When and Why Use Blending Modes?

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The Soft Light and Overlay blending modes are often used for dodging and burning black-and-white images.

Blending modes as a flavoring

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Fjckground

The Soft Light and Overlay blending modes are often used for dodging and burning black-and-white images.

So, when and why do you use blending modes? One way to think about them is either as a flavor or as the entree in the same way that eggs can be used to either bind and color homemade pasta or be made into an omelet—a meal in itself. Another analogy is that they can be used either as a tactical flavoring or a strategy. Let's first take a brief look at "tactical flavoring," because it's easier to understand and can be put to immediate use. Then we'll get into the entree: blending modes as a strategic ingredient, central to a larger creative process.

Perhaps the most common reason for applying a specific blending mode to a layer is to achieve a certain result or to fix a specific problem For instance, duplicate an image, switch the duplicate layer's blending mode to Multiply, and the result is always darker—as if you're holding up to the light two registered copies of a slide Switch the blending mode to Screen, however, and the result is always lighter—as if you're projecting two copies of the same slide onto a wall Here, you already have a quick recipe to fix overexposure and one for underexposure

Another example: the Luminosity blending mode is frequently used with Curves adjustment layers because, while Curves fix image contrast, they can also cause visible color shifts that the Luminosity blending mode will help to eliminate

How about fixing wrinkles and skin blemishes by setting the Clone tool or Healing brush to the Lighten blending mode? With this mode the tools only affect pixels darker than the "good" skin you sampled Alternatively, copy such areas onto a new layer and use the tool in Normal mode, then set the layer's blending mode to Lighten

These are just a few ways in which blending modes can be used as a means to an end—and that's what I mean by "flavoring" or "tactical" use.

Blending modes as the entree

Setting the text layer's blending mode to Difference ensures that it is always visible whatever the underlying image color.

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Most of this book, however, is about using layer blending modes in a much more creative way—where the image is copied into multiple layers and each layer's blending mode is carefully chosen

Unlike "flavoring" or "tactical" use of blending modes, it's not so easy to say when or why you might want to use blending modes in a more creative way What might be helpful is to think of using blending modes as an alternative—an alternative to using filters, an alternative to using certain tools to enhance an image, or even sometimes when the only alternative is discarding an image altogether. You will have to decide what you want to do with your image and why This book will give you plenty of recipes showing what blending modes can cook up, so let's take a closer look at some of the ingredients

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Blending mode groups

Neutral colors

The more recent versions of Photoshop have about 20 blending modes, and these fall into roughly six groups The first group is useful when you're painting an image—of these, some are only available with painting tools and date from Photoshop's prelayer days Other blending modes fit neatly into groups that either darken (such as Darken or Multiply), lighten (such as Lighten or Screen), or increase the contrast of an image (such as Overlay or Hard Light) There are also the two "comparative" blending modes (Difference and Exclusion), which output a color based on the difference between the color of the blend layer and that of the underlying image

Blending modes don't just blend a greeny blue in one layer with a pale orange in another They look at each pixel individually, and most modes assess the brightness value in each channel before outputting the blend value The sixth group is known as the Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity (HSL) group Unlike the previous groups, the HSL group doesn't look at channel brightness values Instead, it examines luminosity—Photoshop's assessment of the combined red, green, and blue values—before working out the output color

This may all sound very daunting at first, but having a vague understanding of how each blending mode works will help you to decide which blending mode is likely to achieve the result you're looking for

Most of the blending modes have "neutral colors" and some expert users also speak of the Lighten, Darken, or Contrast-increasing groups as the "black," "white," and "mid-gray" groups.

What this means is that the image does not change if you paint black onto a layer that has Lighten as its blending mode, or if you paint white onto a layer that has a blending mode in the Darken group Similarly, if a layer's blending mode is in the Contrast group, painting with mid-gray has no effect, while black darkens and white lightens the picture

It's important to keep the neutral color in mind for a couple of reasons First, this lets you work more intuitively, sensing what effect a certain mode might have on the composite image—bleaching the highlights or reversing the shadows

Second, there are occasions when you can exploit the neutral color For instance, you may want to add a texture to a picture, so you fill the top layer with a pattern using Edit > Fill, and then set the layer's blending mode to one, the neutral color of which eliminates some of the colors in the pattern Various techniques exploit this behavior-check out this book's recipe for adding raindrops on page 160.

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