Using Blending Modes in Photoshop

Image of Ginsberg's Photoshop workspace. Perhaps the first task before editing your photos is to arrange the workspace in a way that is most comfortable for you. I elect to lay out my screen like this with the tool palette, layer stack, adjustment panel and properties. Other functions such as actions and info can be selected from the Window menu as needed.
Perhaps the first task before editing your photos is to arrange the workspace in a way that is most comfortable for you. I elect to lay out my screen like this with the tool palette, layer stack, adjustment panel and properties. Other functions such as actions and info can be selected from the Window menu as needed.

Story & images by Jerry Ginsberg

Strange Circumstances

During this crucial time, we nature photographers who feel so at home wandering around the great outdoors seeking great images suddenly find ourselves uncharacteristically spending as much time as possible in our homes. While it is certainly necessary that we do this as a means of avoiding the scourge of the deadly Corona virus, it still feels a bit unnatural to most of us.

So let’s make the most of this unexpected downtime by honing our skills in the ever-evolving digital darkroom.

The Digital Darkroom & Workflow

First, a confession. I was not an early adopter of digital technology. As someone who grew up with film, I had spent many years learning the nuances of many different emulsions and just how to navigate each of them through all kinds of light. As such, I wasn’t planning to give up all of that knowledge and jump into something 180 degrees apart from my hard-won skill set. Quite frankly, I harbored the hope that if I ignored digital photography long enough, it would just go away. It hasn’t exactly worked out that way, has it?

Around 2001 with the introduction of Photoshop 8, the debut of the CS designation, it began to dawn on me that this stuff was like the advent of automatic transmissions. The time honored standard would still be around, but new technology must inevitably eclipse it. Over the twenty years since, digital photography has relegated film to the status of a somewhat quaint alternative process. Kind of like vinyl records: some passionate fans, but most of the world’s gone digital. C’est la vie.

Since the days of Photoshop CS, Adobe has made progress by leaps and bounds. Countless other software providers have sprung up, too, offering a plethora of specialized tools and enhancements.

During these years I have spent uncounted hours learning how to use this technology – both under the tutelage of experts and by poking around the many variations on my own. To my utter shock and amazement, this has enabled me to actually teach intermediate Photoshop to a wide variety of students.

In my quest to work in the digital darkroom as efficiently as possible, I have streamlined my workflow to a significant degree. In this process, I have narrowed my regular use of Adjustment Layers to primarily Curves, Hue/Saturation/Lightness (HSL) and Selective Color. The sophistication and power of these adjustments have surpassed the relative bluntness of many older choices.

Of course, such adjustments as Exposure, Black & White and some others have their place, but I don’t use the older, less sophisticated choices such as Levels, Photo Filter and Color Balance.

The full menu of Blending Modes is accessed via this dropdown.
The full menu of Blending Modes is accessed via this dropdown.

Blending Modes

Of the great variety of options useful in optimizing your images one of the most overlooked is Blending Modes. When creating any new Adjustment Layer in Photoshop, the default Blending Mode is always Normal, but this is often not the best choice. It’s a very easy thing to use the handy dropdown to change the Blending Mode of each adjustment layer in order to obtain the very best possible effect with that layer.

Let’s step through the most useful combinations one at a time.

When using a Curves layer for contrast and tonality, it is best to use the Luminosity Blending Mode to avoid inadvertently influencing colors.
When using a Curves layer for contrast and tonality, it is best to use the Luminosity Blending Mode to avoid inadvertently influencing colors.
Curves:

Use Luminosity when you want to influence contrast & tonality only. This will avoid a contrast adjustment that has the potential to introduce unwanted changes to your colors.

When using a Curves layer for color correction, use the Color Blending Mode.
When using a Curves layer for color correction, use the Color Blending Mode.

Use Color if making color correction. The Curve can work well on the Red, Green and Blue channels individually.

Use Soft Light to emulate Smart Sharpen. Less is more here.

HSL:

Use Saturation (or Color) when using the saturation slider.

Use Lightness as you would Luminance in Lightroom or ACR. Conventional wisdom has long held that the Lightness slider algorithm has not been the greatest, but it has improved over time and we have become somewhat accustomed to the convenience of Luminance in those apps. I have come to like what it does.

Layer Stack with Blending Modes.  Note that each type of Adjustment Layer has its own optimal Blending Mode selected.
Layer Stack with Blending Modes. Note that each type of Adjustment Layer has its own optimal Blending Mode selected.
Selective Color:                                           

I stick strictly to the Color Blending Mode with this type of Adjustment Layer.

A good deal of experience has taught me that 99% of my images can be optimized with the use of just these three types of Adjustment Layers and their masks.

A technique such as this pertains to Adjustment Layers only. Employing the many Retouching tools in Photoshop with empty layers is a very different matter.

Note: When using the Curves, Saturation and similar functions in the apps of those other software publishers, you can assume that without the option to select your own Blending Mode, they are defaulting to the one-size-fits-all Normal.

Using the Opacity slider to adjust the degree to which your adjustments actually appear can be a very useful technique. When employing a non-destructive layer based workflow, you can always increase or decrease this at any time.
Using the Opacity slider to adjust the degree to which your adjustments actually appear can be a very useful technique. When employing a non-destructive layer based workflow, you can always increase or decrease this at any time.

And don’t forget your Opacity slider. It’s often helpful to make an adjustment that is stronger than you really need and then reduce the effect in very small increments with the Opacity slider until you see what you want. It’s a great option and well worth trying as you work.

So the next time you create an Adjustment Layer, don’t simply go along with the default Normal Blending Mode. Try optimizing your Blending Modes. Change them before actually making any adjustments to your Layer. The difference may be quite subtle, but it’s there. If your Layer stack ends up being twenty deep, all of those subtle differences can really add up and result in a much improved final image.

Who said this was going to be easy?                                                                                                         

Jerry Ginsberg is an award winning and widely published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national parks.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.  Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.