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Blending modes in Photoshop – which 5 are the most useful?

I know that many retouchers tend to stay away from blending modes as there are a lot of them, some of them are pretty crazy and it is unclear how they function. But trust me, you only need a few and they can be very useful. If you haven't heard about blending modes at all, make sure you spend some time on the Adobe website or any blogs that explain how these things work. It’s possible not to use them at all without losing much productivity, but blending modes can be helpful and using them is not as hard as it looks at first glance.

Blending modes give you an opportunity to do pretty cool things

It's not like you can avoid blending even if you want. If you're not using any blending modes, it means that you're in the Normal blending mode. Blending occurs when you put two layers on top of each other, or when you paint over something with a brush or use a filter or some command. If you did something to an image and its appearance has changed, there's blending going on because you've basically applied this new image on top of the previous image. But as everything that happens is going on in the Normal blending mode, we don't think about it that way. In the Normal mode, blending is not really blending. A top layer, a brush stroke, a newly changed image just covers what was there before. But when you switch to other blending modes, you can see the difference.

You can use shortcuts to switch between different blending modes while using a brush or when you have a layer and you're not using a brush. You won’t really need many blending modes in everyday work, but it’s good to memorize a few:

Darken – Shift-Alt-K

Lighten – Shift-Alt-G

Color – Shift-Alt-C

Luminosity – Shift-Alt-Y

Normal – Shift-Alt-N

You can also cycle through different blending modes by pressing Shift and +(plus) or – (minus), but it takes longer as there are a lot of modes there.

I'll give a short explanation of every Blending mode that I find useful. In the Darken mode, only the pixels that are darker than the original image show up on the new image. When you pick a color sample from an image and use the Brush in the Darken mode, If it's darker than the image underneath, the effect will be applied. If it's lighter, there will be no effect. The Lighten mode is the opposite. If the sample is lighter, it will be applied. If it's darker, you won't see it. The Color blending mode only applies some color without changing the tone. And the Luminosity is the opposite – it applies tone changes, but not color changes. I will be using the aforementioned blending modes quite extensively, so if you still wonder why anyone would need something like that, just wait till we get to the retouching process and you'll see. For now, I'll give you two examples of the blending modes usage to demonstrate when they can be of help.

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This image here is more or less fine, but the legs of the model are a bit darker than her hands. I would like to make them lighter. What is the fastest way to do it? Don't offer me to zoom in and work carefully with a brush or make a selection, or anything like that. It's not fast enough. I'll grab the Brush, switch it to the Lighten mode by pressing Shift-Alt-G, set the Opacity to 30% and pick a color from the model's hand. Now I will just paint over the legs in one go. I don't have to be careful not to touch the skirt and the background. Why? Because both the skirt and the background are lighter than the color sample I'm using. In the Lighten mode, only the effect that makes the image lighter is visible. So even if I accidentally drag my brush over the skirt and the background, nothing will happen. No effect. If I used the Brush in Normal mode, it wouldn't work. The background will be also affected. By using the Lighten mode I saved myself a bit of time on making a selection, which is actually quite nice.

There's a bunch of dust bits on the border between the sole and the background. It's tricky to remove with a Healing tool because when you try to use something like that on an edge, the result might be rather disappointing. And if you want to try and use the Dust & Scratches filter on a selected area, you'll see that it smooths the rippled edge, which is not a good result. But there's one thing that is important here. The trash is all lighter than the sole and the background. To remove it, you need to make it darker. So the situation basically calls for the Darken blending mode. I'll use the Dust & Scratches filter with radius 15, Threshold 11 and apply the changes. That got rid of the dust, but the sole is ruined. But now I'll press Ctrl-Shift-F to access the Fade window and change the Blending mode to Darken. Now only the effect that led to the darkening of the image will still be visible. It means that the dust will go away, and the sole will stay as it was before.

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After watching the video above, you should be able to understand how exactly I removed the electric outlet from the image in the animated gif at the top of the page. By using the Lighten blending mode, of course! I used a Normal clone stamp and as I got close to the pink fur, switched it to the Lighten mode. As the background sample was lighter than the rest of the outlet but darker than the fur, it got replaced flawlessly, while the fur didn't take any damage at all. If I wanted to do the same thing without using blending modes, I would've had to isolate the fur first, which would be extremely time-consuming.

As for the Fade trick, I'll extrapolate on this matter in a short while.

Apply the last settings & Fade trick

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In catalogue retouching, we always try to think of different tricks that let us work faster. There's one very useful feature in Photoshop that I'm using all the time. It's called “apply the last settings” trick. When you use some function that can be accessed by pressing Ctrl-Something, like Ctrl-L for the Levels or Ctrl-M for the Curves, you can use this trick as well. It's really simple. For example, I want to check if this image is isolated properly. There might be some hard to notice trash on the background. To check, I'll access the Levels and move the leftmost slider to the right as far as possible and press OK. It will turn all the pixels in the image black, except for the white pixels. So if there was some trash on this perfectly white background, I would be able to see it. But there's none, so I'll undo the changes.

Now if I want to check this image as well, I don't have to drag any sliders once again. Instead of pressing Ctrl-L to access the Levels, I'll press Ctrl-Alt-L, and it will bring the Levels window with the last settings applied already. It saves time on dragging the slider manually.

It's not really a good method when you need to correct many images, because in this case you should better open them simultaneously in Camera Raw, which allows correction of multiple images easily. But when you have a couple of images, it might come handy. Like when you have three images, and two are considerably brighter and overexposed, you can just use the Curves by pressing Ctrl-M, apply the changes, and then switch to another image and apply the same Curve by pressing Ctrl-Alt-M.

It doesn't just work with the default shortcuts. I have assigned a shortcut for the Selective Color, which doesn't have a shortcut by default. Now I have it on Ctrl-. I mostly use it to brighten white items, because they might appear darker after isolation, when contrasted with a perfectly white background. So I press Ctrl-. to bring the Selective Color window, go to the Whites and drag the Blacks slider to the far left while in the Relative mode. It's tedious to do this over and over again every time I need it, but I can use the same trick as before. Just press Ctrl-Alt-. and then immediately press Enter to apply the last settings. Most of the time this is enough, but not this time, this time the effect is too strong, the item is overexposed now. This is not really a problem. Because I can use another trick to adjust the effect quickly. Right after I apply the Selective Color with the last settings, I'll press Ctrl-Shift-F to bring the Fade window. This is a very simple tool that allows you to do two things. The first is weaken the effect of whatever you just applied to your image, like Selective Color now, or anything else, be it a filter or any command like the Curves or Levels, or even a brush stroke. Second is to apply the changes you did in some blending mode. We don't really need blending now, so I'll just hold Shift and press the down button on my keyboard to reduce the effect. I can just hold the down button, but it will go slower, one by one. When I hold Shift it subtracts 10 percent each time I press the down button. The up button also works, just the opposite way. 70% seems like enough, so I'll press Enter and that's it.

White items often lack contrast, so this Fade trick can also be used in cases like this one. I'll press Shift-Ctrl-Alt-L, which a shortcut for the Auto Contrast command. But the effect is too strong, so I'll press Shift-Ctrl-F immediately after and reduce the effect to maybe 40 percent. When you add contrast to an image, you might get a color shift, but if I change the blending mode to Luminosity, it will stay intact. You will learn more about this when we get to retouching white items.

The Fade trick is so awesome because it lets you reduce any effect you apply so you don't have to undo it, change opacity and do it again. You can just fade whatever you want. You can fade instead of going through trial and error when trying to pick a correct opacity setting. You can fade a single brush stroke. These legs are too dark, so I want to lighten them with the Brush in Lighten mode, right after picking a color sample from a well-lit area. But what Opacity percentage should I pick? I'd say 20%, but if you're not sure, just pick 100%, but you have to do it in one stroke. Don't let your left mouse button go, or don't release your tablet pen. It doesn't look like something that should be done to a person, but we're not going to leave it like that. Right after you've finished the stroke, press Ctrl-Shift-F and fade the effect to 30% or so. And you know what, I could just use a normal brush at 100% Opacity, and then Fade it to the Lighten mode and 30% opacity to get the same effect. But personally, I prefer switching between the blending modes with the keyboard shortcuts because it's faster. Even without blending modes, Fade is a very powerful tool that lets you tweak your effects on the fly. Make sure you don't forget about such a great possibility.

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This trick is not really known, mostly because people use Adjustment layers and layers and masks and they reduce Opacity of whatever they do by other means. But in product image retouching for online stores, we try to keep our images as flat as possible, as working with non-destructive methods in mind slows down the whole process. It is not so important when you spend 30 minutes or even more on each image, but if you count seconds, as we do in product image retouching, every unnecessary move, every click, and every extra stroke is robbing you of the most precious thing – your time. The Fade is also great because it teaches you to be precise, as you have only one opportunity to adjust the slider, you have to know how to do it properly, and you won't get a second chance.

Now, when we’ve finished discussing all the tools and filters useful for catalogue retouching, I can start showing you how to use them in different situations. Before you start watching the next videos, make sure that you know how all the tools and filters I’ve mentioned work, and that you have at least some experience with each of them. I really do not want to turn this section of the course into a tools and filters know-how manual, because there’s everything you might ever need on the helpx.adobe.com website, where they give a very detailed explanation of all the tools, filters, commands and features you might find in Photoshop. My work here is to point out the essential tools and filters so that you don’t have to dig through tons of information.

Next: Frequency separation

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