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Complete guide to Layer Blending Modes in Photoshop, written, video + free ebook

The complete guide to Layer Blending modes in Photoshop. This tutorial shows you how to use blending modes and what each blend mode does. Free PDF ebook included.

Complete guide to Layer Blending Modes in Photoshop, written, video + free ebook

One of the fastest ways to get amazing looking images is by using Blending modes. Each blending mode changes the way that a layer reacts with the layer underneath it. You get a small inkling of this by adjusting the opacity of a layer. Using blending modes opens up an entirely new world. These are like sunglasses for your layers that can become x-ray specs and a whole lot more. There is a scientific explanation of each blending mode in the help menu of Photoshop. Don’t get too caught up in the definitions. What matters is how it looks and the best way to determine this is to experiment.

Blending modes are not just present in Layers. You can also find them with the painting tools, the layer styles, smart filters and other places in Photoshop.

Because the blending modes will work the same no matter how you use them, I’ll use layers to explain the blending modes. Layer blending modes also happen to be the most commonly used form of blending mode.

Tip: Trying on Blending modes quickly.

Do you ever get tired of constantly clicking the blend mode drop down to try different blending modes? Here’s a tip that will make it easy to see what all the blending modes look like on your layer. Choose the move tool. Hold down shift and the plus key to cycle through all the blending modes one at a time. Choose Shift and the minus key to cycle backwards. (If a brush or gradient tool is selected the same shortcuts will cycle through the paint blending modes)


The Blending Modes are separated into six groups

  •  Normal: No special blending takes place, only opacity effects these
  •  Darken: The result darkens the image. White is invisible on the Blend layer.
  •  Lighten: The result lightens the image. Black is invisible on the Blend Layer.
  •  Contrast: Increases Contrast. 50% gray is invisible on the blend layer.
  •  Comparative: Difference between images is apparent
  •  Color: Works on different color qualities


Using Blending modes

To use a Layer Blending mode, you need to have a document with at least two layers present. At the top of the Layers palette, you’ll see an option that says Normal. Click the drop-down menu to see all the available modes. Select one of the modes to see the result in your document window.

layer blending modes in photoshop

I’m going to let you jump right into some practical uses of blending modes. If you would like to see a list of all the modes and an explanation and example of each, go to the end of this tutorial, it’s all here!

How to Use Blend Modes in the Real World

The ways to use the different blending modes are limited only by your imagination and creativity. There are a few techniques presented on these pages that make use of some of the blending modes. The real key? Experiment. The more you experiment and become comfortable with the different Blending modes, the better your images will look.


The dissolve blending mode is great for special effects. The dissolve especially lends itself to particle effects such as star fields and flying sparks. By adjusting the opacity you can control how the dissolve displays. Another way to control the dissolve pixels is to use blur filters. The spots will appear wherever there is a soft or semi transparent edge. In this case, transparency and blurs were used to get the chalk effect.


Hiding black or white.

Knowing that the darken and lighten blending groups hide white and black is useful information when it comes to placing things over a background. It’s not always necessary to mask out the background colors on the top layers. If these layers contain a black or white background, the blending modes can hide these colors and make compositing a snap.

1. In this example, there is a canned page in top of an image. Just the text should be showing through and the white needs to be removed. You could reach for the masking tools such as the magic wand or color range. This is completely unneeded.

blend mode in photoshop

2. Change the blending mode to multiply. The white is now hidden and the black text reads perfectly.

multiply blend mode in photoshop

1. This means then, if you have the opposite of a previous example; white text reversed out onto a black background you have a strategy.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.22.45 PM

2. Change the blending mode to Screen and all the black disappears leaving the white text against the background image.

screen blend mode in photoshop

Quickly Blending photographs Together

1. A particular blending mode works really well on more difficult subjects like glass, smoke, fire and lightning. Take these images for example. How would you put the smoke on top of the image of the musicians? A real mess could be made of this and it could become very difficult and time consuming.


2. Aren’t you glad your reading this tutorial? All you need to do is choose screen blending mode and its perfect and quick


Making anything look better, especially people

This next blending mode (Overlay) is guaranteed to make almost any image look better. Rather than just apply the Blending mode, you can add a couple of little tweaks that will make it a bit more subtle. You can just apply the blending mode for a nice finish, but try the variations.

1. Start with your photograph. Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.38.42 PM

2. Duplicate the layer and change the blending mode at the top of the layers palette to overlay. Notice a huge difference in the colors and contrast right away.

3. Drop the opacity to a more natural amount if you want a less pronounced effect. Typically anything for 20-50 will work well depending on the image.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.38.27 PM

4. For some added punch and to produce a soft glow choose Filter>Blur>Gaussian blur. Choose the amount that looks good on your image. You will notice that there is a sweet spot on the slider. Go too far or not far enough and the effect doesn’t work, when your in the sweet spot there is a healthy glow around the image. This is a great way to make people look better and to smoothen out skin. Compare the results to this end image to the beginning image. It doesn’t take much to make an improvement with blending modes.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.40.21 PM

Texture and color effects

You can get some really interesting and powerful effects so easily by using blending modes. It’s always a good idea to cycle through a few different modes and see what results you come up with. You may be surprised. It’s the Blending modes that separate the pros work from the novices. Now you will look like a pro too (unless your already a pro, then you’ll look even better).

1. Take the two images of the fire and the sinister looking man. What do you think will happen with blending modes here?


2. Put the fire on top and choose Lighter color. This produces an effect similar to one seen on a poster for a movie of a popular band (The Doors) . Because there is white on the background of the man, it dominates and no blending happens in that area. This takes on the look of something that was carefully masked out and it only took only a second of time. See Double Exposure tutorial, to take this a step further.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.46.42 PM

3. Take the same images and try the Hard Light Blending mode. Now you see something much more sinister. You could take the Patch tool and remove the firemen and just have pure flames. The Hard Light Blending mode does a good job of preserving the luminosity of the man while adding the texture and color of the flames. As you see, the blending modes are a lot of fun!

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.47.03 PM

There are a number more uses for blending modes. Download the free e-book now, for lots more ideas.  (I’ll be doing a premium tutorial on blend modes soon, so keep an eye out for that.

Different Blending modes, explained

For these examples there are two images used.  A texture with a grayscale bar added to the right will be used as the bottom layer. The top layer will be a human face with a colored bar added to the left. When comparing modes, pay special attention to what happens to the grayscale and color bar, this will give you extra clues to what’s happening. Just for clarification, when Photoshop creates a Blending mode, it compares each channel of each layer. First of all, I will describe all the modes. Then, I’ll offer a few practical examples to get you started using them.


When describing the blending modes, there are three elements

Base: This is the bottom Layer (The texture in the example)

Blend: The top layer with the Blending mode applied to it

Result: The combination of the two layers blended with the Blending mode


There are no special blending methods happening here. Lower opacity to show the layer beneath. (Shown at 80%)

normal blend mode


This is the same as normal except no transparency effects are applied to pixels. The blend happens by dithering pixels on or off. Makes it look like snow on the picture

dissolve blend mode


Any areas that are darker on the base color will replace the lighter colors on the blend layer. The result is a darker image.

darken blend mode


With the exception of white on the blend colors, each color is darkened. This is like taking two transparencies, placing them over each other and holding up to the light. White is ignored.

multiply blend mode

Color Burn

Darkens the base color and the blend color, increases contrast. Produces a darker and more saturated result. Blending with white produces no change.

color burn blend mode

Linear Burn

Decreases the brightness of the base color. Blending with white produces no change.

Linear Burn blend mode

Darker Color

The darkest of the base or blend pixels display. The colors aren’t altered

Darker Color blend mode


The opposite of Darken. The resulting color that displays is the lightest of the base or blend color.

Lighten blend mode


This is the opposite of multiply. This is like taking multiple exposures on a single film frame. Black is ignored.

Screen blend mode

Color Dodge

Opposite of Color Burn. The base color influences and contrast is reduced. Blending with black produces no change.

Color Dodge blend mode

Linear Dodge (Add)

Opposite of Linear Burn. Increases brightness. Blending with black produces no change.

Linear Dodge blend mode

Lighter Color

Opposite of Darker color. The lighter of the base or blend pixels display. The colors aren’t altered (New in CS3)

Lighter color blend mode


If the colors on the blend color are darker than the base they are multiplied. If they are lighter they are screened.  This produces saturated colors and pleasant contrast. Blending with 50% gray has produces no change.

Overlay blend mode

Soft Light

Similar to overlay but will less contrast because it uses darken and lighten rather than multiply and screen. This is like casting a diffused light from the blend color. Blending with 50% gray has produces no change.

Soft Light blend mode

Hard Light

This is like shining a harsh spotlight at the image. If the blend is darker than 50% gray if multiplies, if its lighter than 50% gray it screens.

Hard Light blend mode

Vivid Light

Works like Hard light but uses color dodge and color burn rather than Multiply and screen. Produces a higher contrast image than Hard light.

Vivid Light blend mode

Linear Light

The blend color is the light source.  If the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, the result is dodged by increasing brightness. If the blend color is darker than 50% gray, the result is burned and brightness is reduced.

Linear Light blend mode

Pin Light

Where the colors are 50% gray on the blend layer, the base layer shows through. Lighter or darker than 50% gray will display on the blend color.

Pin Light blend mode

Hard Mix

Reduces the image to solid red, green, blue, cyan, yellow, magenta, white, or black. These are the primary colors. No gradients will be displayed in the image. This produces a posterized effect.

Hard Mix blend mode


The lightest colors are subtracted from the darker colors. White inverts the base color and black produces no change. This psychedelic blend mode is useful for aligning layers together.

Difference blend mode


Similar to the difference mode, but with less saturation. Very little luminance is shown for the blend pixels.

Exclusion blend mode


Uses the color hue of the blend color. The Saturation and the luminosity of the base pixels are used.

Subtract blend mode


Uses the color saturation of the blend color. The hue and the luminosity of the base pixels are used.

Divide blend mode


The color from the blend color is used. The luminosity (Image detail) from the base pixels are used.

Hue blend mode


All the image detail from the blend pixels is shown with the color from the base color.  Opposite of Color

Luminosity blend mode

Other Blending modes

There are two more blend modes that only appear on brushes and shape tools. These are not available for layers. You will choose these other blend modes from the Control Bar with either the paint tools or the shape tool selected. They are: Behind and Clear.


Edits or paints only on the transparent part of a layer. If you have pixels on the layer, they will not be affected.

The fist image is a scribble in blue. Change the paint brush’s blending mode to behind from the options bar. Select red and make another scribble. The blue is protected and the red only appears where there is transparency. This is all done on the same layer!



This makes the brush work just like the eraser. So what’s the big deal? Why not just use the eraser? When you use this blending mode with the shape tool, it takes on a whole new life. Who wants to make a selection, press delete and then turn off the selection? The clear mode turns the shape tool into a pixel-eating machine. (Make sure that the fill pixels option is chosen in the options bar) This is really useful for getting unusual shapes like the battle-axe.


With a circle on a new layer, choose the oval shape tool. Select the clear blending mode from the options bar. As you draw with the shape tool it will now erase pixels in its shape.

Layer Blending Modes. Free eBook by Colin Smith

Grab your free PDF ebook right now. We were going to sell this for $9.99, but figured we would give it away instead and see what happens 🙂



Don’t forget to check out the website as we add new content every week. You can also find us on social media: Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest and Instagram @PhotoshopCAFE.

See you at the CAFE!


Colin Smith

Colin Smith

Colin Smith is founder of the #1 PhotoshopCAFE online community which has received over 30 million visitors. Colin has Authored/Coauthored 18 books. He has won numerous awards including 3 Guru awards. He’s been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame twice. Colin is a regular columnist for Photoshop User Magazine. He’s been featured in almost every major imaging magazine, and is in high demand as a speaker at major industry events including Flash Forward and WPPI . He consults such companies as ABC Disney, Apple and Adobe

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Colin Smith

About Colin Smith

Colin Smith is founder of the #1 PhotoshopCAFE online community which has received over 30 million visitors. Colin has Authored/Coauthored 18 books. He has won numerous awards including 3 Guru awards. He’s been nominated for the Photoshop Hall of Fame twice. Colin is a regular columnist for Photoshop User Magazine. He’s been featured in almost every major imaging magazine, and is in high demand as a speaker at major industry events including Flash Forward and WPPI . He consults such companies as ABC Disney, Apple and Adobe

  • Stew Lindenberger

    Great video intro to blend modes. The ebook looks quite useful. Thanks indeed!

    • thanks

      • Edward Sanders

        For the multiply mode you do not need to copy the picture itself. That increases the filesize. Click as an example the contrast brightness and then do the multiply. You get the same result, without doubling the filesize

  • Peaches

    Thank You so much!! You explain in a way I can understand! i have (TBI)

  • Bob Bowhay

    Thanks for the ebook. I use the blending modes often and only really understood screen, multiply and overlay before. Your ebook is a great reference, One of the quick tricks I use is with images of birds and animals. Often I like to darken the background. Rather than dodge the whole background, I use a multiply blend layer and mask out the animal. The opacity slider allows me to control the amount of “dodging” of the background

    • That’s an awesome use of the multiply mode, I’ll have to try that

  • I have some idea about layer blending but the post increase my knowledge level. If you create a video tutorial as the post that best for beginner. Thanks

  • Michael Smith

    Is it possible that there are only 9 comments here? This is a great tutorial and teaching resource. I collect Blend Mode and texture tutorials for my community college classes and this is at the top of the list. Thank you very much for the excellent work.

  • Michael Smith

    I saw you do a presentation at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, several years ago and it was excellent. I think you do some of the best work in the Photoshop tutorial business with your consistently well done and useful tutorials. You are one of the pillars of the high quality online Photoshop community. I don’t mean to be overly effusive but you really do provide a very valuable resource for digital imaging learners. I appreciate it.

    • That must have been the Lightroom presentation? Thanks so much for the kinds words, it really is nice to hear 🙂

  • At first I will give thanks for your hard working. I have two photo editing website and it’s going well. But I’d seen different images and content here, this is really good feedback for you. I will see all parts of this tutorial and I understand, whatever, please never mind, I do not understand what you are doing here, can you explain me. Please see my uploaded file.

  • I see your article even video tutorial. If i have an idea before about that but now fully clear.