Adobe Photoshop is really not about speed. I can’t say it’s ever been – even back when I was using the then-current version 5 (and the more capable 5.5), it was packed full of features and required not only lots of time to even begin to master, but to use for the simple things, too. Not to say it’s slow to work with, exactly, but if you want to accomplish your task quickly without any excuses, Lightroom is perhaps more suitable. It certainly ought to be. Yet if you work slowly and methodically, if you spend not minutes, but hours and even days post-processing a single image or a series, that is what Adobe’s heavyweight is most suitable for. Not for the sort of work where you click a few buttons and move on, but for the patient sort, where every detail matters, where there can be no sloppiness. Simply because of its vast, enormous capability. To own Photoshop just for one or two features is, more often than not, a bit of an overkill.
All of this may be true, but it would be silly to think you can’t work quickly with Photoshop, because you really can. Perhaps not all the tasks can be done this way, but should you ever need to, say, swiftly come up with a presentable version of that otherwise flat-looking, straight-out-of-camera image, there are a few neat tricks that can really speed up the post-processing. One such simple trick – it doesn’t involve using any of the very capable, but at the same time quite complex tools, such as the Tone Curve – is to use Layer Blending.
What is Layer Blending?
Basically, Layer Blending controls how two or more image layers (with one located below/above the other one) are displayed together. Is the top layer solid and covers the other layers completely? Or does it overlay them like a piece of see-through paper? If so, does it add a colour cast? Does it lighten or darken the image underneath, what detail from the see-through layer can be seen clearly and which elements disappear without a trace? To make these decisions, Adobe gave us Blending Modes. Blending Modes and Layers make up an extremely versatile and capable tool which requires a whole separate article. Or even two of them. This time, though, we won’t get into all those details – for the purposes of this article, we are simplifying this complex tool and turning it into a very quick fix for flat-looking images. Thus it is suffice to say Layer Blending is a way of merging several layers together without actually merging them into one.
The Flat-Looking Image
Before we go any further, an image is needed. The following street portrait (which you might have seen already, and will likely see again at some point) is one of my favourite images from a trip to NYC a couple of months ago. There is no particular reason for it, I simply like it for its unpretentiousness (it also illustrates brilliantly just how good the XF 23mm f/1.4 R lens is – look at it, there is virtually no distortion to be found).
But none of that matters right now. What does matter is that, save for Fujifilm’s Pro Neg Std. camera profile and some sharpening applied in Lightroom, nothing has been adjusted – what you see is what I got after pressing that shutter button. Is it really flat-looking? That’s a good question. For me, not so much, I like a low-contrast look (despite that, I had to come up with some image sample for the article). Someone else will find it lacks seriously in the “punchy” department, it’s all a matter of opinion and, perhaps more importantly, what your eyes are used to right now.
Layer Blending as a Quick Fix
Finally we get to the process itself and I am sure you will find its simplicity refreshing. But first, here is a question: we have one image; what are we going to use as the second layer? Well, that’s the brilliant part – we are going to use that same image twice, as the bottom layer and as the top one.
So, once you open the file in Photoshop, right-click on the Background layer (the original image file) in Layers tab and choose “Duplicate Layer…”. A Duplicate Layer dialogue will pop up where you can set the name of the duplicate layer. Once you do that (for quick post-processing such as this I simply leave it at default), hit OK. A second layer with the exact same image will now appear above the original Background. Other than that, nothing will change.
What next? Simply select the top layer (if you haven’t already) and change the Blending Mode, as shown in the screenshot. You are bound to notice there are quite a few of them and they do sound complicated – they can be. Ordinarily, I always encourage experimentation, but this article is about keeping it simple, so here is a hint: Overlay and Soft Light (my choice for this photograph) do wonders and are likely to be the best choices for most situations. By choosing one of the two, you are basically enhancing the properties of that particular photograph and not giving it new ones as would happen if you tried blending it with a much different photograph. In other words, if you choose the correct Blending Mode, shadows will become darker, highlights will become lighter and the colour will end up slightly more vivid, too. It’s like adding orange juice to a glass of orange juice. Same thing, but more of it.
Don’t take my word for it – here is a before/after comparison:
Given the process consists of just two simple actions – duplicate layer, change Blending Mode to Soft Light – quite the difference, wouldn’t you say? It can be achieved using the Tone Curve tool, of course, but this is arguably the more simple solution, especially for beginners.
Simplicity is the result of limited functionality, or vice versa. Changing layer Blending Mode is very easy and quick, but it doesn’t offer all that much control over the result. Granted, the two mentioned Blending Modes – Overlay and Soft Light – tend to give more than acceptable results almost all the time if the photograph lacks what you may call “pop”, but still, I would not call changing Blending Mode alone a good post-processing workflow. It is what it is – a quick way to come up with a presentable version of a flat-looking photograph using Photoshop. Use it accordingly, or if you prefer not to pay too much attention to post-processing in general.
Mind you, there is a way to alter the strength of the effect using the very same Layers tab. Select the top layer and adjust either the Opacity or Fill sliders – the closer the numeric value of either one is to 100%, the stronger the effect. To tune it down, simply decrease Opacity or Fill values until you are happy with the result. All of this using just the one Layers tab!
If you are used to Tone Curve and other capable tools in Photoshop, this method is unlikely to be very interesting to you – you are still going to use the Tone Curve, and perhaps rightly so. It does give a lot more freedom, a lot more flexibility. But it also requires you to really know what you are doing, as well as quite a bit of restraint – overdoing it is all too easy. For beginners or those in a hurry, though, using Blending Modes is an almost fool-proof way of attaining at least good-enough of a result with minimal effort. Hopefully this article will help at least some of you save some time during post-processing and make it a less tedious process.