How to Quickly Add Contrast in Photoshop With an Overlay Blending Mode & a Layer Mask

Don’t you just hate it when you add contrast to an image: certain areas become blown out while other areas are just fine? There are many ways to control contrast in Photoshop. This time we’ll focus on a specific and easy technique that’ll require basic knowledge of Photoshop Layers, Blending Modes and Layer Masks.  Today I’ll show you how to quickly add contrast in Photoshop with an Overlay Blending Mode.

1. Duplicate the Background Layer

Here is the raw picture I took near the Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany this year. The picture is too flat, so the goal is to add contrast to specific areas in order to make it pop. First I duplicate the layer. The keyboard shortcut for this step is Ctrl+J on Windows or Cmd+J on a Mac.

Overlay Blending Modes. How to Create Contrast

2. Select the Overlay Blending Mode

From the Blending Modes drop-down menu select the Overlay Blending Mode. This blending mode combines the effect of Multiply and Screen Blending Modes. When this effect is applied, one part of an image becomes light and the other dark. If you want to create this effect with curves, you’d have to create what’s called an S Curve. This effect creates contrast, and the Overlay Blending mode is kind of a shortcut. However, this mode adds too much contrast, so we need to diminish it.

Overlay Blending Modes. How to Create Contrast

3. Layer Masks & Painting

Now that I’ve assigned the Overlay Blending Mode to my second layer, I need to go to create a Layer Mask by going to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. This is going to hide the Overlay Effect, reverting the image to its original state. However, this is just an illusion.

Overlay Blending Modes. How to Create Contrast

The Overlay Blending Mode is hidden by the Layer Mask. Notice my layer in the graphic below. It has a blank thumbnail next to it. That’s where the Overlay Blending Mode is hiding. We are going to use the Brush Tool to paint in, or bring back, the Overlay Blending Mode from hiding.

Overlay Blending Modes. How to Create Contrast

4. Painting Specific Areas With the Brush Tool

To add contrast to specific areas of this image, I am going to use the Brush Tool (Shortcut: B). Next, I’ll set the foreground color to white and the background color to black. With white I’ll paint in the Overlay Blending Mode effect, and with black I will erase it, just in case I mess up.

Overlay Blending Modes. How to Create Contrast

5. Final Touches & Tips

Before painting,  I lower the opacity of my brush for smooth results. You’ll have to decide what the best brush opacity is for your image. Be careful as you paint around bright areas. The Overlay Blending Mode will most likely blow out highlights and darken the shadows. But those areas can easily be recovered with a low opacity brush and layer masks.

Goran Vrcel Photography

Your Thoughts. Tell Us About Your Techniques

There are many ways to add contrast in Photoshop. Blending Modes allow us to be creative. I’d love to know how you make your images pop in Photoshop. Tell us in the comments area below. See you next year. Cheers.


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