How to Blend Layers in Photoshop
One of the best things about Adobe Photoshop is the ability to work in layers. This allows you to have maximum control and work non-destructively.
Layers offer different ways to interact with each other and this is done through blend modes. One of the most common uses for this is photo compositing using two images or more.
There are many different methods for how to blend layers in Photoshop. In this article, I’ll go through three of them that should help you out in a wide variety of situations.
(You can also check how to merge images using Photoshop here.)
So load up your version of Photoshop and follow along with the steps below to create a unique multiple exposure effect.
Table of Contents
How to Blend Images Together with Photoshop
Let’s take a look at three of the most useful ways to blend images together, as presented in the above video courtesy of Photoshop Essentials.
Each one will give you different results and will present different challenges. I’ll walk you through all three and then you can use the method that suits you best, or you can use all three of them when you’re working on more complex composite photography ideas.
For all of them, you’re going to be working in the Layers panel. If this is not visible, you can enable it in the menu Window, Layers.
Then, you’ll need to have the two images together in the same document. There are a number of ways to do this:
You can drag the image from one window to the other; you can use the Copy and Paste commands from the Edit menu or their respective keyboard shortcuts Cmd + C and Cmd + V; or you can use the Place Embedded command.
There’s no right or wrong way to do it, choose the one that you feel more comfortable with.
Now let’s get started.
Option 1: Use Photoshop Layer Opacity
- Step 1: Choose your images
This way of layering photos will give you the effect of a double-exposure. That’s why you should choose two images that can give you a harmonic result.
- Step 2: Open the two images as layers in Photoshop
When you have two images open in the same document in Photoshop, by default you’ll only see the top layer because of the blend mode. But that doesn’t mean that the second one isn’t there.
Go to the Layers panel and see how you have two layers – one holding each photo. You’ll be able to see them as thumbnails so you can recognize them.
The top image is currently blocking the background layer. Try clicking on the eye icon next to it enable/disable it.
If you disable it, you’ll be able to see the image on the bottom layer. If you click on it again, you’ll make the top picture visible.
- Step 3: Change the layer opacity
Make sure you’re working on the top image by clicking on it to select it. Then open the Opacity slider located at the top of the Layers panel by clicking on the down arrow next to it.
You can now slide it to lower the opacity. As you do this, the bottom image will start to appear and interact with the active layer.
Move it slowly to find the right amount. You can also type the specific number, for example, 70 will set it at 70% opacity.
Note that the order of the layers makes a difference in the result. You can then use the move tool to arrange a particular composition using the two images.
You can also turn on the guides in Photoshop to make sure everything is lined up OK.
Option 2: Use Photoshop Layer Blend Modes
- Step 1: Chose your images
This blend mode is most commonly used to add texture to your images, which is what I’m going to be showing you in the following example.
However, you can also use it to control adjustment layers or to blend more than two images, because you can apply a different blend mode to each layer.
- Step 2: Open both images
Open your two images together in one document. Make sure that the texture is in the top layer. You can see and modify this in the Layers panel.
Both images should be of the same size. If they aren’t, adjust the size by going to the menu Edit, Transform, or using the keyboard shortcut Cmd + T.
- Step 3: Change the Blending Mode
On top of the Layers panel, next to the Opacity slider, you’ll find the blending mode of your layer. By default, it’s set to Normal, which means that the layer is not interacting with anything below it.
If you click on the down arrow, you’ll open the Blend Mode menu. If you’re using Photoshop CS6 you won’t be able to see a preview of the effect, so you’ll have to apply each one of the layer blending modes to see the result.
On newer CC versions you can just hover over the different blend modes to see how your image changes with each of them.
In the panel, you’ll see how the blending modes are divided into groups separated by a thin line. The first block contains the blend modes that will darken your image through interactions.
Next, there’s the group of layer blend modes that lightens the image. After that, you’ll find the ones that will change the contrast, and so on. This is designed for you to choose the blending modes more intuitively.
Each of these blend modes will change the way in which the pixels from the top layer interact with the pixels from the layer underneath.
Here’s a brief explanation of the different layer blend modes:
- Normal (Shift + Option + N): There’s no interaction between layers, so you’ll only see the top image.
- Dissolve (Shift + Option + I): This blend mode favors the top layer’s pixels when the opacity has a high value, and the bottom pixels when the opacity is low. It also applies a dither pattern.
- Darken (Shift + Option + K): The lighter pixels are replaced by the darker ones.
- Multiply (Shift + Option + M): This blend mode multiplies the base color by the blend color, which of course will result in a darker color. It’s the most commonly used in this group.
- Color Burn (Shift + Option + B): The result is much darker than whatever you would get with Multiply. This blend mode will result in a very saturated image with an increase in contrast. It makes no difference when the blending color is white.
- Linear Burn (Shift + Option + A): Similar to the Color Burn except that it decreases the lightness so the saturation isn’t so extreme.
- Darker Color: This works like Darken but it doesn’t do it in separate channels.
- Lighten (Shift + Option + G): This blend mode is the opposite of Darken. It keeps the lighter colors from the top layer and the darker ones get replaced by the lighter ones from the bottom layer.
- Screen (Shift + Option + S): If you’re blending with black you won’t see any change. If you blend with white, then the colors in your image turn white. The other colors become brighter and less contrasting. It’s the opposite of Multiply.
- Color Dodge (Shift + Option + D): This blend mode creates saturation and contrast. The result is much lighter than Screen or Lighten and very often it blows out the highlights.
- Linear Dodge (Shift + Option + W): This is brighter than Color Dodge but is less saturated.
- Lighter Color: This works like Lighten mode but only on one channel instead of three.
- Overlay (Shift + Option + O): This is probably the most commonly used out of all the blending modes because it’s a moderate combination of the Screen and Multiply modes. It does this according to the base color; this way, it applies Screen mode to the lighter colors and Multiply mode to the darker ones.
- Soft Light (Shift + Option + F): This blend mode is very similar to the Overlay mode but softer.
- Hard Light (Shift + Option + H): This creates more contrasting images. Imagine that you cast a hard light onto your image, hence the name. The highlights will become more bright and the shadows will become darker.
- Vivid Light (Shift + Option + V): Dodges and burns the color according to the blend color. The result is very intense.
- Linear Light (Shift + Option + J): This works similarly to the Vivid Light blend mode, except that it affects the brightness instead of the contrast.
- Pin Light (Shift + Option + Z): The effect here depends on the blend colors. If the pixels on the top layer are darker they’ll remain, if they’re lighter than the ones underneath, they’ll be replaced. It applies the same logic to the lighter pixels. The resulting blend is high contrast with very little mid-tones.
- Hard Mix (Shift + Option + L): With this blend mode, the channel values will become either 0 or 255. As a result, the colors are only red, green, blue, white, and black if you’re working in RGB mode. For images in CMYK the colors are white, black, cyan, magenta and yellow.
- Difference (Shift + Option + E): Evaluates the brightness value of each pixel and it then subtracts the base color or the blend color depending on which was brighter.
- Exclusion (Shift + Option + X): This is almost like Difference but offers a less contrasting result.
- Subtract: Subtracts the blend color from the base color, so similar colors cancel each other.
- Divide: The process here is similar to Subtract but instead of subtracting the color, it divides it. This will give a very contrasted image with blown-out highlights.
- Hue (Shift + Option + U): This blend mode keeps the hue as it is and blends the luminance and saturation.
- Saturation (Shift + Option + T): Preserves the saturation while blending the hue and luminance.
- Color (Shift + Option + C): Keeps the color of the layer with a blend of the hue and saturation.
- Luminosity (Shift + Option + Y): Preserves the luminosity and blends the rest of the values.
I know this all looks very complicated because the blend modes are still an abstract idea, but as you blend two images together and see the changes applied, it will all start to make sense.
That’s why implementing the preview mode was a very appreciated upgrade in the newer versions of Photoshop. The more you use layer blending modes, the easier this will get, and you’ll be picking the right one faster and more intuitively.
- Step 4: Change the Opacity (optional)
Even if you’re using the layer blend modes, you can also combine them with other methods for a more precise result.
For example, you can also modify the opacity. If you’ve found the right blending mode but you feel the result is too intense, just lower the opacity to reach a more moderate effect.
Keep in mind that some blending modes react differently to the Opacity values than the Fill Opacity values. So, if you’re working with any of these, you can try both sliders to see which works better for you.
These blend modes are Color Burn, Linear Burn, Color Dodge, Linear Dodge, Vivid Light, Linear Light, Hard Mix, and Difference.
(You can also check our article on dodge and burn here.)
Option 3: Use Photoshop Layer Mask
- Step 1: Choose your images
In this method for mixing Photoshop layers, you have more freedom to choose the two images that you’re going to blend. This is because using a layer mask allows you to work with only sections of each image.
They can also have different sizes. That’s why the layer mask method is best for creative composites.
- Step 2: Open your images
Open the two images in Photoshop. Depending on the photographs that you’re using and the effect that you’re after, having them as Smart Objects might be useful.
To do this you can open the second image via the Place Embedded command. This will open the second image on a separate layer and automatically make it a Smart Object.
If you used a different way, for example, Copy and Paste, then you can turn it into a Smart Object by right-clicking on the layer and choosing Convert to Smart Object on the menu.
- Step 3: Arrange the images
I recommended you use Smart Objects because you can manipulate the layer as you want without it losing the original information.
So, you can shrink it down or transform it and then change your mind and make it big again without it losing quality.
In this example, I’m not going to change anything from this new layer, but I do need to place it in the right position so that the horizon matches in both images. I can easily do this using the move tool.
- Step 4: Add a layer mask
Layer masks can make visible or invisible different parts of a layer without you losing any pixels. They can also add different grades of transparency. This is why they’re such an essential tool for compositing in Photoshop.
You can create a New Layer Mask using the button at the bottom of the Layers panel. Make sure that you’re in the right layer before applying it.
By default, layer masks will be fully white, which means that you won’t see any changes in your image. You will, however, see a white thumbnail appear next to the thumbnail image of the layer.
When you’re working on layer masks, anything painted white is fully visible while anything in black is blocked or hidden.
Different shades of grey will create different transparencies. In other words, a light grey will be more transparent than a dark grey.
- Step 5: Color your layer mask
Now it’’s time to add color to the layer mask that you created. Keep in mind that the darker it is, the less visible it will become.
What I want to do in this example is to cover the original sky. For that to happen it needs to be white in the layer mask, so that it’s fully visible.
Then the bottom part needs to be fully hidden because I want the foreground from the original image to be visible. So I have to make that black in the layer mask.
Finally, to create a realistic effect and fully integrate both images, there needs to be a transition area in between.
For this, I can use the gradient tool. Once I activate it, the options panel becomes available at the top.
Here I’ll choose a linear gradient that goes from black to white. I’m going to leave the mode as Normal and the Opacity at 100%.
These settings can be different for you depending on your images and what you’re trying to achieve.
Maybe you don’t even need the gradient tool if there’s no transition between areas or elements. If this is the case, you can use the brush tool and set the foreground color to black, and paint over everything you want to cover.
Back to the gradient tool that I’m using: you just have to click where you want to start the grading. Then drag across the transition area and let go of the mouse button when you want to finish it.
If the effect is not exactly what you needed, you can repeat the process to create a new gradient until you’re happy. You can always check on the result by holding the Alt key and clicking on the layer mask thumbnail.
This will let you see the mask without the images. You can also disable or delete the layer mask by right-clicking on it and choosing the correct command from the menu.
- Step 6: Fine-tune
Once you’re happy with the gradient, there might be some areas that may need some fine-tuning.
You can grab the brush tool and make some targeted editing. Set the default colors in the swatches by clicking on the icon next to them or using the keyboard shortcut D.
When you do this, black will be set to the foreground color and you can paint with it anything else you want to hide with your layer mask.
You can then use the keyboard shortcut X to toggle the swatches from the foreground to the background. This way you’ll have white to make visible anything you paint with it.
You can also add adjustment layers to your images and copy the layer mask to them by holding the Alt key and dragging it to the other new layers.
Remember that you can also change the blending modes in layers with masks. The same goes for the opacity, so you can have full control of your composite.
Photoshop Blending Modes | Final Words
I hope you enjoyed this tutorial on how to blend Photoshop layers using these three simple methods.
The more complex your composite is, the more precise you have to make your layer masks and edits, but the techniques are the same.
Give it a try and share your experiences, results, Photoshop tips and questions in the comments below.