Using Duplicate Layers for dramatic effects in Gimp

February 4, 2010

I make a lot of duplicate layers in Gimp. I’ve mentioned before that I like to do this because of always being able to get back to my original pretty easily, but I also do it because messing around with just one or two things on that duplicate layer can have some pretty dramatic effects on your photos.

Like what, you ask? Let me show you!

How to make a Duplicate Layer

Of course, you have a few different options here, you can right click on your layer and select “Duplicate Layer”, you can go to the Layer dropdown and select “Duplicate Layer”, or you can use the keyboard short-cut of Shift+Ctrl+D.

Hard Light and Soft Light

One of the easiest things to do with a duplicate layer is change the blending mode, and two of my favorites to use are Hard Light and Soft Light.

Those of you that read The Pioneer Woman may have noticed that she recently wrote about using a Hard Light layer to make your wintery snow photos pop. This works with more than just snow photos, and also with the Soft Light blending mode, too.

I like to use Hard Light to make photos of brick walls pop – and it’s also great on photos of parking lots… like this one:

Before - a bit drab

Before - a bit drab

Layer set to Hard Light makes it POP!

Layer set to Hard Light makes it POP!

Using Soft Light just gives slightly more subtle effect. Here’s a before and after of a photo using a duplicate layer set to Soft Light:

The snow looks a bit gray and the grass popping out looks boring

The snow looks a bit gray and the grass popping out looks boring

Layer set to Soft Light - hello *POP*

Layer set to Soft Light - hello *POP*

If you read PW’s article that I linked to up there, you’ll notice that she mentions playing with a Curves adjustment layer. You can achieve the same effect by making sure you have your Hard Light or Soft Light layer selected and go to Colors –> Curves. You can move the middle of the curve up and to the left as Ree did, but I find for my urban shots, I usually want to make the photo darker, so I move the curve down and to the right.

Desaturate First!

I’ve talked a ton in here about dasturation, and what my favorite way of converting to black & white is, but I’m not talking here about a final black and white photo now – I’m talking about using a desaturated duplicate layer to change your color photo.

The method I’m going to show now is one I use a lot with portraits. Here’s my original photo:

Just me & my camera.

Just me & my camera.

So, I create a duplicate layer and go to Colors –> Desaturate (remember, I don’t think this is the best way to make a B&W photo, but it’s definitely the quickest, and I usually don’t care enough for the best when I’m doing what we’re about to do). I pick whichever one (Lightness, Luminosity or Average) that I think looks best. Then I’ll sometimes play with the levels (Colors –> Levels) to get a more contrast-y look. Here’s my desaturated layer:

I did play with the levels on this one

I did play with the levels on this one

And now comes the fun part! Set this layer to either Hard Light or Soft Light! Here it is as Hard Light set to 60% Opacity:

oooooh.

oooooh.

By the way, if you’re ever looking for a slightly-desaturated look (which is a good look, in my opinion), don’t switch the blending mode – keep it on normal and play with the Opacity. I know you can go to Colors –> Hue/Saturation to achieve the same effect, but I like having that separate desaturated layer so it’s easy for be bring back or take away more color by playing with the opacity. Here’s the same photo with the blending mode set back to normal (but still at 60% opacity):

 Hmm.  Kinda makes me look like a zombie.  With a camera.

Hmm. Kinda makes me look like a zombie. With a camera.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to editing using duplicate layers – I’m sure there will be another post on this eventually!

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  • Tammy

    This is great info. It helped me a lot. Do you know how to re-create itty bitty actions with that color popped look in Gimp?

  • jlm513

    I never understood the point of layers, until NOW! Thank you for another great post.

  • Very cool, I will play with this technique. I know the key to a lot of tricks in post-processing is layers so I'm trying to learn as much about the different layer modes as possible.

    Thanks

  • This is just fantastic and so helpful. I can't want to play with these techniques.

  • Definitely some good solid tips here! I recently started using duplicate layers with different blending modes in Photoshop, like soft and hard light, and then adjusting the opacity to give me a much better picture in a few clicks. So much faster and easier, and more fun, then adjusting curves and levels. :)

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