Instant Image Enhancement
With all of the blending modes available in Photoshop, and the stunning array of techniques in which you can use them, it’s sometimes easy to forget that they can be used directly for some basic image enhancement. The four most popular blending modes for this are:
Most of the time, you will hear advice on duplicating a photo layer and setting the duplicate to one of those four modes. Multiply darkens, Screen lightens, and Overlay and Soft Light increase contrast. Using this little trick is a great way to jump start lots of images, but let’s explore some variations on this theme.
First, rather than duplicating the photo layer, you can generally use any adjustment layer instead. Without making any other changes, the adjustment layer behaves like a copy of the image, especially when it’s clipped to the photo. This immediately gives you additional flexibility; not only do you get the exact same effect, including the ability to change opacity and advanced blending, you also get the features of the adjustment layer itself.
Adding a Curves adjustment set to Overlay gives a nice contrast, but you can take advantage of so much more. For example, I started by raising the left side of the curve to lighten up the muddy shadow regions and make everything a little less heavy.
Stepping through the channel curves lets me run some color work to shift the overall tone towards reds and purples. Each channel can be adjusted individually, so this is a good way to explore a lot of variations.
Finally, a little tweak in the Advanced Blending section of the Layer Style dialog box, using the Blend If section’s Underlying Layer sliders, allowed me to smooth out the shadows a bit more. I finished by lowering the Opacity setting (in this case, to about 90%).
This represents a lot of the early heavy lifting that can be done with a single adjustment layer, all non-destructively.
You can use this general approach for correction or enhancement, or just to try out lots of different versions. This time, let’s use Screen, which initially blows out the highlights quite a bit. Again, the composite curve gets some dramatic tugging to bring back the highlights, and then each individual channel is adjusted to end up with a gold tone (increase Red and Green, decrease Blue).
Each of the adjustment layers can behave this way, with the exception of Threshold, Inverse, and Posterize. These three will immediately apply their own effect. You can use Photo Filter if its Density slider is moved to zero, and the Color Lookup Table will be neutral until a lookup table is applied (once you choose one, however, there is no way to remove it completely without simply deleting the adjustment layer).
Choosing which adjustment layer to use for blending mode effects comes down to the usual question: What do you want to accomplish? For most purposes, I stick with a Curves layer simply because of its flexibility and power. Blending with other adjustments affects how they behave, so let’s take a look at why you might consider certain blending modes for different adjustment layers.
Because, as you saw, the four most popular blending modes all have an immediate and independent effect, it makes sense to pair them with adjustments that complement them in some way—either enhancing or mitigating their results. The Curves and Screen result is a good example of reducing the effect, or “pulling it back.” Similarly, using Soft Light with a Color Lookup Table (using the Foggy Night preset) gives a gritty look.
In one final example, this single frame is reasonably well exposed but kind of boring. To enhance the contrast, I added a Curves adjustment layer set to Overlay blending mode, which had nice results in the midtones, but muddied the shadows and blew out the highlights.
To correct for this, I went to the Advanced Blending section in the Layer Style dialog box set Blend If to Gray, and split the Underlying Layer sliders.
Splitting the sliders in this way allows the enhanced contrast to reach to the shadows and highlights more gradually, avoiding serious loss of detail.