Know Your Blend Modes - Ad Astra Retouch

Know Your Blend Modes

Hello retouchers! Today we need to take a good look at blend modes. Most people use them for a desired effect, but don’t pay close attention to their utility. Correctly using blend modes will benefit your work flow in so many ways.

Now, we’re only going to take a look at some fundamental blend modes, not every single one that Photoshop offers. For years, I would through filters around like they were pennies; Brightness/Contrast here, Hue/Saturation there. Towards the end of an image, I’d notice that noise would build up, where different tones overlapped the images lost it’s smoothness, and shades were loosing definition and so on. Basically, I’d notice a certain amount of degradation of the image quality after a lot of layers. I thought it was unfortunately the price you pay when retouching. Then, at some point that I can’t quite remember, I started using certain blend modes on certain layers. These blend modes are Color and Luminosity.

Here’s a simply and common scenario: we add a Brightness/Contrast layer to brighten the image. As we brighten/darken the image and maybe move Contrast slider around , we notice that the colours have become a bit more intense. So then we have to add a Hue/Saturation layer to deal with those colours. Now, I’ll stop here so we don’t go on and on but let me just say that after 10 different adjustment layers, your shadows, midtones, highlights and saturation have taken a beating if you just leave the blending mode on Normal.

If you use blend modes correctly, you’ll notice a decrease in the amount of adjustment layers you need, which will amount to less time you need to work on an image. At least, that was what I noticed. The exception would be if you were using for instance a Hue/Saturation layer to fix some red spots, and correcting both the hue and the lightness of the spots with the that adjustment layer. Simply speaking, if we’re working on colours, let’s use the Color blend mode, and if we’re working on anything having to do with luminosity, you guessed it, use the Luminosity blend mode. For things like cloning/patching, I usually just leave the blank layer’s mode on Normal, so usually out of 20 different layers, only 3 or 4 of them may be left on Normal.

Using the Color and Luminosity blend modes appropriately will give you more manual control over your image and retouching. If you’re working on colours and such, you don’t want the luminescent qualities to be affected and vice-versa. When asked how important these settings are, I usually respond saying that, ignoring the settings is like using a jpeg rather than a raw. That’s how much of a difference it can make.

One compelling argument I’ve heard for choosing instead to leave blend modes at Normal unless necessary, is that of AI and natural artificial alteration. In short, some say that leaving blend modes on Normal, allows Photoshop to alter other characteristics accordingly as you make manual modifications to specific aspects. Basically, some people think that if you fix the brightness for example, it’s better to let Photoshop deal with the changes in colour because it’s more accurate. Now, I’ll admit that if we talk about this again in 30 years, I’ll probably agree that it’s better to let Adobe’s algorithms do such calculations for you, but as of 2020, AI’s great for things like Liquify and patching zits…but not colours and luminosity. If AI were so intelligent, you wouldn’t need to use a Curves layer and dropper to correct your white balance, there’d just be a big button for white balance and Photoshop would know exactly what you need based on every thing in your image. But that’s not the case yet, is it? Only you know what’s in that image and have to click on what you know was gray in that image.

The one thing that separates a retoucher from an app, is customization. It’s very important to remember that if a retoucher depends heavily on algorithms and presets, he/she is bound to be substituted by a cheaper app. As of 2020 and the years to come, as far as business is concerned, your competitors aren’t so much other retouchers as they are apps. The more we are able to adequately satisfy clients’ every needs, the less they are inclined to use apps as an alternative. By all means, use AI to do things quicker, but not better.

As always, remember, if you’re reading this, you’re asking the right questions!

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