to the industry.  This is, I think, a work that’s never been done before, and anyone interested in blend modes or “harnessing the power,” you’ve got to run out and get his book.  Come to Peachpit.com.  Thanks Scott.

Scott:  Thank you, Nancy.

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