Reduce guesswork and learn to work with Photoshop blend modes with this essential guide. The days of cycling through every blend mode are history.

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Of all the tools or functions in the Adobe universe with which most users are familiar, blend modes are top-tier head-scratchers. They are eminently useful, popular, and common in image manipulation. Yet, if you ask the designer or photographer which one they used, they probably have to look at the project file to remember.

That’s not a knock on designers. Adobe offers a vast array of options without explanations or guides. Or they’re hard to find — or understand. All this functionality in your face, with no hand-holding. Nightmare material.

Hot Tip: Specific images and their properties are often too complex for you to predict the right blend mode on first try. You’ll still have to click a few and mess with the Opacity or Fill to find the effect you envision. However, once you know what each option does, you can whittle down a smaller range of choices, reducing guesswork.

So let’s demystify some blend modes.

Blend Mode Groups

When you use a blend mode, the color information determines the result of the math that Photoshop is applying to the image. The color values in the base layer get added, subtracted, divided, or multiplied by the color values in the blend layer . . . and I just put myself to sleep.

We won’t concern ourselves with the math, so here are the basic, commonly used, and effective groups.

Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Options

Using Blend Modes in Photo Processing for Design

In an effort to keep things tidy, I’ll use a common blending technique on the same photo for multiple examples of blend modes in action. I’m using a vignette layer with Blend Modes to highlight the subject and affect the background and edges.

We’ll use this image because it contains a good variety of skin tones, lighting, and natural elements.

Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Sample Image

These are the most common Blend Modes, all at 100% opacity and fill.

  • Multiply — for darkening and saturation effects. Use Multiply where you want the colors to become more intense and saturated.  You will likely need to dial back opacity on all but the most subdued photos.Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Multiply
  • Screen – for lightening, or a desaturated effect. Used with vignette, it can produce a nice vintage or faded look.Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Screen
  • Overlay – a great mode for quickly punching up drab photos. Often, you’ll only need to subtly adjust the opacity to easily get a more dynamic photo.Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Overlay

Using Fill vs. Opacity in Special Blend Modes

All blend modes are responsive to opacity adjustments. However, 8 of the 27 behave even more uniquely when you adjust fill percentage: Color Burn, Linear Burn, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge (Add), Vivid Light, Linear Light, Hard Mix, and Difference.

Here are three examples of how fill compares to opacity with special blend modes. On a new layer above the photo, I used the Gradient Tool in radius mode, with black edges and white burst in the middle, to which we will apply the Blend Modes.

Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — Fill vs Opacity

Note: I reduced opacity on the vignette layer to show how it covers the image on the layer beneath.

Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — 50/50Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — 30/30

Demystifying the Mystical World of Photoshop Blend Modes — 30/30

Notice that with the opacity adjusted, the vignette is visible in some photos. But with the fill adjusted, they become incredible tools for bringing out brightness and contrast in the areas where the vignette is darker.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but remember: these are powerful tools, which you can use sparingly or really get into. Dig into blend modes to find your own aesthetic heart’s desire, or don’t.

It is truly fascinating how the Adobe programmers have turned computer math into visual art. You’ll find some dense articles out there, but you might need a math degree to understand them. For certain people, the nuts and bolts behind the functions are enjoyable, but you don’t really need to know the formulas to use blend modes effectively.

Looking for more design tips and tricks? Check out these articles.