In this tutorial, I’m going to give you an in-depth explanation of how the Blending Modes (Blend Modes) in Photoshop work.
You may have worked with Blending Modes in the past, and it was probably more of an experimental process for you.
The purpose of this tutorial is to show you how exactly how each Blend Mode works, so you don’t have to experiment as much.
By the time you finish watching this Photoshop tutorial, you should have a strong understanding of how Blending Modes work and which to use to get your desired effect.
This tutorial is a free sample of my course Mastering Color in Photoshop.
- When Were Blend Modes Added to Photoshop
- Blending Modes or Blend Modes?
- Opacity vs. Fill With Blending Modes
- Color + Blend = Result
- Blend Mode Math
- Normal Blending Modes
- Darken Blending Modes
- Lighten Blending Modes
- Contrast Blending Modes
- Inversion Blending Modes
- Component Blending Modes
- Pass Through Blending Mode
- Blending Modes with 32-Bit Images
- Commuted Blending Modes
- Blending Mode Keyboard Shortcuts
When Were Blend Modes Added to Photoshop?
Blending Modes have been around since 1994 when Layers first were added in Photoshop 3.0.
19 original Blending Modes are: Normal, Dissolve, Darken, Multiply, Color, Burn, Darker Color, Lighten Screen, Color Dodge, Lighter Color, Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Difference, Exclusion, Hue, Saturation, Color, and Luminosity.
In 2002, Photoshop 7 introduced five Blending Modes along with the Fill slider. Linear Dodge (Add), Linear Burn, Vivid Light, Linear Light, and Pin Light.
In 2003, Photoshop CS added Hard Mix. Subtract and Divide were added to Photoshop CS5 in 2010.
Currently, there are 27 Blending Modes in Photoshop. 30 Blending Modes if you include the two extra Blending Modes for the painting tools (Behind and Clear) and the extra Blending Mode for groups (Pass Through).
Blending Modes or Blend Modes?
Officially they are known as Blending Modes, but you can use the names interchangeably. I sometimes refer to them as “Blend Modes,” so no worries as to which name you use. As long as you know how they work!
Opacity vs. Fill With Blending Modes
19 out of the 27 Blending Modes behave the same way when Fill is adjusted, compared to when Opacity is adjusted. However, eight Blending Modes give you a different result when Fill is changed compared to Opacity.
It is crucial to understand the difference because this additional method of blending pixels extends the capabilities of Blending Modes. More importantly, the blend tends to be more aesthetically pleasing when using Fill rather than Opacity with these eight Blending Modes.
In the example below, you can see how a graphic with different luminance values and a photo of Venice were blended using the Hard Mix Blending Mode. The image in the center is set at Opacity at 50%, while the image on the right is set to Fill at 50%.
The eight Blending Modes that are part of this special group:
- Color Burn
- Linear Burn
- Color Dodge
- Linear Dodge (Add)
- Vivid Light
- Linear Light
- Hard Mix
“Transparency Shapes Layer” Check Box
The 8 Blending Modes in this group, also give you an extra level of blending by un-checking the “Transparency Shapes Layer” checkbox in the Layer Style panel.
In the example below, you can see how Linear Light blends differently when the “Transparency Shapes Layer” box is unchecked. Notice how the edges of the circles blend differently in the example on the right.
Base + Blend = Result
You should remember these three terms to understand how Blending Modes work.
The “Base” color is the original color in the image.
The “Blend” color is the color applied with the painting or editing tool to the Base layer.
The “Result” color is the color resulting from the blend.
How the Base and the Blend colors mix depends on the algorithm or Blending Mode that you select.
Blend Mode Math
For those of you who are interested in how the math behind Blend Modes works, I’ve created a simplified explanation.
Photoshop uses “Standardized” values to calculate the blend. The luminance values in Blending Mode math range from 0 (black) to 1 (white). However, Photoshop uses 0 (black) to 255 (white) to represent luminance values in RGB. Photoshop has to convert the values, so black is still 0, but white becomes 1. 50% gray which is 128 becomes 0.5.
To convert an RGB luminance value to a standardized value, dive it by 255. For example, divide 192 (light gray) by 255, and you get 0.75 (192÷255=0.75).
A = Blend Layer Standardized Value
B = Base Layer Standardized Value
AxB = Result
B÷(1-A) = Result
Adobe provides descriptions of each Blending Mode, but they do not provide the mathematical equations behind them. If you would like to find out more about Blending Mode math, check out the Wikipedia page on Blend Modes.
Each Blend Mode Explained
In the examples below, we will explain each of the 6 Blend Modes categories (Normal, Darken, Lighten, Contrast, Inversion, and Component) as well as all the Blend Modes within each category.
The graphics in each section will show the outcome of each Blend Mode at 100% opacity unless otherwise noted.
Each example contains two Blend layers, a grayscale luminosity layer, and a color layer. The photo of Venice, Italy will be the Base layer.
Normal Blending Modes
The Blending Modes in this category do not have algorithms that blend pixels. Instead, the Opacity slider controls the blend between layers.
“Normal” is the default Blending Mode for Photoshop layers. Opaque pixels will cover the pixels directly below them without applying any math or algorithm applied to them. You can, of course, reduce the opacity of the layer to reveal the pixels below.
The Dissolve Blending Mode also does not blend pixels. Dissolve only reveals the pixels below when the Opacity of the layer is reduced. The pixels below are revealed through a dither pattern (noise) whose intensity is based on the Opacity.
As the name implies, the Blending Modes in the Darken category will turn the “Result” colors darker. Anything that is white in the blend layer will become invisible, and anything that is darker than white is going to have some darkening effect on the pixels below it.
The Darken Blending Mode looks at the luminance values in each of the RGB channels and selects either the base color or blend color depending on which is darker.
Simply put, this Blending Mode does not blend pixels, it only compares the base and blend colors, and it keeps the darkest of the two. If the blend layer and the base layer color are the same, then there is no change.
Multiply is one of the most popular Blending Modes in Photoshop. I’m sure that you have used it many times before.
This Blending Mode multiplies the luminosity of the base color by the blend color. The resulting color is always a darker color. White produces no change, while the black pixels remain.
Multiply can produce many different levels of darkening depending on the luminosity values of the blend layer, which makes it a great Blending Mode for darkening images or creating shadows.
Color Burn is the first of the eight unique Blending Modes in Photoshop that react differently when Opacity is adjusted compared to Fill.
The Color Burn Blending Mode gives you a darker result than Multiply by increasing the contrast between the base and the blend colors resulting in more highly saturated mid-tones and reduced highlights. The result is very similar to the effect you would get when you use the Burn Tool to darken an image.
Linear Burn decreases the brightness of the base color based on the value of the blend color. The result is darker than Multiply but less saturated than Color Burn. Linear Burn also produces the most contrast in darker colors than any of the other Blending Modes in the Darker group.
Linear Burn blends differently when Fill Opacity is adjusted, compared to when Opacity is adjusted.
*Introduced in Photoshop 7.
The Darker Color Blending Mode is very similar to Darken. This Blending Mode does not blend pixels. It only compares the base and blend colors, and it keeps the darkest of the two.
The difference is that Darker Color looks at the composite of all the RGB channels, whereas Darken looks at each RGB channel individually to come up with a final blend.
Lighten Blending Modes
The Blending Modes in this category and re opposites, or complementary colors from the Darken category.
TheLighten Blending Modes will turn the “Result” colors brighter. Anything that is black in the blend layer will become invisible, and anything that is brighter than black is going to have some darkening effect on the pixels below it.
The Lighten Blending Mode takes a look at the base color and blend color, and it keeps whichever one of the two is the lightest. If the blend colors and the base colors are the same, then no change is applied. As with the Darken Blending Mode, Lighten looks at the three RGB channels separately when blending the pixels.
Check out my tutorial on creating a Glass Window Reflection Effect in Photoshop to see a great example of how you can use Lighten Blending Mode.
Screen is another of Photoshop’s most popular Blending Modes. The resulting color is always a brighter color. Black produces no change, while the brighter pixels remain.
Screen can produce many different levels of brightening depending on the luminosity values of the blend layer, making Screen, a great Blending Mode for brightening images or creating highlights.
Color Dodge is the third of the eight special Blending Modes, which blends differently when Fill is adjusted, compared to when Opacity is adjusted.
The Color Dodge Blending Mode gives you a brighter effect than Screen by decreasing the contrast between the base and the blend colors, resulting in saturated mid-tones and blown highlights.
The effect is very similar to the result you would get when using the Dodge Tool to brighten up an image.
Linear Dodge (Add)
Linear Dodge (Add) produces similar but stronger results than Screen or Color Dodge. This Blending Mode 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.
Linear Dodge (Add) blends differently when Fill Opacity is adjusted, compared to when Opacity is adjusted.
*Introduced in Photoshop 7.
Lighter Color is very similar to Lighten. This Blending Mode does not blend pixels. It only compares the base and blend colors, and it keeps the brightest of the two. The difference is that Lighter Color looks at the composite of all the RGB channels, whereas Lighten looks at each RGB channel to come up with a final blend.
Contrast Blending Modes
The Blending Modes in this category are a mixture between the Darken and the Lighten Blending Modes. They create contrast by both lightening and darkening the result colors by using complementary Blending Modes to create the blend.
Photoshop checks to see if the colors are darker than 50% gray or lighter than 50% gray. If the colors are darker than 50% gray, a darkening Blending Mode is applied. If the colors are brighter than 50% gray, a brightening Blending Mode is applied.
Except for Hard Mix, all the Blending Modes in this category turn 50% gray transparent.
Overlay is another of Photoshop’s most widely used Blending Modes. It is a combination of Multiply and Screen with the base layer always shining through. Overlay uses the Screen Blending Mode at half strength on colors lighter than 50% gray. And the Multiply Blending Mode at half strength on colors darker than 50% gray. 50% gray itself becomes transparent. Also, note that “half-strength” does not mean, Opacity at 50%.
Another way of thinking about Overlay is by thinking of shifting mid-tones. Dark tones shift the mid-tones to darker colors, and light tones shift the mid-tones to brighter colors.
One difference between the Overlay Blending Mode and the other Contrast Blending Modes is that it makes its calculations based on the brightness of the colors in the base layer. All of the other Contrast Blending Modes make their calculations based on the brightness of the blend layer.
Overlay, alongside Hard Light, is part of the first set of Commuted Blending Modes in Photoshop. A set of commuted Blending Modes will give you the same result when you apply one Blending Mode to the blend layer, as when you apply the corresponded Commuted Blend Mode to the base layer, and then reverse the order of the layers.
In other words, if you apply the Overlay Blending Mode to the blend layer, you will get the same result, as when you apply the Hard-Light Blending Mode to the Base layer, then reverse the order of the layers.
Soft Light is very much like Overlay. It applies either a darkening or lightening effect depending on the luminance values, but in a much more subtle way. You can think of Soft Light as a softer version of Overlay without the harsh contrast.
Hard Light combines the Multiply and Screen Blending Modes using the brightness values of the Blend layer to make its calculations. Overlay uses the base layer.
The results with Hard Light tend to be intense. In many cases, you will have to reduce the Opacity to get better results.
Hard Light sounds like it would have something in common with Soft Light, but it does not. It is much more closely related to Overlay, and they are both part of the first set of Commuted Blending Modes.
You can think of Vivid Light as an extreme version of Overlay and Soft Light. Anything darker than 50% gray is darkened, and anything lighter than 50% gray is Lighten.
Vivid Light is one of those Blending Modes where you may want to adjust the opacity since 100% opacity is generally too strong.
Vivid Light is the fifth Blending Mode of eight that give you different results when you reduce the fill compared to opacity.
*Introduced in Photoshop 7.
Linear Light uses a combination of the Linear Dodge Blending on lighter pixels and a Linear Burn on darker pixels.
Typically, the resulting colors are extreme, and you may want to use the Opacity or Fill sliders to adjust it.
Linear Light blends differently when Fill Opacity is adjusted, compared to when Opacity is adjusted.
*Introduced in Photoshop 7.
Pin Light is an extreme Blending Mode that performs a Darken and Lighten Blending Mode simultaneously. It can result in patches or blotches, and it completely removes all mid-tones.
*Introduced in Photoshop 7.
Hard Mix is the seventh Blending Mode in the contrast group and the seventh of the special 8 Blending Modes. It applies the blend by adding the value of each RGB channel into the blend layer to the corresponding RGB channel in the base layer.
The resulting image loses a lot of detail, and the colors can only be black, white, or any of the six primary colors. Red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, or yellow.
Vivid Light is an extreme Blending Mode, but you can use Opacity and Fill to reduce the effect. Fill will probably be your better option for reducing the effect of this Blending Mode since it generally gives you better results than Opacity.
*Introduced in Photoshop CS.
Inversion Blending Modes
The Inversion Blending Modes look for variations between the base and blend layers to create the blend.
The Difference Blending Modes uses the difference of the base and blend pixels as the resulting blend.
White inverts the colors of the base layer. It is the same result as inverting the colors of the base layer by pressing Command I (PC: Ctrl I).
Black Produces no change, while dark grays apply a slight darkening effect.
This blending mode can be extremely useful for aligning layers with similar content.
Difference is the eighth and final Blending Mode that reacts differently when Fill is reduced compared to Opacity.
Exclusion is very similar to Difference. Blending with white inverts the base color values, while blending with black produces no change. However, Blending with 50% gray produces 50% gray.
The Subtract Blending Mode subtracts pixel values from the base layer. This Blending Mode drastically darkens pixels by subtracting brightness.
Black has no effect. Only as the blend values get brighter, does the result get darker.
Notice how the light areas of the gradient are almost pure black, while the dark areas of the gradient produced a minimal change.
*Introduced in Photoshop CS5.
Divide produces the opposite effect as Subtract.
White has no effect. Only as the blend values get darker, does the result get brighter.
Dark areas of the blend layer produce bright colors, while the light areas of the blend layer produced a very small change.
*Introduced in Photoshop CS5.
Component Blending Modes
The Component Blending Modes use different combinations of the primary color components (hue, saturation, and brightness) to create the blend.
The Hue Blending Mode preserves the luminosity and saturation of the base pixels while adopting the hue of the blend pixels.
Hue can be used to change hues in a layer while maintaining the tones and saturation of the original.
The Saturation Blending Mode preserves the luminosity and hue of the base layer while adopting the saturation of the blend layer.
A black-and-white blend layer also turns the image into grayscale because none of the pixels in the luminosity layer have saturation.
The Color Blending Mode preserves the luminosity of the base layer while adopting the hue and saturation of the blend layer. Color is the ideal Blending Mode for coloring monochromatic images.
Also, Color, along with the Luminosity Blending Mode, is the second pair of Commuted Blending Modes.
If you apply the Color Blending Mode to the blend layer, you will get the same result, as when you apply the Luminosity Blending Mode to the base layer, then reverse the order of the layers.
Luminosity preserves the hue and saturation of the base layer while adopting the luminosity of the blend layer.
Pass Through Blending Mode
When you select a group, you will notice that the default Blending Mode is not Normal. Instead, it is “Pass Through.” The Pass Through Blending Mode tells Photoshop to treat all the layers within a group to behave as if they were just part of a regular layer stack and not part of the group. The group is only used as an organizational tool and all the layers all blend as you would expect.
However, if you changed the Pass Through Blending Mode to any other blending mode, Photoshop will first blend the layers in the group, then it will blend the resulting composite with the layers below it using the Blending Mode that you selected.
This is the same result as merging all the layers in a group and then applying a Blending Mode.
For this reason, you can use it to create some great effects especially when compositing. You can set a Group’s Blending Mode to Normal, and all the adjustment layers inside of the group will only affect the contents of that group.
Blending Modes with 32-Bit Images
Only 15 blending modes are available when you are working with 32-bit images. They are: Normal, Dissolve, Darken, Multiply, Lighten, Linear Dodge (Add), Difference, Hue, Saturation, Color, Luminosity, Lighter Color, Darker Color, Divide and Subtract.
Commuted Blending Modes
There are two sets of Commuted Blending Modes, Overlay and Hard Light, and Color and Luminosity.
A set of Commuted Blending Modes will give you the same result when you apply one Blending Mode to the blend layer, as when you apply the corresponded Commuted Blend Mode to the base layer, and then reversing the order of the layers.
For example, if you apply the Overlay Blend Mode to the blend layer, you will get the same result, as when you apply the Hard-Light Blend Mode to the base layer, then reverse the order of the layers.
Blending Mode Keyboard Shortcuts
You can change the Blending Mode of a layer by clicking on the drop-down and selecting one from the list. Alternatively, you can use Photoshop keyboard shortcuts for Blend Modes. Press, Shift + to go down to the next Blending Mode. Or, Shift – to move up the list.
If you have a painting tool active, this shortcut will change the Blending Mode of the tool instead of the layer. To prevent this from happening, get in the habit of pressing the V key to select the Move tool, then press Shift + or Shift – to scroll through the Blending Modes.
If the focus, the blue highlight, is around the Blending Mode drop-down menu, these shortcuts will not work. Simply hit Enter, or Return on the Mac to remove the focus from the drop-down, then apply any shortcut that you would like.
Except for Subtract and Divide, the two Blending Modes added in Photoshop CS5 in 2010, each of the Blend Modes has a keyboard shortcut that you can use to apply it to a layer.
However, I don’t recommend learning all of them. Only learn the ones you use most often. Most of the time I only use Screen, Multiply, Overlay, Soft Light, Color, and Luminously. Those are the only blend mode keyboard shortcuts I have memorized.
To select a Blending mode press Alt Shift on Windows, or Option Shift on the Mac, then press the corresponding letter to get you the Blending Mode that you would like to use.
For a quick reference on Blending Modes, you may want to check out my 8-Minute Blending Mode Crash Course.