Let’s dig in a bit deeper into using layers and picking up where we left off last time where we introduced the wonder and magic that are layer blend modes. This time we’re going to look at the big brother (or older cousin or maybe uncle, I dunno) of these blend modes, which are the Blend If sliders. This is definitely a more advanced feature, but not because it’s hard to use (it’s simple), but because you probably wouldn’t even think to use these until you’re a little more advanced in your Photoshop skills. I think it’s worth introducing them to you now, however, because (a) they’re really a lot of fun, (b) it opens a whole new world of creative exploration, and (c) you’re ready.
STEP ONE: So let’s dig in by opening a background image on which we can build. The image you see here is from Adobe Stock’s free collection of stock images. I searched for “Sad woman” because all fine art collages/montages seem to have lots of sad people in them, so I didn’t want to stray too far from the dark sad place that’s Photoshop blending (I’m just kidding, of course).
If you’d like to download this image to follow along, click this link, log in with your Adobe ID, and click the License for Free button. The image should both download to your computer and show up in your Libraries panel. Right-click the image in the Libraries panel (Window>Libraries) and choose Edit to open it in Photoshop.
STEP TWO: Now let’s open a second image, one we want to blend with our original background image. This is another one from Adobe Stock’s free collection that you can find by clicking here.
Once you’ve downloaded it to your Libraries panel, Right-click on it and choose Edit to open it in Photoshop.
STEP THREE: To get this image over onto our sad woman image, we just need to tell Photoshop how much of this image we want to copy. The answer is all of it, so go under the Select menu up top and choose All, and then press Command-C (PC: Ctrl-C) to copy all of this leafy image into memory.
STEP FOUR: Now switch to the sad woman image and press Command-V (PC: Ctrl-V) to paste the leafy image on top of the sad woman, which will probably make her even sadder (ya know, because being covered up by leaves and all). At this point, the leaves are on their own layer and the layer blend mode is set to Normal, which you learned last issue that when a layer is set to Normal (leaves) it simply covers up whatever is on the layer below it (sad woman). That’s how it’s supposed to work, right? Right.
STEP FIVE: If you wanted to, you could quickly create the first stage of this fine-art collage by switching the layer blend mode of the leaves layer from Normal to Overlay, and now the layer on top blends with the layer below as shown here. You can try other blend modes and see how they look by pressing Shift-+ a bunch of times to cycle through all the different blend modes, and just stop at whichever one looks good to you (try Lighter Color and Exclusion, which are both kind of interesting).
The only downside to using these blend modes is they are what they are, and by that I mean if you don’t like the way a particular one looks, you can’t change it. All you can do is try a different one and hope you like it better. Besides lowering the Opacity of the layer on which you’ve changed the blend mode (which just lowers the intensity of the effect), you don’t have any control over how the blending happens; it just happens. That’s why we love the Blend If sliders, and in the next step we’ll start to use them.
STEP SIX: Set your blend mode back to Normal because it’s time to uncork the genie that’s the Blend If sliders. Once the blend mode is back to Normal (and all you’re seeing is the leaves layer), go to the Layers panel and double-click directly on the top layer’s thumbnail (the leaves layer) and this will bring up the Blending Options dialog you see here. What we’re interested in here are those two Blend if sliders at the bottom of the panel. That’s what we came here for.
STEP SEVEN: You see the little sliders under each of the two ramps? That’s what we use to control the blending of layers, but if you just grab one, let’s say you drag the top left one to the right a bit, it generally looks harsh with a rough blend between the two images on these layers (as shown here). It’s not the nice smooth look you have with layer blend modes, but of course, there’s a way around that.
STEP EIGHT: Drag that slider all the way back to the left, as it’s time to uncover the hidden secret that makes the Blend If sliders work smoothly, and will help you to fall in love with them. If you hold the Option (PC: Alt) key, and then drag the right side of that slider, it splits the little arrow nub in two, and now as you drag that right half, the blend is nice and smooth as shown here.
STEP NINE: While still holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, try dragging the other sliders, splitting them in two, and seeing how they affect your image. There’s no right or wrong here, this is art, so wherever you choose to stop is exactly the right place. Move one half or move all eight, there are no rules. Just experiment and see what looks good to you. When you’re done, click OK and we’ll try adding another image in the next step.
STEP 10: Okay, let’s go find another image. This time it’s some hands showing their palms, which I figured would take the creepy factor up a notch. You can find and download this image by clicking here. Remember to Select>All first, then copy-and-paste these hands onto our sad-woman-with-leaves montage. This image is a little smaller than the others, so press Command-T (PC: Ctrl-T) for Free Transform, hold the Option (PC: Alt) key, and drag out a corner point of the bounding box around the hands to resize the layer so it fills the image (the Option [PC: Alt] key will resize it from the center outward). Press Enter to commit the transformation. Now, double-click on its thumbnail in the Layers panel so we can start messing with the Blend If sliders for this layer.
STEP 11: At this point, we’re just experimenting, dragging sliders and seeing what looks good, but you can also start by choosing a layer blend mode. I switched the blend mode to Multiply (which you can do right here in the Blending Options dialog up near the top), which I thought looked kind of cool. Then you can start messing with the sliders from that point. Here, I split the top-right slider and dragged the left half almost all the way to the left. Okay, this is looking very disturbing.
STEP 12: Now that I look at this, I think I might go and try some different blend modes for that leaf layer, so in the Layers panel, click on the leaves layer and then try out different ones using the Shift-+ shortcut. I’m thinking I like the Exclusion layer blend mode better, but you can choose any one that looks good to you, or just leave it set to Normal.
STEP 13: Okay, let’s add one last image to our montage: some dirty rusty flooring texture. You can find this image by clicking here. Do the whole copy-and-paste routine to add it on top of your sad woman, leaves, creepy palms document. Use Free Transform as we did in Step 10 to resize the texture so it fills the image.
STEP 14: Let’s start by trying the Overlay layer blend mode (that’s my go-to mode when I’m adding a texture, but if that looks too intense, I try Soft Light instead). Overlay actually looks pretty good here, but we can control the blend using the Blend If sliders.
STEP 15: Double-click the layer thumbnail for the texture layer and let’s start messing with the Blend If sliders and see what looks good. In this case, I split the top-right nub and dragged the left half nearly all the way to the left.
Here’s our final image. Of course, you could add more images and continue this process. You’re just a clown or a large beetle away from taking a really dark turn with this one. LOL! Anyway, you’ve just opened the door to a whole new world of blending (and the Blend If sliders aren’t just for creating montages; it’s just a great way to learn how they work).
Hope you found that helpful, and next issue, we’ll continue our journey. See you then.
This article originally published in the October, 2021 issue of Photoshop User magazine.
About Photoshop User and KelbyOne
Photoshop User magazine comes out digitally 12 times a year and is part of KelbyOne, the leading educational resource for Photoshop, Lightroom, and photography. Pro members have access to more than 900 video courses and 100 back issues of Photoshop User. To learn more about KelbyOne, click here.