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The Hidden Power of Photoshop Blend Modes: General Techniques

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This excerpt from The Hidden Power of Photoshop Blend Modes familiarizes you with the basics of blend modes.

Note: This excerpt is from the forthcoming book The Hidden Power of Photoshop Blend Modes, ISBN 9780321823762.

From the book

A main goal of this book is to become so familiar with blend modes that you no longer need to “try it and see,” even though that is a valid approach, especially when you are not sure exactly which look or effect you want. To get started, however, you need to know some general methods for working with blend modes, along with some basic facts.

First, recognize that these layer-based tools are largely nondestructive. You can use any or all of them with impunity—you are not changing any aspect of your image that you cannot change back.

There are exceptions. Painting tools can have a blend mode applied as pixels are laid down or modified. The Dodge, Burn, and Sponge tools blend destructively on the target pixels (although there are ways around this).

Second, some blend modes are sensitive to opacity. As you lower opacity or apply masks, you may see subtle, sometimes unexpected changes. A startling example of this occurs when using Linear Light on an inverted High Pass layer. With larger values of the High Pass slider, the effect ranges from a soft blur at lower opacity to an outline at higher opacity (2.0).

Figure 2-0 Changing the opacity on a Linear Light layer changes the High Pass filter’s effect.

Third, blend modes are scattered throughout Photoshop. You can find them on layers; in tools such as Fill, Stroke, Calculations, and Apply; and in layer styles. In fact, most layer styles are based on, or make heavy use of blend modes.

The Basics

The following general techniques offer so many possibilities that I recommend you take notes as you explore them. Oftentimes, the same general steps can produce dramatically different outcomes simply by changing some of the image elements or swapping the order of operations.

Some general techniques are used repeatedly throughout this book. These techniques are important to develop independent of the recipes you will find later. Here are some of my favorites that can provide foundations for your own work:

Figure 2-1 The Background layer is duplicated for a self blend.

  • Basic self blend (2.1)
  • Duplicate the base layer and change the blend mode of the duplicate.

  • Inverted self blend
  • As the name implies, the base is duplicated and the duplicate is inverted by pressing Control+I (Windows) or Command+I (Mac OS).

  • Filtered self blend
  • Similar to a basic self blend, but the duplicated layer is manipulated with a filter, such as a blur.

  • Fill blend
  • A blank layer is added above the blend layer and completely filled with a solid color or gradient.

  • Selection blend
  • A selection is made from the base layer and then duplicated or filled on a new layer. The selection can be as simple as a marquee selection, or can be the result of complex processes that were stored as an alpha channel.

  • Painting blend
  • Similar to a fill blend, but the pixels are painted directly onto a layer. This is a common method for performing detailed corrections and effects.

  • Adjustment blend (2.2)
  • Adjustment layers can take blend modes, too. Many adjustment layers behave as if you performed a self blend, but allow you to change the adjustment values. When used properly, this is a great way to save some file space and keep things a bit more organized.

    Figure 2-2 Applying a Luminosity blend to an unchanged Curves adjustment is the same as applying the blend mode to a duplicate of the Background layer.

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