How Layer Masks and Layer Modes Can Transform Photos

To create the final look of my Hope Ascending photo I used a technique in which I layered the same photo on to of itself repeatedly, while using various effects, in order to bring out different parts of the photo.  The result is an image far more dynamic than the original, enabling me to show my vision of the photo.  The process to achieve effects like this, is very fun and relatively easy to do once a few techniques are learned about layer masks and layer modes.

The main purpose of this tutorial is to show what is possible using just layer masks and layer modes. I used GIMP to modify this image, but similar principles apply in Adobe Photoshop and other photo editing software.

Always make sure to have a separate saved copy of the original file. (I often make the original file “read only” for extra protection). In this tutorial, I layer the original image on top of itself repeatedly with different settings applied to it. To do so, go to “File>Open as Layer” and select the original file, or in the layers window right click on a layer and then click on “Duplicate Layer” to make copies of the original file in different layers before modifications.

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This is the image that I started with, which is actually cropped from a much larger image. Don’t underestimate the gems that can be found in forgotten corners of photos!
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Layer 1
For this layer I modified the Levels settings (Colors>Levels). The idea is to move the arrows in to the edges of the graph. This makes the darkest areas of the photos true black and the lightest areas of the photo true white, giving the photo the full spectrum of shades. I moved the black arrow on the left slightly over from 0 to 5. Then I moved the white arrow on the right way over from 255 to 180. (For more information, check out this this illustrated tutorial on The Levels and Curves in GIMP by Leanne Cole Photography.)
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Layer 2 modifications

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Updated composite image

Layer 2
I started with a clean copy of the original file. Then I modified the Levels again, this time focusing on increasing the brightness and visibility of the smoke, without regards to how it effected the rest of the photo (moving the white arrow to 100). Then I adjusted the hue (Colors>Hue-Saturation) to -7.
After that I created a Layer Mask by right clicking on the layer in the layer window, and selecting “Add Layer Mask.” This brings up an options window in which I chose “White (full opacity)” to create a white layer mask. Right click on the layer again to ensure that “Edit Layer Mask” has a check mark. Then I chose the “Blend Tool” from the tool menu (settings set to “Shape: Linear”), and changed my foreground and background colors to black and white. White areas of a layer mask show the current layer, and black areas are transparent and show whatever is underneath. I then moved to the main window and drew a short mostly-vertical straight line. This creates a gradient in the layer mask from black to white, showing the two layers as softly blending together. I played with the position, length (draw a longer line for a more gradual gradient), and angle of the gradient until I was happy with the results.
Lastly, at the top of the layer window there is a pull-down menu for layer mode. Each layer mode has very different effects on how the layer appears (when on top of other layers), and I usually play around with all of them until I find the one I like best for a particular image. This time I changed the mode to “Hard Light” which is good for highlighting contrasts.
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Layer 3 modifications

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Updated composite image

Layer 3
This layer is a bit easier. I started by duplicating layer 2. Then I right-clicked on it in the layer menu, and selected “Delete Layer Mask.” Next I went to “Filters>Blur>Gaussian Blur” and set the blur radius to 20 pixels. Lastly I changed the Layer Mode to “Grain Merge” and on the Opacity bar right underneath layer modes, I set the opacity to 30%. The results are subtle, mainly a bit more of a glow in the highlights, and some crisper shadows.
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Layer 4 modifications

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Updated composite image

Layer 4
I felt like some of the details from places like the lady’s hair and the top of the incense burner had gotten washed out by the previous few steps. So once again, I started with a new copy of the original image. I then created a black layer mask. Using the selection tools, I carefully selected a few areas that I wanted to show in the new layer. Then while editing the layer mask, I colored in the selection using a white pencil. In order make this layer blend seamlessly with previous layers, I used a gaussian blur (radius of 30 pixels) on the layer mask while the white areas were still selected. This blurs only the selected area, so that the objects blend into the background, but the background isn’t effected. I then set the layer mode to hard light.

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Updated composite image

Layer 5
(Make sure that the previous four layers are all visible (open eye next to them in the layers window) and if there are any other layers, make them invisible by toggling the eye off). Right click on one of the layers and select “Merge Visible Layers.” (Note: do not merge down one layer at a time, or it will alter the way the image looks because of each layer being in a different mode.) Set layer mode to normal, then duplicate the layer. Set the layer mode of the copy to Overlay.

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Updated composite image

Layer 6
I started with a new copy of the original image, then simply changed the layer mode to Hue. The effect is most noticeable as color correction on the woman’s face.
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Layer 7 modifications

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Updated composite image

Layer 7
I wanted to reclaim a little more of the detail on the incense burner. Similar to what I did for Layer 4, I used a copy of the original image and created a layer mask to show just a select area, blurring the layer mask to make one layer blend into the next.I then set the layer mode to Value and the opacity to 30%.

Here is a comparison of the original image and the final image:
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One thought on “How Layer Masks and Layer Modes Can Transform Photos

  1. […] Want to see the photo-editing magic that illuminated this once-dark photo?  Check out my tutorial here! […]

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