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Introduction to Blend Modes in Photoshop CS6

written by: •edited by: Carly Stockwell•updated: 11/5/2013

Have you been avoiding blend modes in Photoshop, because you’re not quite sure what they do or what use you would have for them? Now’s the time to start experimenting!

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    Different Types of Blend Modes

    Different Types of Blend Modes 

    With the blend modes in Photoshop C6, you can “combine” layers in new and interesting ways. I use the term “combine” here loosely, because you’re not really merging or performing any type of destructive editing processes on the individual layers. You can always get your original layers back by changing the blend mode back to normal.

    You can access blend modes several different ways in Photoshop, but the easiest method is to use the drop-down list found in the Layers panel. Referring to the diagram shown to the right, if you want to blend Layer 1 with Layer 2, you would select Layer 1 and then choose the blend mode you want to use.

    There are a lot of calculations that go on behind the scenes when determining the result of a blend mode application. For instance, after looking at the color information in each channel, the Multiply blend mode multiples the base color by the blend color to come up with the result color.

    Rather than try to memorize the technical definition of each blend mode, I recommend experimenting instead. Try each of the different blend modes on any pair of layers and see what type of result you get. Even those who are experts at manipulating blend modes often resort to this type of experimentation in order to get the exact look they want to achieve.

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    Some Basic Examples

    Some Basic Examples 

    The above image gives an idea of some of the types of results you can get with blend modes. Each image is composed of two layers – the bottom layer is a blue mosaic and the top layer is pink silk. The Normal example shows how the image would look if no blend mode was applied. In the other examples, various blend modes were applied to the pink silk layer.

    If you like experimenting to find new types of designs to use as backgrounds and patterns, this is a fun and easy exercise to try. Just pick two background patterns from your existing collection of images, and add them as layers to a new Photoshop document. Play around and apply different blend modes to see what types of new designs you can create.

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    Other Quick Experiments to Try

    Looking for other ways to create new backgrounds and effects? Here are a few more fun experiments.

    1. Blend an Image With a Solid Color Background – Create a new Photoshop document and add a fill layer with the color of your choice. You could also use a gradient or pattern fill instead of a solid color, if you like. Grab any photo or image, and add it as a second layer. Apply different blend modes to see some really neat effects.

    2. Blend an Image With Itself – Open a photograph in Photoshop, and duplicate the background layer so that you have two copies of the image. Select the top layer and start testing blend modes. For some blends, you won’t notice any change or you may get some horrible-looking results. But, others may really make your photo pop.

    3. Combine Blend Mode With Opacity Change – In addition to changing the blend mode of your top layer, adjust the opacity as well. Sometimes, just dropping the opacity from 100% to 90% can make a big difference in terms of visual appeal.

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    A More Practical Example

    A More Practical Example 

    Blend modes are used for a whole lot more than just creating special effects and new background designs. They are an instrumental tool for building composite images for all sorts of projects.

    As an example, if we take the two images shown above and layer the ripped paper on top of the blue sky, we’re not going to see anything interesting. In fact, without making any other changes, the only thing we’ll see is the ripped paper because the top layer will completely hide anything underneath.

    However, if we apply the Screen blend mode to the top layer, we get the neat composition shown in the image on the left below. Adjusting the opacity of the top layer to 75%, we get a slightly softer version, shown in the image to the right below.

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    The key to becoming comfortable with blend modes is to experiment a lot with all sorts of layer combinations. That may sound like work, but it’s fun work – and you’ll definitely come up with a lot of interesting results in the process.

Working with Layers in Photoshop CS6

Are you new to Photoshop? Don't be intimidated by layers. They can be easy to use and quite helpful for a multitude of projects. Follow this series to get on board quickly.
  1. Layer Basics and Types of Layers in Photoshop CS6
  2. Introduction to Blend Modes in Photoshop CS6
  3. Options for Merging and Grouping Layers in Photoshop CS6
  4. Using Fill and Adjustment Layers for Non-Destructive Editing in Photoshop CS6
  5. Introduction to Layer Styles in Photoshop CS6