A Guide to Layer Blending in Photoshop

A Guide To Layer BlendingheaderPhotoshop’s layer blend modes are a useful tool that often seems far more complicated than it actual is and often users stay away from experimenting with layer blend modes till they feel a little more advanced. The truth is that layer blend modes can be extremely simple to use and can make your editing workflow a lot quicker. Photoshop gives a large number of options to layer blend modes, but in reality there are a few that you will be using most. This tutorial will attempt to simplify layer blend modes and their options to give you a comprehensive guide to layer blending in Photoshop.

Below are the three images that will be used in this tutorial to create one composite image, primarily using layer blend modes used to achieve the desired effect.


The first image you will open in Photoshop is your skeleton image that you will be building on – in this case the moon. This layer can be left alone – it will not be changed in any way apart from changing the crop slightly.

In the case of this tutorial the second images is the Infoparrot logo. First, we want to shape this image to fit the shape of the moon as well as possible. Likely, apart from enlarging it you will have to transform it further. To transform it quickly hold the keyboard shortcut ‘Cmd’ (Ctrl for Windows) and drag the image corners to fit the shape.

Your next step is where Photoshop blending modes begin. You can quickly access all blend modes by opening the drop down menu in the layer panel. In total you will find 27 layer blend modes, but in practice you will most often use only few of them. They are divided into 6 categories. In the first section you have your default normal mode and dissolve mode. Second section has the five modes (Darken, Multiply, Color Burn, Linear Burn, Darker Color) that result in a darkening effect of the layer. Third section creates the opposite effect and brightens your image (Lighten, Screen, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge, Lighter Color). The fourth section changes the brightness and contrast on the way the layer affects the layer underneath (Overlay, Soft Light, Hard Light, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Pin Light, Hard Mix). The fourth section blend modes invert the properties of the layer, and the last section drastically changes the color properties of the layer.


From the listed blend modes most likely you will find yourself using more restrained modes e.g. Darken, Multiply, Lighten, Screen, Overlay, and Soft Light. To find the blend mode that suits the image you can quickly scroll through blend modes by using the ‘Shift + minus’ shortcut. In this particular case it is the Overlay mode that creates the most realistic result. You will notice that how the blend mode effect this image will strongly depend on the brightness of the layer. If you have a very bright layer the blend modes that have aim to lighten the underlying layer will have little effect, if you have a dark image blend modes that aim to darken the layer underneath will have little effect.


Because layer blending heavily depends on the brightness and contrast of your image, a clever way how to control the blend mode is to add a Curves Adjustment Layer. To add an adjustment layer, if you have not created your own shortcut to do this, find ‘Layer’ toolbar on the top left of the screen, select the ‘New Adjustment Layer’ section in the drop down menu, and choose ‘Curves…’. For the Adjustment Layer to only affect the layer underneath, make sure to click the icon clipping the adjustment to that layer. In the case of the example image, adding a curves adjustment layer and slightly lowering the black level allows more of the color to show through.


To further add realism to the image we can add a layer style effect to the Infoparrot logo. Click the layer style icon in the Layer Panel – in the drop down menu that appears, select ’Bevel Emboss…’ option. It will take you to the Layer Style panel where you can set the parameters for that specific effect. In the case of the Infoparrot logo, adding a small Chisel Hard Bevel lifts the image by introducing shadows into the logo. Setting the shading effects to correspond to that of the moon further adds realism to the image.


Once we are satisfied with the results we can group all these layers by selecting them and using the shortcut ‘Cmd + G’ (Ctrl + G for Windows). Now we can import the third image – the star-cluster imaged from the three images shown at the beginning of the guide. Again, setting the blend mode for this image is the first step. Since this image is quite dark, screening it on top produces good results.


However, still there are parts of the stars from the image covering the Infoparrot moon. There are two ways to deal with this. First, we can use the Blending Options, second, apply a layer mask and erase some of the image. For the first option, go into Layer Style panel and in the Blending Options navigate to the ‘Blend If’ section. Since we do not want the start cluster to show on the Infoparrot moon, we lower the white section slider for the underlying layer, so that the star cluster image is only visible in the darker section of the Infoparrot moon image – the black area surrounding it. For the second method, we can simply apply a layer mask on the star-cluster image and erase part of the image that is covering the moon. If you are not sure how to do this, read our tutorial on layer masks.


Now that the moon is visible we can enhance the image by adding Adjustment Layers to the third image. Again, considering that blending modes are effected by brightness and contrast, begin with the Curves Layer. Once the layer is created, make sure you selected the icon clipping the adjustment to this particular layer and not the layers underneath. Bringing the black levels higher significantly increases the effect the star-cluster now has on the Infopparot moon. Now the stars create a kind of an atmospheric effect around the moon.


Last enhancement we can make to improve this composite image is to separate the color of the star-cluster from the moon. To do this we can create another adjustment layer, this time for color balance. Adding little bit more blues and greens adds a cast to the star-cluster and makes the grey moon stand out.


Did you find this tutorial useful? If you are ready to create a composite typographic portrait, have a look at our tutorial here.

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