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Layer transfer modes are an important part of the texturing process, and can be used to add a great deal of realistic detail to your projects with less work. There are 27 different layer transfer modes in Photoshop, and it's important that you get an idea of what the most important ones do. The layer transfer modes are accessed from this drop down menu at the top of the layer window. And a different transfer mode can be assigned to any layer. Let me bring up a couple of graphics so I can talk about the different modes.
Both of these graphics are available to premium members in the exercise files in case you want to play along. Here's a list of the transfer modes in Photoshop and they break down into six categories. Normal, which doesn't change the layer. Darken, which will darken the layers. Lighten, which will lighten the layers. Conditional, which has many of the most interesting transfer modes. These look at the two layers and depending on what conditions it finds, will change what it displays.
Comparative you won't use as a matte artist, so I won't talk about them. And Color Variable, which can be used to tint and change the color of the underlying layers. I'm using Photoshop CS6 for this demonstration and historically Photoshop has added new transform modes into updates. So if you see some additional transform modes in a later edition that I haven't covered, you may want to experiment with them on your own. The different transfer modes all have keyboard shortcuts that you can access by pressing Opt+shift or Alt + shift, plus the letter key for each mode.
Frankly, I don't know them all, but it's good to know normal, multiply, screen, and overlay since you'll use them so often. The technical explanations for each of these transfer modes requires some heavy duty math. Here is a representative sample of some of the formulas. One of the reasons I became an artist was to avoid doing math, so I'll try to describe them as non-technically as possible. Let's go through these one by one and see what they do. I've created this file with a gray gradient, a spectrum gradient, and a picture of my cat, Jackson.
This will be the blend layer, or the layer that we will apply the transfer modes to. Underneath it is a layer with a rough concrete texture, which will be the base layer. We're going to try out the important transfer modes on the top layer to test out the result. First, there's normal, which doesn't change anything. The only difference you can make in the layer is by changing the opacity, which, of course, is true of all of the transfer modes. Below that is dissolve. At 100% you can't tell any difference from normal.
But as you reduce the opacity, dissolve breaks the top layer up into tiny speckles. I never use this transfer mode. And in fact, the main way I encounter it is, when I'm trying to select normal and I accidentally select dissolve and get some really weird results. Next are the darken modes. Darken looks at the two layers and displays whichever color on the two layers is the darker. After that is Multiply. The technical definition is that top and bottom layers are multiplied together, but that sounds to me like it would produce a lighter image, but it is always darker.
I find it easier to think of multiply as subtracting the value of the top layer from the lower one. And always results in an image that is darker, unless the top layer is pure white. You can think of multiply as if you had a slide projector. And loaded two slides right on top of the other. It would shine the light through both images. Resulting in an image that combined the darkness of the two slides. Color burn is a much darker and more contrasting version of multiply. And, it can be useful at lower levels of opacity.
Linear burn is again like multiply but it only increases contrast but also decreases brightness. So it tends to be overall even darker. Darker color may sound just like darker, but darker looks at the RGB channels of each image and displays which ever is darker in those three channels. Darker color is slightly different in that it looks at the actual color and displays which ever color is darker without reference to the RGB channels. I generally find darker to be the more useful of the two layer transfer modes.
Next up are the lighten modes. And you should know that every lighten mode has an exact opposite in the darken modes. So lighten is the mathematical opposite of darken, and screen the opposite of multiply, color burn the opposite of color dodge, and so on. So, let's look at lighten the exact opposite of darken. Lighten looks at the colors on both layers and displays whichever color is lighter. Screen ads the two colors together, always resulting in a lighter color unless the top layer is completely black.
If we go back to that example of slide projectors that we used with multiply, you can think of screen as if you had two slide projectors, and projected the image from each right on top of the other. Color dodge and linear dodge add are similar to screen, but the result has more contrast, brightness, and saturation. Lighter color and lighter may sound just the same, just like darker color and darker. But the lighter mode looks at the RGB channels of each image and displays whichever is lighter in those three channels.
Lighter color is slightly different in that it looks at the combined color created by the RGB channel and displays whichever color is lighter. I generally find lighter to be the more useful. The Conditional Modes do something more complex. Overlay looks at the top layer and screens any pixel that is lighter than 50% and multiplies anything darker than 50%. It always results in an image with more contrast and brighter color. Softlight lightens any pixel that is lighter than 50% and darkens any pixel that is darker than 50%. This is a subtler version of overlay.
Overlay can sometimes be overpowering because it adds a significant amount of contrast and saturation. Soft light adds some contrast, but very little saturation. This mode is useful when you don't want to change the color of the base image. Hard light is similar to overlay, but the blend layer has much more influence on the final blend. This mode is useful if you want the color and texture of the blend layer to show through more clearly. In vivid light, if the blend layer is lighter than 50% gray, the image is lightened by decreasing the contrast.
If the blend color is darker that 50% gray, the image is darkened by increasing the contrast. Linear light lightens or darkens the colors by decreasing or increasing the brightness depending on the blend of the color. If the blend color's lighter than 50% grey, the image is lightened by increasing the brightness. If the blend color's darker than 50% grey, the image is darkened by decreasing the brightness. Pin light is a complex one. If the blend layer is lighter than 50% gray.
Pixels darker than the blend layer replaced and the pixels lighter than the blend layer do not change. If the blend layer is darker than 50% gray. Pixels lighter than the blend color replaced and pixels brighter than the blend color do not change. That explanation is so complicated that it doesn't really tell you much. But you can experiment with it at lower levels of opacity and sometimes you can get interesting effects. Hard mix changes all of the pixels to the primary additive colors, which are red, magenta, blue, green, yellow, white, or black.
This is a weird one that I never used although at lower levels of opacity it might yield some interesting results. I realized it even while trying to keep this non-technical some of these modes are very hard to rap your head around and ultimately you are just going to have to experiment to find what gives you the best results. The last section, Color Variable modes, requires a little review of color theory. It'll also give me a chance to talk about some of the terms I've been using, like color and saturation, in more detail.
We'll look at all that in the next section.
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