When using textures to enhance your photos in Photoshop, blending is how you reveal your image below the texture layer or tell the texture layer how to combine with the layers below it. If you just import your texture image in over top of one of your photos, whichever image is at the top of your layer stack is the only one you will see. In this article you will learn the three main types of blending: transparency, blending modes, and masking, and how to use each of them to produce cool texture effects for your photos.
Be sure you have read “Part 1: Adding Textures”, which explains the process and tips for importing textures from Adobe Stock into your image.
Layers and Blending
To understand blending, it’s important to first understand how layers work in Photoshop. Layers are your project’s building blocks, imagine them as sheets of glass we stack over each other. Your original image starts as the bottom layer. Over this you stack other panes of glass, some may be other images, some purely for effect. Each has its own characteristics which you have complete control over.
This is blending, making decisions about how your layers interact. You choose whether a layer is transparent or opaque, what parts of it are visible, how it interacts with the layers below it, and if it hides or reveals layers beneath it. Broadly speaking, blending is broken down to into three groups of characteristics and techniques: Transparency, Blending Modes, and Masking.
Transparency controls how visible a layer is, and how much the layer allows other layers below it to show through. There are two settings that control the transparency of a layer, Opacity and Fill.
Opacity can also be thought of as how “non-transparent” a layer is. The higher the opacity, the more it hides the layers beneath. The lower the opacity, the more transparent the layer becomes, revealing the layers below it.
Fill is Opacity that doesn’t affect effects. Head scratcher? In the example below, notice the difference between the block on the right and the other two. They all have the same effects applied. But in the right hand one, I have lowered the opacity, so the outer stroke and drop shadow effects have the same transparency as the rest of the layer. In the middle one, where fill is adjusted, the texture is more transparent, but those effects remain untouched.
Not only can layers have transparency, but so can effects and masks. For them, opacity controls the visibility of the effect or the density of the mask.
The Blending settings compare your current layer with the layer(s) below it and make changes to the appearance of the pixels from the combination of the two. Each blend mode makes a specific change, they are grouped together according to the type of change they make; normal, darken, lighten, contrast, etc.
You change your blend mode by clicking the small window in the Layers panel, directly above the list of layers in your project, or by right-clicking any layer and selecting “Blending Options…”.
- Darken Blends – In the Darken Blend Modes white is our neutral point. This means anything darker than pure white is going to darken the image below to varying degrees all the way to full black.
- Lighten Blends – The opposite of Darken, in these, black is our neutral point, meaning all pixels lighter than pure black will lighten the image below. Each Darken and Lighten mode has an exact opposite, Darken to Lighten, Screen to Multiply, etc.
- Contrast or Overlays – This mode lightens the brighter pixels, darkens the darker ones, and makes mid-tones (medium or 50% gray tones) transparent. These are combinations of Darken and Lighten blends in one mode which compare the top and bottom layer’s colors to medium gray. If the top colors are darker, a darkening blend mode is applied. If the top colors are brighter, then a lighten mode is used. Anything medium gray becomes transparent. For example, the Overlay blend mode uses a combination of the Multiply and Screen Blend modes.
- Inversion or Cancellation – These Blend Modes are called inversion or cancellation blends, because, depending on the underlying layer, it’s either going to invert or cancel out the colors on the top layer.
- Component Modifiers – These blend modes keep the value for the component they are named for, and then blend in components from the layers below. For example, “Hue” keeps the hue of the blended layer, and uses the saturation and luminance of the layers below it. You get the image from the lower layer with all the colors of the top layer.
Perhaps one of the more misunderstood tools, but also one of the most versatile, masks show, conceal, and/or blend the current layer with the layers beneath it. Think back to the “stacks of glass” example. An unmasked texture layer allows nothing to be seen through it. As you paint a mask on that layer, it hides the pixels on the currently active layer wherever you paint the mask. The effect is the layers below become visible, the masked pixels become invisible, and the masked areas are no longer used in blending with the layers below. Think of it as an eraser that isn’t permanent. At any time, you can add or remove all or some of the mask, or change its opacity to apply it more or less intensely to the layer.
- To create a mask, select the layer you wish to apply it to, and click the small “rectangle with a circle in it” icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel. Alternately, from the menu bar at the top of the screen, select Layers → Layer Mask.. and either “Reveal All” (a white mask) or “Hide All” (a black mask).
- Initially, when you create a mask, it will default to a white “Reveal All” mask. Click the mask thumbnail on the layers panel to make it active and ready to be edited. Using the paintbrush tool (hotkey “b”), change your brush settings as you wish, and paint on the mask. Anything black hides the layer, anything white reveals it. The closer to pure white, the more visible, the closer to pure black the more hidden. You can adjust your brush size, shape, tip, flow, etc. to create different effects on your mask.
- Hold down the Alt key (Mac: Option) while you click the create mask icon to have a black “Hide” all.
- If you have created a selection using any of the selection tools, when you create a mask for a layer it will use this selection as a “map” for your mask. Anything inside the selection will be white and revealed, anything outside of it (black) will be hidden.
- You can invert a mask easily if you get your black and white backward. When the mask is active, hit Ctrl-I (Mac: Command – I) to reverse it.
- Hitting the backslash key “\” will apply an overlay that shows your mask on the layer, it defaults to a bright red. This is useful for seeing exactly where your mask is applied, and to remove any parts you don’t want.
- Double-clicking the mask icon on a layer will enter the refine mask mode. This is a very useful feature for really fine tuning your mask, with more advanced features than are available outside this mode.
- You can quickly duplicate a mask to another layer, by moving your mouse over the mask thumbnail on your layer panel, holding down the Ctrl key while clicking your left mouse button. This will create a selection from the mask, go to the layer you want to copy it to, and click the new mask icon. The new mask will be created from this selection.
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Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus
You can find out more about Jason, including his photo workshops, at HahnNaturePhotography.com.
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