An Explanation of Photoshop Blend Modes

By   |  Stashed in Photoshop Tools, Tutorials

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The definitions used here are from the Photoshop help files, with a few bits of added explanation where I saw fit to add them.

The Blend Modes specified in the options bar control how pixels in two separate layers interact with and effect each other. It’s helpful to think in terms of the following colors when visualizing a blending mode’s effect:

  • The base color is the original color in the bottom layer.
  • The blend color is the color being applied by the upper layer.
  • The result color is the color resulting from the blend.

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I decided to use two different examples for this demonstration. The first gives you an example of a simple photo with a complex and colorful texture while the second gives you a complex photo with a simple texture. This should give you a better visual of exactly what each mode does.

Remember that to get better results you can also adjust the opacity of the upper layer.

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Download Texture | Download Image

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Download Texture | Download Image

Basic Modes

Normal

Normal edits or paints each pixel to make it the result color. Basically, we aren’t getting any kind of effect here since both of our images are fully opaque. We’re just seeing the image on the upper layer. This is the default mode for every new layer.

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Dissolve

Dissolve edits or paints each pixel to make it the result color. However, the result color is a random replacement of the pixels with the base color or the blend color, depending on the opacity at any pixel location. Dissolve only effects images with semi-transparent pixels, if the entire layer is opaque (as our images are) it will have no effect. This isn’t an option I ever use and figure most other designers are the same.

Darken Modes

Each of these blend modes gives the effect of darkening the image. You’ll notice that the darken modes tend to work better for the simple photo / complex texture combination.

Darken

Darken looks at the color information in each channel and selects the base or blend color – whichever is darker – as the result color. Pixels lighter than the blend color are replaced, and pixels darker than the blend color do not change.

darken

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Multiply

Multiply looks at the color information in each channel and multiplies the base color by the blend color. The result color is always a darker color. Multiplying any color with black produces black. Multiplying any color with white leaves the color unchanged.

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Color Burn

Color Burn looks at the color information in each channel and darkens the base color to reflect the blend color by increasing the contrast. Blending with white produces no change.

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Linear Burn

Linear Burn looks at the color information in each channel and darkens the base color to reflect the blend color by decreasing the brightness. Blending with white produces no change.

linearburn

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Lighten Modes

Each of these blend modes gives the effect of lightening the image. You’ll notice that the lighten modes tend to work better for the complex photo / simple texture combination.

Lighten

Lighten looks at the color information in each channel and selects the base or blend color – whichever is lighter – as the result color. Pixels darker than the blend color are replaced, and pixels lighter than the blend color do not change.

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Screen

Screen looks at each channel’s color information and multiplies the inverse of the blend and base colors. The result color is always a lighter color. Screening with black leaves the color unchanged. Screening with white produces white. The effect is similar to projecting multiple photographic slides on top of each other.

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Color Dodge

Color Dodge looks at the color information in each channel and brightens the base color to reflect the blend color by decreasing the contrast. Blending with black produces no change.

colordodge

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Linear Dodge (Add)

Linear Dodge (Add) looks at the color information in each channel and brightens the base color to reflect the blend color by increasing the brightness. Blending with black produces no change.

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Contrast Modes

Each of these blend modes both darken and lighten aspects of the image, boosting the contrast.

Overlay

Overlay multiplies or screens the colors, depending on the base color. Patterns or colors overlay the existing pixels while preserving the highlights and shadows of the base color. The base color is not replaced, but mixed with the blend color to reflect the lightness or darkness of the original color.

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Soft Light

Soft Light darkens or lightens the colors, depending on the blend color. The effect is similar to shining a diffused spotlight on the image. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened as if it were dodged. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened as if it were burned in. Pure black or white produces a distinctly darker or lighter area, but does not result in pure black or white.

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Hard Light

Hard Light multiplies or screens the colors, depending on the blend color. The effect is similar to shining a harsh spotlight on the image. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened, as if it were screened. This is useful for adding highlights to an image. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened, as if it were multiplied. This is useful for adding shadows to an image. Pure black or white results in pure black or white.

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Vivid Light

Vivid Light burns or dodges the colors by increasing or decreasing the contrast, depending on the blend color. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened by decreasing the contrast. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened by increasing the contrast.

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Linear Light

Linear Light burns or dodges the colors by decreasing or increasing the brightness, depending on the blend color. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened by increasing the brightness. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the image is darkened by decreasing the brightness.

linearlight

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Pin Light

Pin Light replaces the colors, depending on the blend color. If the blend color (light source) is lighter than 50% gray, pixels darker than the blend color are replaced, and pixels lighter than the blend color do not change. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, pixels lighter than the blend color are replaced, and pixels darker than the blend color do not change. This is useful for adding special effects to an image.

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Hard Mix

Hard Mix adds the red, green and blue channel values of the blend color to the RGB values of the base color. If the resulting sum for a channel is 255 or greater, it receives a value of 255; if less than 255, a value of 0. Therefore, all blended pixels have red, green, and blue channel values of either 0 or 255. This changes all pixels to primary colors: red, green, blue, cyan, yellow, magenta, white, or black.

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Comparative Modes

Each of these blend modes compare the two layers looking for areas that are identical in both.

Difference

Difference looks at the color information in each channel and subtracts either the blend color from the base color or the base color from the blend color, depending on which has the greater brightness value. Blending with white inverts the base color values; blending with black produces no change.

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Exclusion

Exclusion creates an effect similar to but lower in contrast than the Difference mode. Blending with white inverts the base color values. Blending with black produces no change.

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Composite Modes

Each of these blend modes will effect either the color or luminosity of the image

Hue

Hue creates a result color with the luminance and saturation of the base color and the hue of the blend color.

hue

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Saturation

Saturation creates a result color with the luminance and hue of the base color and the saturation of the blend color.

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Color

Color creates a result color with the luminance of the base color and the hue and saturation of the blend color. This preserves the gray levels in the image and is useful for coloring monochrome images and for tinting color images.

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Luminosity

Luminosity creates a result color with the hue and saturation of the base color and the luminance of the blend color. This mode creates the inverse effect of Color mode.

luminosity

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About the Author

Angie Bowen is a freelance web & graphic designer and co-founder of Arbenting and Dead Wings Designs.

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  • http://thecreativelab.timothybsmith.com Tim Smith

    Thanks for the great post Angie! I didn’t know you were the Co-Editor of FYC? Now that is a nice title! Congrats!
    .-= Tim Smith´s last blog ..Welcome to the Team! New Staff Writer, Garry Aylott =-.

  • http://www.fuelbrandnetwork.com adelle

    Woo great post Angie! Love it, will share the love through twitter.
    .-= adelle´s last undefined ..(Enjoy 10 returned posts for 2 weeks) =-.

  • http://10steps.sg Johnson Koh

    This is very well written Angie :) Two thumbs up!
    .-= Johnson Koh´s last blog ..Making of Mafia in the Jungle =-.

  • http://twitter.com/digideth B. Moore

    Wow excellent in depth post on Blend modes.

    So much info that I will have to save and read it again & again.

    Definitely a great read for intermediate to expert PS users.

    Thanks for taking the time!
    .-= B. Moore´s last blog ..digideth: RT @treyratcliff: I am editing a video now for the upcoming newsletter. about how I shot an HDR in Yellowstone #hdr #photog #stuckincustoms =-.

  • http://maddon.net/blog Madeline Ong

    Thank you for writing this. Most Photoshop tutorials instruct you to use specific blend modes but never bother explaining what they actually do. This would make a useful reference. :)
    .-= Madeline Ong´s last blog ..10 annoying web problems (and how to solve them) =-.

  • http://www.blog.exxcorpio.com Luis Lopez

    Thanks for this explanations, I know what to use for a X result but I barely know how they work exactly one or other, so this post helps me a lot.
    .-= Luis Lopez´s last blog ..Tilt Shift Effect- How To Make Your Own Effect With Tiltshiftmaker =-.

  • http://jhaygamba.com Jhay

    Great post! Thanks for sharing

    Jhay
    .-= Jhay´s last blog ..The First Philippine Web Design Conference =-.

  • http://novatvmedia.com Ezrad Lionel

    I thought this article would have been more technical. I guess you can’t get more in depth than an AND, OR, NAND, NOR or XOR. Thanks for the write up. Bookmarked.

  • http://chitich.com Dusan Kitic

    I was looking for this at the beginning of week. Great sample pictures and great explanation!
    .-= Dusan Kitic´s last blog ..Arhitektur Alterno Business Card =-.

  • http://arbent.net Angie Bowen

    Thanks so much for the great comments everyone! I’m really glad you’re all learning something from it. It’s something that I felt I needed to understand better which is why I decided to put it together.

    Tim – the editor title is brand new as of last week so I’m still in the jumping up and down excited phase lol.
    .-= Angie Bowen´s last blog ..Arbent to Fuel Your Creativity! =-.

  • http://www.hippieness.co.uk incurable hippie

    Thanks so much for this! I’ve needed a comprehensive explanation of these for ages!
    Have posted a link on twitter too :)

  • http://www.favshare.net favSHARE

    This article has been shared on favSHARE.net.

  • Eric

    Thank you so much! What a great explanation!

    This would make a great reference sheet!
    Does it come in a single page PDF?

  • http://ilovecolors.com.ar Elio

    Do you really think that knowing this helps you when creating an image?
    tell me, without recreating it in PS and reading only the definition of Difference, what’s the result of duplicating a layer and setting the top layer blending mode to Difference?
    I’m not trolling, I’m just saying that knowing this make no difference. Of course, it’s useful to know its results, like for example with Multiply, color x 1 = color, color x 0 = 0, but knowing this without being familiar with the results is like knowing that a pencil H is harder than a B, but without know what actually “hard” is.
    Try doing the Difference thing, and then try blurring the top layer. Did you imagine that result by reading the description? if you do there’s a big chance that you’re in fact a cyborg sent back from the future.
    .-= Elio´s last blog ..Candy Script at Typography Served =-.

  • http://www.webdesignbooth.com Dicky

    I’m learning photoshop now and this article explain what is Photoshop Blend Modes for me. Many thanks!
    .-= Dicky´s last blog ..80 Smart And Creative Advertisements That You Should Bookmark And Stumble =-.

  • http://www.dboni.com/ David Boni

    Thanks for the comprehensive look, Angie. I’ve always played it by eye until now… meanwhile, Elio blinds us with philosophy.

  • http://www.fuelyourcreativity.com/ Angie Bowen

    @Elio – Learning these definitions actually did help me in photoshop. Knowing exactly what is happening to the pixels makes tweaking the settings and altering the top layer much easier for me. I’m not saying I know exactly what will happen but it does give me an idea of what to expect.

  • http://www.crearedesign.co.uk Michael Angrave

    I’ve often wondered how each of these blending effects differs from the others. It’s always been more of a trial and error situation, and decide based on how it looks. With understanding of how this works, I only image, it will be more effective.
    .-= Michael Angrave´s last blog ..How to add a Preloader in Flash Tutorial =-.

  • http://www.gadgetcracker.com Adam

    Wow, and I thought I had a fairly good understanding of blend modes… great article!
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..Twitter Chatter: Weekly Updates for 2009-07-15 =-.

  • http://web.mac.com/joeleong/dreamery/home.html Joe Leong

    Hi Angie. It’s a great article and a basic explanation of PS blends. I have been using these methods for years in an effort to replicate my old school illustrative techniques, I discover new approaches in the process. Straight forward PS work involving montages reminded me of the initial stages of airbrushing – clinical. Blends help achieve a better sense of ‘textured art’, I believe.

    http://web.mac.com/joeleong

  • http://www.RussAndMarciaMartin.com Russ Martin

    Looks like a great tutorial. I don’t have the time to read and work through it now, but will later. You did us all a great service.

    Thanks!

  • http://www.designstudio16.com saurabh shah

    wow ! nice post Angie …. I have been using these modes over the year but wasn’t knowing this much … :)

  • http://www.nburmandesign.com Multimedia Design

    Brilliant. NOW it all makes sense…thanks!

  • http://designwannabe.com Design Wannabe

    Nice and easy to understand… tweet tweet
    .-= Design Wannabe´s last blog ..Limkis =-.

  • Jon Clark

    The best tutorial on this subject I’ve EVER read. Thanks for taking the time to write this up!

  • http://www.davebrownphotography.com/Commercial-Photography.aspx Denver Commercial Photographer

    This is such an awsome explanation. You put a lot of work into this. It’s great to at least know more about what each mode does. Thanks.

  • Jamie

    This was a useful article in helping me understand what happens when I apply the blend modes, but it was quite confusing because of all the base/blend and simple photo/complex texture thing.

    And um, maybe you could include a summarised list of what mode is under what kind of effect, like Colour is under Composite Modes. It’ll remind me what modes do what without all the scrolling up and down(:

  • http://www.cplotts.com Cory

    Great explanation of the blend modes … definitely helped me with my WPF/Silverlight blend mode library … specifically so that it now handles opacity on the upper layer.

  • rajesh

    great explaination, thanks for evrythng

  • http://signalka.wordpress.com Sergey

    great explaination, sometimes not even believe that all this can be done in photoshop)

  • Micky47

    Thanks so much for your great help.
    It’s useful when I teach retired people free of charge, so it’s a great help for us in Israel.

  • http://www.maskedmanor.com Ruben Moreno

    Amazingly insightful explanation. Tweeting about this so others can check it out!

  • http://www.bytesolutions.co.uk Laurence

    Honestly, that’s the best article on blend modes I’ve ever seen.
    Great examples to allow people to see what they do rather than just read the words.

    Found it late but I’m sure as hell glad I found it.

    Tweeting (and thanks).

  • http://www.ashphase.com 2Fine-Vicky

    I teach Photoshop, and truly, my students find it difficult to understand this topic, after reading this, i think they will have a breakthrough. Nice tut.

  • http://dnkphotography.com Portrait Photography

    definitely tweeting this. I tried to explain some of this to my friends who are beginning photographers but this definitely does a better job.

  • http://www.sundaydrivestudios.com Denver Wedding Photographer

    Love love love. Thanks so much for the excellent explanation. My photoshop professor sucks at teaching this.