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Lesson 5: Photoshop Blending Modes and Techniques

Having explored layers in lesson 2, we can now look at something that is a lot of fun: blending. In this tutorial I'll explain what blending is, how and when you can use it, what the most useful blending modes are and how to use 'textures' in your photos. Let's get going...

What is blending in Photoshop?

Blending is a way of combining, or blending, 2 or more layers so that they are all visible in different ways. So you would start with a background image and place a layer on top of it.

Using a specific 'blending mode' (more below) you can bring through part of the layer on to the background image. Which parts of the layer are visible/invisible is down to the blending mode you choose.

So it's a bit like using the opacity slider to make a layer partially visible. But opacity applies to the whole layer. Blending works with specific areas of a layer to create certain cool effects.


Blending modes in Photoshop

So, the blending mode you choose is obviously crucial. Open an image in Photoshop now, and add another image on top of it as a layer. We're going to explore the effect of the 3 most useful blending modes: Multiply, Screen and Overlay.

Blending modes are found in the drop-down menu that is set to Normal by default. With your layer highlighted, choose Multiply from the list.

Notice how the darkest areas, the shadows, have remained opaque, whilst other tones have been made almost invisible. This mode can be really striking, especially used with textures which we'll come to soon.

Now change the blending mode of the layer to Screen.

This is the exact opposite of Multiply, leaving the highlights visible and the darker areas almost completely invisible.

So Multiply brings through the darks, Screen brings though the lights. Next have a go with Overlay blending mode.

This is really a combination of the 2, bringing through some detail from all areas of the layer. Again, it's very cool used with certain textures.

The blending mode you choose to use is totally your choice, based on the effect you are trying to achieve. It will differ from image to image. In the above example, Overlay blending mode is my favourite of the 3:

Blending can be used to combine images into a collage or to apply a textured effect to a background image. But it can also be extremely useful for editing 1 single image, where the background layer is duplicated and a certain blending mode applied to the duplicated layer (see this tutorial for brightening eyes in portrait photos for an example).


Opacity and Fill sliders

Blending modes are not the same as reducing opacity, as we've seen. But they can be used in conjunction with the opacity slider. Try reducing the opacity of your blended layer to reach an effect that you like.

Equally, the Fill slider can be really useful when used with layers. What it does is make the content of a layer invisible, apart from any effects/styles that have been applied to that layer. This comes in handy when, for example, adding a border to an image.

Open an image and add a new empty layer, by clicking the icon of a page with a folded corner at the bottom of the layer panel, or going to Layer>New>Layer. Fill the layer with any colour using the paint bucket tool (or hit Cmd + Backspace to fill it with your foreground colour).

Now double-click the layer and select 'Stroke' from the dialogue box that appears. In the Layer Style window set the position to Inside, increase the size a bit and set the colour to white (or whatever colour you want the border to be). Hit OK.

Now reduce the Fill slider to 0%.

This reduces the opacity of the whole layer, apart from the Stroke effect we applied, leaving a nice border around the edge.


Blending with textures

Textures are photographs of textured surfaces (e.g. paper, brick, wood etc) that can be blended with other photographs for some cool effects.

Used well, textures can really add a lot of depth, mood and interest to an image. Search the web for places offering free textures to get you going. Try these ones to start with.

Open your background image, and then place a texture on top of it as a layer. Try the Multiply blending mode, which brings through darks and shadows.

Then have a go with Screen to bring through highlights.

Finally, try Overlay for a half-way option.

2 other modes that can work well with textures are Soft Light and Hard Light.

Having blended your texture into your background image, use the opacity slider, with the texture layer selected, to make the effect more subtle.

I've mentioned the blending modes that get used the most, but there is a long list of options, so take some time to explore them. It's not always possible to know which mode will work best on a particular image until you try it. Have fun with it.



I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on Photoshop blending techniques. It's a really fun thing to experiment with, so take some time and use the above methods on different images. You now know what blending is, what blending modes are, what the most useful blending modes do, how to use the Opacity and Fill sliders and how to work with textures.

For a beginner-friendly book with step-by-step Photoshop tutorials, I recommend "Photo Nuts and Post" by Neil Creek.

Photoshop Tutorials For Beginners

Lesson 1: Getting Started In Photoshop

Lesson 2: Introducing Photoshop Layers

Lesson 3: Organizing Photos In Adobe Bridge

Lesson 4: How To Read A Histogram In Photoshop

Lesson 5: Photoshop Blending Modes and Techniques

Lesson 6: Having Fun With Adjustment Layers

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