Overlay mode in Elements

How to boost contrast in Photoshop Elements with overlay mode

Photoshop Elements does not have the curves feature found in Photoshop itself and many other image-editing programs, and many people cite this as one of its limitations. I don’t really agree. There’s always more than one way to do anything, including modifying the contrast, and I find this ‘overlay’ method so quick and useful I often use it in Photoshop in preference to the regular curves tool.

I’ve started with this shot of a sticker stuck to a car park wall. I’d no idea what it was, but it looked interesting (it turns out it’s a promo for a hip fashion company – bah!) and I thought I could turn the textures and the colours into a striking image.

Overlay mode in Elements

It’s all done with an adjustment layer, the right blend mode and, if you want to take it further, a layer mask.

01 Create a levels adjustment layer

Overlay mode in Elements

You can do this using he Layers menu or, quicker still, click this button on the Layers palette. This displays a pop-up adjustment layer menu where you can choose the type you want.

02 Change to overlay mode

Overlay mode in Elements

When you create a new adjustment layer, the layer’s adjustment panel pops open, and you can see it displayed here. Before I make any adjustments, though, I’m going to change the adjustment layer’s blend mode using the menu on the Layers palette. Overlay mode is the one I want because it has a contrast increasing effect. Dark areas in an ‘overlay’ mode have a darkening effect on the layer below, while light parts have a lightening effect.

This works because although adjustment layers appear to be transparent, in this instance they act like a duplicate of the layer below. The net result is that the dark parts of our image get darker, and the light parts get lighter. In other words, the contrast goes up.

If all this sounds too complicated, don’t worry – you’ll see what’s happening as we go along.

03 The overlay effect

Overlay mode in Elements

This is what our image looks like after the mode change. The contrast of the picture is now much higher – and I haven’t even made any adjustments to the levels yet.

In fact, if you just want to give a picture a contrast boost, this is all you need to do and you can stop right here. I often do that for pictures taken in flat lighting that need a boost.

04 Adjusting the levels

Overlay mode in Elements

But I can also adjust the levels to change the brightness of the picture, so thanks to this overlay blend mode I’m now getting two adjustments in one – contrast and brightness. To fix the brightness, I’m dragging back the white point slider to line up with the right end of the histogram. But that’s not all – the image needs to be darker so I’ve pushed the mid (grey) point slider over to the right.

Now extreme levels adjustments like these would play havoc with an image normally, but in overlay mode the normal rules don’t apply – so if it works, do it!

Already, this image is looking a lot richer and grittier, but I want to take it a step further.

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