Photoshop Blend Modes Without Backbuffer Copy

For the past couple of weeks, I have been trying to replicate the Photoshop blend modes in Unity. It is no easy task; despite the advances of modern graphics hardware, the blend unit still resists being programmable and will probably remain fixed for some time. Some OpenGL ES extensions implement this functionality, but most hardware and APIs don’t. So what options do we have?

1) Backbuffer copy

A common approach is to copy the entire backbuffer before doing the blending. This is what Unity does. After that it’s trivial to implement any blending you want in shader code. The obvious problem with this approach is that you need to do a full backbuffer copy before you do the blending operation. There are certainly some possible optimizations like only copying what you need to a smaller texture of some sort, but it gets complicated once you have many objects using blend modes. You can also do just a single backbuffer copy and re-use it, but then you can’t stack different blended objects on top of each other. In Unity, this is done via a GrabPass. It is the approach used by the Blend Modes plugin.

2) Leveraging the Blend Unit

Modern GPUs have a little unit at the end of the graphics pipeline called the Output Merger. It’s the hardware responsible for getting the output of a pixel shader and blending it with the backbuffer. It’s not programmable, as to do so has quite a lot of complications (you can read about it here) so current GPUs don’t have one.

The blend mode formulas were obtained here and here. Use it as reference to compare it with what I provide. There are many other sources. One thing I’ve noticed is that provided formulas often neglect to mention that Photoshop actually uses modified formulas and clamps quantities in a different manner, especially when dealing with alpha. Gimp does the same. This is my experience recreating the Photoshop blend modes exclusively using a combination of blend unit and shaders. The first few blend modes are simple, but as we progress we’ll have to resort to more and more tricks to get what we want.

Two caveats before we start. First off, Photoshop blend modes do their blending in sRGB space, which means if you do them in linear space they will look wrong. Generally this isn’t a problem, but due to the amount of trickery we’ll be doing for these blend modes, many of the values need to go beyond the 0 – 1 range, which means we need an HDR buffer to do the calculations. Unity can do this by setting the camera to be HDR in the camera settings, and also setting Gamma for the color space in the Player Settings. This is clearly undesirable if you do your lighting calculations in linear space. In a custom engine you would probably be able to set this up in a different manner (to allow for linear lighting).

If you want to try the code out while you read ahead, download it here.

A) Darken

Formula min(SrcColor, DstColor)
Shader Output
Blend Unit Min(SrcColor · One, DstColor · One)


As alpha approaches 0, we need to tend the minimum value to DstColor, by forcing SrcColor to be the maximum possible color float3(1, 1, 1)

B) Multiply

Formula SrcColor · DstColor
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · DstColor + DstColor · OneMinusSrcAlpha


C) Color Burn

Formula 1 – (1 – DstColor) / SrcColor
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · One + DstColor · OneMinusSrcColor


D) Linear Burn

Formula SrcColor + DstColor – 1
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · One + DstColor · One


E) Lighten

Formula Max(SrcColor, DstColor)
Shader Output
Blend Unit Max(SrcColor · One, DstColor · One)


F) Screen

Formula 1 – (1 – DstColor) · (1 – SrcColor) = Src + Dst – Src · Dst
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · One + DstColor · OneMinusSrcColor


G) Color Dodge

Formula DstColor / (1 – SrcColor)
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · DstColor + DstColor · Zero


You can see discrepancies between the Photoshop and the Unity version in the alpha blending, especially at the edges.

H) Linear Dodge

Formula SrcColor + DstColor
Shader Output
Blend Unit SrcColor · SrcAlpha + DstColor · One


This one also exhibits color “bleeding” at the edges. To be honest I prefer the one to the right just because it looks more “alive” than the other one. Same goes for Color Dodge. However this limits the 1-to-1 mapping to Photoshop/Gimp.

All of the previous blend modes have simple formulas and one way or another they can be implemented via a few instructions and the correct blending mode. However, some blend modes have conditional behavior or complex expressions (complex relative to the blend unit) that need a bit of re-thinking. Most of the blend modes that follow needed a two-pass approach (using the Pass syntax in your shader). Two-pass shaders in Unity have a limitation in that the two passes aren’t guaranteed to render one after the other for a given material. These blend modes rely on the previous pass, so you’ll get weird artifacts. If you have two overlapping sprites (as in a 2D game, such as our use case) the sorting will be undefined. The workaround around this is to move the Order in Layer property to force them to sort properly.

I) Overlay

Formula 1 – (1 – 2 · (DstColor – 0.5)) · (1 – SrcColor), if DstColor > 0.5
2 · DstColor · SrcColor, if DstColor <= 0.5
Shader Pass 1
Blend Pass 1 SrcColor · DstColor + DstColor · DstColor
Shader Pass 2
Blend Pass 2 SrcColor · DstColor + DstColor · Zero


How I ended up with Overlay requires an explanation. We take the original formula and approximate via a linear blend:

{ 2 \cdot Dst \cdot Src \cdot (1 - Dst) + (1 - 2 \cdot (1 - Dst) \cdot (1 - Src)) \cdot Dst}

We simplify as much as we can and end up with this

{ (4 \cdot Src - 1) \cdot Dst + (2 - 4 \cdot Src) \cdot Dst \cdot Dst }

The only way I found to get DstColor · DstColor is to isolate the term and do it in two passes, therefore we extract the same factor in both sides:

{ \Big[(4 \cdot Src - 1) \cdot \frac {Dst} {(2 - 4 \cdot Src)} + Dst \cdot Dst\Big] \cdot (2 - 4 \cdot Src) }

However this formula doesn’t take alpha into account. We still need to linearly interpolate this big formula with alpha, where an alpha of 0 should return Dst. Therefore

{ \Big[(4 \cdot Src - 1) \cdot \frac {Dst} {(2 - 4 \cdot Src)} + Dst \cdot Dst\Big] \cdot (2 - 4 \cdot Src) \cdot a + Dst \cdot (1 - a) }

If we include the last term into the original formula, we can still do it in 2 passes. We need to be careful to clamp the alpha value with max(0.001, a) because we’re now potentially dividing by 0. The final formula is

{ K_1 = \frac{4 \cdot Src - 1} {2 - 4 \cdot Src} }

{ K_2 = \frac{1 - a} {(2 - 4 \cdot Src) \cdot a} }

{ \Big[Dst \cdot (K_1 + K_2) + Dst \cdot Dst \Big] \cdot (2 - 4 \cdot Src) \cdot a }

J) Soft Light

Formula 1 – (1 – DstColor) · (1 – (SrcColor – 0.5)), if SrcColor > 0.5
DstColor · (SrcColor + 0.5), if SrcColor <= 0.5
Shader Pass 1
Blend Pass 1 SrcColor · DstColor + SrcColor · DstColor
Shader Pass 2
Blend Pass 2 SrcColor · DstColor + SrcColor * Zero


For the Soft Light we apply a very similar reasoning to Overlay, which in the end leads us to Pegtop’s formula. Both are different from Photoshop’s version in that they don’t have discontinuities. This one also has a darker fringe when alpha blending.

K) Hard Light

Formula 1 – (1 – DstColor) · (1 – 2 · (SrcColor – 0.5)), if SrcColor> 0.5
DstColor · (2 · SrcColor), if SrcColor <= 0.5
Shader Pass 1
Blend Pass 1 SrcColor · One + DstColor · One
Shader Pass 2
Blend Pass 2 SrcColor · DstColor + SrcColor * Zero


Hard Light has a very delicate hack that allows it to work and blend with alpha. In the first pass we divide by some magic number, only to multiply it back in the second pass! That’s because when alpha is 0 it needs to result in DstColor, but it was resulting in black.

L) Vivid Light

Formula 1 – (1 – DstColor) / (2 · (SrcColor – 0.5)), if SrcColor > 0.5
DstColor / (1 – 2 · SrcColor), if SrcColor <= 0.5
Shader Pass 1
Blend Pass 1 SrcColor · DstColor + SrcColor · Zero
Shader Pass 2
Blend Pass 2 SrcColor · One+ SrcColor · OneMinusSrcColor


M) Linear Light

Formula DstColor + 2 · (SrcColor – 0.5), if SrcColor > 0.5
DstColor + 2 · SrcColor – 1, if SrcColor <= 0.5
Shader Output
Blend Unit  SrcColor · One + DstColor · One


The Rendering of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2

Castlevania Lords of Shadow 2 was released in 2014, a sequel that builds on top of Lords of Shadow, its first installment, which uses a similar engine. I hold these games dear and, being Spanish myself, I’m very proud of the work MercurySteam, a team from Madrid, did on all three modern reinterpretations of the Castlevania series (Lords of Shadow, Mirror of Fate and Lords of Shadow 2). Out of curiosity and pure fandom for the game I decided to peek into the Mercury Engine. Despite the first Lords of Shadow being, without shadow of a doubt (no pun intended), the best and most enjoyable of the new Castlevanias, out of justice for their hard work I decided to analyze a frame from their latest and most polished version of the engine. Despite being a recent game, it uses DX9 as graphics backend. Many popular tools like RenderDoc or the newest tools by Nvidia and AMD don’t support DX9, so I used Intel Graphics Analyzer to capture and analyze all the images and code from this post. While having a bit of graphics parlance, I’ve tried to include as many images as possible, with occasional code and in-depth explanations.

Analyzing a Frame

This is the frame we’re going to be looking at. It’s the beginning scene of Lords of Shadow 2, Dracula has just awakened, enemies are knocking at his door and he is not in the best mood.

CLOS2 Castle Final Frame

Depth Pre-pass

LoS2 appears to do what is called a depth pre-pass. What it means is you send the geometry once through the pipeline with very simple shaders, and pre-emptively populate the depth buffer. This is useful for the next pass (Gbuffer), as it attempts to avoid overdraw, so pixels with a depth value higher than the one already in the buffer (essentially, pixels that are behind) get discarded before they run the pixel shader, therefore minimizing pixel shader runs at the cost of extra geometry processing. Alpha tested geometry, like hair and a rug with holes, are also included in the pre-pass. LoS2 uses both the standard depth buffer and a depth-as-color buffer to be able to sample the depth buffer as a texture in a later stage.

The game also takes the opportunity to fill in the stencil buffer, an auxiliary buffer that is part of the depth buffer, and generally contains masks for pixel selection. I haven’t thoroughly investigated why precisely all these elements are marked, but for instance was presents higher subsurface scattering and hair and skin have its own shading, independent of the main lighting pass, which stencil allows to ignore.

  • Dracula: 85
  • Hair, skin and leather: 86
  • Window glass/blood/dripping wax: 133
  • Candles: 21

The first image below shows what the overdraw is like for this scene. A depth pre-pass helps if you have a lot of overdraw. The second image is the stencil buffer.

Depth Prepass Overdraw

GBuffer Pass

LoS2 uses a deferred pipeline, fully populating 4 G-Buffers. 4 buffers is quite big for a game that was released on Xbox360 and PS3, other games get away with 3 by using several optimizations.

Normals (in World Space):

normal.r normal.g normal.b sss

The normal buffer is populated with the three components of the world space normal and a subsurface scattering term for hair and wax (interestingly not skin). Opaque objects only transform their normal from tangent space to world space, but hair uses some form of normal shifting to give it anisotropic properties.

Normals RGB (World)


albedo.r albedo.g albedo.b alpha * AOLevels

The albedo buffer stores all three albedo components plus an ambient occlusion term that is stored per vertex in the alpha channel of the vertex color and is modulated by an AO constant (which I presume depends on the general lighting of the scene).

Albedo RGB


specular.r specular.g specular.b Fresnel multiplier

The specular buffer stores the specular color multiplied by a fresnel term that depends on the view and normal vectors. Although LoS2 does not use physically-based rendering, it includes a Fresnel term probably inspired in part by the Schlick approximation to try and brighten things up at glancing angles. It is not strictly correct, as it is done independently of the real-time lights. The Fresnel factor is also stored in the w component.

Specular RGB

Ambient Lighting:

ambient.r ambient.g ambient.b AO constant

The Ambient buffer stores colored ambient lighting and occlusion. It takes the input vertex color and multiplies it by a constant AO factor (different from the AO factor for the albedo). Static geometry uses lightmaps, as is standard practice in many games, but animated geometry using normal maps uses a different technique. My first hypothesis without looking at the code was that they would be using spherical harmonics, but after looking at the assembly I think it’s based on a technique described by Valve in 2006 for Half-Life 2.

The technique works like this (look at the assembly to follow what I say): first the normal is calculated in world space, and the positive and negative components separated. Then those components are squared, and multiplied by two different matrices contained in PrecalcAOColors, which is passed as a constant. These matrices are described in the Valve paper as an Ambient Cube, containing six colors. It is a technique that was developed around the time that spherical harmonics were developed, but is more compact as it only uses 6 colors (9 are needed for the most basic spherical harmonics) and is faster to evaluate.

After that both contributions are added and multiplied by a constant, and then added back again to the vertex colors. The last component is a constant coming from either the lightmap for static geometry, or the PrecalcAOLevels (light probes) for dynamic geometry.

Ambient RGB

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