Utilizing blend modes and layers in Photoshop

For me, layers and blend modes along with masks are the true power of Photoshop. Blend modes are mathematical equations that determine how the pixels on a layer interact with the layers below. I started with Photoshop extractions, which you can lean more about in this article.


There are many different types of layers. Your image is on a layer, while color corrections and creative effects can be added with adjustment layers.

Adjustment layers are clear layers that send instructions to the layers below to change color, contrast, exposure and more to the layers below. Think of layers as sheets of paper or acetate. The one on top is the one you can see and the sheets (layers) below will be seen or behave differently depending upon the layer that is on top.

layers palette for hummingbird art
Layers panel incorporating the extracted hummingbirds.

As you look at the Layers panel, note the differing blend modes with masks blocking or allowing specific areas on that layer to interact. For example, there is a Sharpening layer that is only applied to certain places on the hummingbirds to bring them a subtle bit of attention.

Blend modes

Photoshop blend modes are separated into sections. A normal layer at 100% will cover anything below. Change to a darker or multiply mode and it will darken the image. Change to a lighten mode such as screen and the image will become lighter.

I highly recommend that this is a place where you go play to learn what modes accomplish. As you try the different modes, ‘What you see is what you get’ (WYSIWYG).

textures used in the hummingbird art
Here are three of the textures with which I was working in normal mode using masks to allow you to see one third of each.

WYSIWYG with blend modes is one of the great playgrounds in Adobe Photoshop. I’ll give you one head start in understanding four of the blend modes.

Multiply will darken your image as if it received one full stop less of light during exposure. If you want to darken an image by a third of a stop, change the Multiply Layer opacity to 33%. Conversely, Screen will lighten by a full stop of light.

The other two modes I’ll mention do absolutely nothing with pixels that are 50% grey. Pixels darker than 50% grey will darken and react with those below and those that are lighter will lighten those below. Overlay and Soft Light are those modes and are often used with textures and a lower opacity for many interesting effects. Both are similar, with Overlay seeming to be a bit more aggressive than Soft Light mode.


What if you only want some of what is on the upper-most layer to be part of the project? That’s when the magic of masks comes into play. Painting on a mask of a layer with anything darker than white will block it from interacting with the layers below. Think of it this way, black conceals what is on this layer. White reveals what is on this layer. and grey partially reveals what is on this layer. This allows for tremendous control.

In use

Final image lens based hummingbird art
A final version of the hummingbird art utilizing Photoshop extractions, textures, layers, blend modes and masks.

Here’s one of the final images. I say one of because many variations with differing color palettes, tones and more can be made from a single image. If you start doing this type of work, be sure to label your files something like Version 1, 2, 3, etc. Every time I see what I think might be the best rendition I save a version, layers and all. Then I go back a few days later and throw away the less than wonderful versions.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob