How to Use Blending Modes in Photoshop

Get amazing images with this versatile Adobe tool

Adobe Photoshop blending modes affect how the colors of two or more layers interact. You can use them to create interesting and dynamic effects with just a few clicks. The different types of blending modes and what they do aren't necessarily obvious from their names, but each has a specific function. Once you learn the differences, you can get a variety of cool looks in seconds.

Here's how to use Photoshop blending modes to make your images look amazing, along with a rundown of how all of them work.

Instructions in this article apply to Photoshop CS5 and later.

How to Use Photoshop Blending Modes

Photoshop contains 29 different options in six groups, which you can find in the Layers window. Depending on which tool you're using, you may also see a pull-down in the options toolbar near the top of the screen. Here's how to apply and experiment with them to achieve a variety of effects.

  1. Import an image you want to modify to Photoshop.

  2. Select the New Layer button in the Layers window to create a new layer.

    A screenshot of Photoshop with the New Layer button highlighted
  3. To use a color to blend with the image, select Edit > Fill.

    A screenshot of Photoshop with the Fill command highlighted

    Alternatively, press Shift+F5 on your keyboard.

  4. Select Color.

    A Photoshop screenshot with the Color option in the Fill menu highlighted
  5. Select a color from the Color Picker and select OK.

    A Photoshop screenshot showing the Color Picker window with the OK button highlighted
  6. Click OK in the Fill window to finalize your color choice.

    A Photoshop screenshot with the OK button in the Fill window highlighted
  7. Now, you should only see the top layer with the color you selected.

    A screenshot from Photoshop showing a solid color layer
  8. To apply blending modes, select the top layer, then click the pulldown menu in the Layers window, next to Opacity.

    A screenshot of Photoshop with the blending modes menu highlighted

    By default, the blending mode menu will say Normal.

  9. Select different options from the menu to see how they affect the underlying image.

    A screenshot from Photoshop with the blending modes menu highlighted

    In Adobe CC 2019 and later, you only have to mouse over the modes to get a preview of the changes it will make. In earlier versions, you must select a mode to see what it does.

  10. Experiment with different colors and modes to create the effects you want. You can also affect the intensity of some modes by adjusting the opacity on the layers you're blending.

How to Use Photoshop Blending Modes With Tools

You can do more with Photoshop's blending modes than just put a color onto a picture. You can use selection tools to localize the effect. You can also use different blocks of color on a single layer to create a mixture.

Certain tools, like the Brush, Paint Bucket, and Shape, have a dedicated blending modes menu that gives you more control. It's in the options bar next to the Opacity. Select the mode you want to employ, and then use the tool normally to see the effects.

A Photoshop screenshot with the Mode menu in the Options toolbar highlighted

Types of Blending Modes in Photoshop

Before you start using blending modes, you might want to have a basic idea of what they do. Here are some terms that will be useful in understanding what each blender does:

  • Base color: the color that is already on the layer.
  • Blend color: the one you're applying, e.g., with the Brush tool.
  • Result color: the final result after the blending mode finishes working on the base and blend colors.

As a simple example, if you have a cup of water containing blue food dye (the base color) and add a few drops of yellow food dye (the blend color), the result color (from mixing them together) is green.

Photoshop's blending modes, however, do more than just mix colors together. Here are all of the modes and what they do.

Not all tools can use the same blending options. This is a complete list of all of the available choices. Depending on the bitrate of your image, you may also lose access to some blend modes. Blending modes may also behave differently depending on whether you're applying them to layers or tools.

Normal

The Normal group of blending modes are a default group. The result color will always be the blend color, the base color, or both, unmixed.

  • Normal: The result color is the same as the blend color. Normal mode is the default option that doesn't change anything; if you use green with the Brush tool, the pixels will be green.
  • Dissolve: Photoshop randomly chooses the color of each pixel based on the opacity of the layer. For example, if you brush yellow onto blue at 50% opacity, half of the pixels will be yellow, and half will be blue.
  • Behind: Your tool will only affect transparent (i.e., "empty") pixels.
  • Clear: Your tool will make the pixels it modifies transparent.

Darken

The Darken group always results in darker colors than you started with. Typically, none of these blending modes affect black in the base or blend colors or layers.

  • Darken: Photoshop replaces any pixels in the base color with any in the blend color that are darker. The result is a combination of the two.
  • Multiply: Multiplies the RGB values of the base color and the blend color and then divides by 255 to produce the result color. For example, pure red (RGB 255,0,0) and 50% gray (RGB 128,128,128) results in a dark red color with values 128,0,0.
  • Color Burn: Photoshop increases the contrast between the base and blend colors to darken the base.
  • Linear Burn: Photoshop decreases the brightness to darken the base color.
  • Darker Color: Photoshop displays the darker value between the base and blend colors with no distinct result color.

Lighten

The modes in the Lighten group are the opposite of the ones in the Darken group. They usually don't affect white in the base or blend colors or layers, and they always create a lighter palette.

  • Lighten: Lighten is the opposite of Darken: The result color is the lighter of the base or blend.
  • Screen: Screen is the opposite of Multiply. Instead of finding the product of the base and blend colors, Screen multiplies their inverses and divides by 255. The result color is the inverse of that answer. So using the red and 50% gray example from above, Screen multiplies 0,255,255 by 128,128,128 and divides by 255 to get a value of 0,128,128. The result color is the inverse, a light read with values of 255,128,128.
  • Color Dodge: Photoshop decreases the contrast between the base and blend colors to lighten the base. Color Dodge is the opposite of Color Burn.
  • Linear Dodge (Add): Photoshop adds the values of the base and blend colors together.
  • Lighter Color: Photoshop displays the lighter value between the base and blend colors with no distinct result color. Lighter Color is the opposite of Darker Color.

Contrast

The Contrast group changes and enhances the contrast values between the base and blend colors by treating the blend color as a light source. The processes are generally combinations of Darken and Lighten blending modes. These blending modes remove areas of 50% gray.

  • Overlay: Photoshop applies a Screen to light areas of the base color and Multiplies the dark parts.
  • Soft Light: Soft Light applies a Lighten if the blend color is lighter than 50% gray; it applies a Darken if the blend color is darker.
  • Hard Light: The result will be a Screen for a brighter blend color value and a Multiply for a darker one.
  • Vivid Light: Photoshop adjusts the contrast of the base color (i.e., a Color Burn or Color Dodge) depending on whether the blend color is lighter or darker than 50% gray.
  • Linear Light: Linear Light performs a Linear Burn or Linear Dodge (Add) depending on whether the blend color is lighter or darker than 50% gray.
  • Pin Light: If the blend color is lighter than 50% gray, Photoshop replaces darker pixels. A darker blend color causes Photoshop to replace lighter pixels.
  • Hard Mix: Hard Mix is an extreme blending mode that adds the RGB values of the base and blend colors. For each value, if the sum is 255 or greater, it becomes 255. Sums lower than 255 round down to 0. The result colors will be one of the following: white, black, red, green, blue, yellow, magenta, or cyan.

Comparative

The blending modes in the Comparative group focus on the differences between the base and blend colors.

  • Difference: The result color is the difference between the values of the base and blend colors. It always subtracts the less bright one from the more bright one.
  • Exclusion: Exclusion is similar to Difference, but the result colors have less contrast than the ones that mode creates.
  • Subtract: Photoshop subtracts the blend color from the base color, with negative values rounded up to zero.
  • Divide: Photoshop divides the base color by the blend color.

Color

Blending modes in the Color group combine different qualities of the base and blend colors (namely: hue, saturation, and luminosity) to create result colors.

  • Hue: The result color has the hue of the blend color with the base color's luminosity and saturation.
  • Saturation: The result has the saturation of the blend color and the base's luminosity and hue.
  • Color: The result color has the blend color's hue and saturation and the base's luminosity.
  • Luminosity: The result has the blend color's luminosity and the base's hue and saturation.

Uses for Photoshop Blending Modes

Now that you know where the blending modes are and what they do, here are some suggestions for how you can use them.

  • Dissolve: Use with the Brush tool to create a chalk-like effect on a solid background.
  • Hard Mix: Used to create a monochromatic, pop-art style.
  • Contrast: Use modes in the Contrast group to quickly fix over- or underexposed photographs.
  • Clear: Use this to easily make stencil effects by making transparent shapes.
  • Screen: This blending mode is good for combining images or adding textures. For example, you can Screen a picture of fog over a shot of a city to create a different mood.