Bleach bypass

Bleach bypass is a technique used in cinematography to give a film a uniquely contrasted and tinted appearance. Real bleach bypass is a physical process, but it can be emulated with digital filters present in Adobe Photoshop and other tools. Digital bleach bypass techniques are as plenty as the stars in the night sky, but after some long trial and error I settled on a look I like.

1. Pick a photograph. A good image will be right in the middle of the histogram, as highlights and shadows can can be hard to recover. For this one I have chosen a photograph of my fiance’s niece:

Initial photograph of Jade

2. Create a new layer group with Layer-> New-> Group for the bleach bypass layers.

Layer style dialogue

3. Create a black and white layer with Layer-> New Adjustment Layer. In CS3, I use a black and white adjustment layer with a blue filter. In older versions of Photoshop without a black and white filter, the channel mixer in monochrome with 0/0/100 red, green and blue will produce an identical effect.

Black and white adjustment layer

4. Right-click on the black and white layer, select Layer Properties-> Soft Light. This is the core of the bleach bypass look. Your should experiment with different blending modes as every photograph will benefit from a slightly different look.

Soft light layer blending

6. Create a Levels adjustment layer and use the following input settings: 31, 1.31, 198.
7. Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and drop saturation by 50.

Hue/Saturation adjustment

The final look:

Bleach bypass-processed image

The effect here doesn’t overwhelm, but a bleach bypass effect should be seen as only the start. Here’s the final image after I completed some additional processing:

Final photograph of Jade

Have your say on 'Bleach bypass'

  • Moley on

    were you repeating yourself for emphasis? ;]

  • Mark on

    I you


  • No Fishing at return to pearse on

    […] First attempt at Bhalash’s Bleach Bypass technique. Tags: returntopearse, return to pearse, photos, ireland, greystones, wicklow, dublin, harbour, boat, fishing, canon eos 400d, ef 50mm f/1.8 II […]

  • FarEast PhotoWorld on

    gud info … mlm nie bley try ;)

  • Byron Marmol on

    I liked the tutorial, but I would like to add some opinions to make this more helpful, I hope I don’t offend anyone.

    For bleach bypass, the lighting is very important, if you’re not using strobe lighting, then your highlights need to be prominent (I don’t know if that’s the word I was looking for) not to blown, and the shadows not to dark, but the silvered effect in film came from the lighting, as bleach bypass was a technique that skipped the bleaching step and leaved the silver nitrate to give that spectacular look.

    When using photoshop, sometimes what may help is the use of an additional layer, a duplicated layer. Maybe you could try this and compare results.

    Add some grain to the background as the original film technique had always some grain on it.

    Duplicate your background (your image was already edited correctly with the basics).

    Desaturate the new duplicated layer almost to -100, leave a little bit of color on that one.

    Now, incease its contrast by using curves, edit each channel, red, green and blue (if you’re going to be working on CMYK, first edit it on RGB and after that change the mode to CMYK) because bleach bypass sometimes have a blue-greenish tone, but just sometimes, or depends on the style of the photographer.

    After applying curves to the desaturated duplicated layer change its blending mode to overlay and play with that layer’s opacity to see how it works better for you.

    Also, you can add a lower layer, you have to turn the background to a layer by double clicking it on the layers palette, then add a new layer and put it under the background layer, fill it with gray 50% and add some halftone pattern, add some little points to it and lower the original image’s layer opacity just a little bit, set it to 95% aprox.

    Hope it works for you, have a nice day.

  • Mark on


    I’ll try your Photoshop techniques before I comment on them, but for now I’ll say that you’re perfectly right about shadows and highlights. I don’t shoot in a studio environment, which makes capturing a suitable photo something harder, but I try to process toward suitable highlights and shadows.

    One thing that makes doing this easier is HDR composition: In architectural and landscape photos, I can use Photoshop to compose a very bland HDR – no shadows, no highlights – which I will then run again through Photoshop to bleach. It’s something I haven’t done in some months, but here is one example from earlier in the year in Ireland:

    Charleville Chapel

  • Byron on

    Yes, I don’t work architectural nor landscape photography that much to use bleach bypass on them, but that photograph you have there is really good and I like the tonal range a lot, love it.

    And yes, you’re right about the contrast that the bleach gives to the photographs, low contrast photographs get a good look with the bleach process in digital, increases saturation as well, but it depends, again, in what looks better for the photograph’s autor.
    (sorry, my english is bad, haha)

    I have something that can look like a bleach bypass picture, a portrait that still has detail on the blacks and the highlights aren’t harsh on the model’s skin. This one doesn’t have any grain, but it was retouched using the bleach bypass process in PS.

  • Tom on

    Great tutorial, the link to the downloadable action does not appear to work for me?

  • Mark on

    I think I may have removed the archives in a cleanup of my /files folder.

    During the week I should have both a new set of actions and additional actions for watermarking online, depending on when the parts on I have on order from Apple arrive.

    ’tis not the best of solutions, but I simply don’t have access to my FTP right now.

  • Daniel Iannini on

    Hi Mark, Thanks a lot for the tutorial, been working on it and having fun, but if you could upload the action again it would be great. Thanks again and good luck.

  • Julia on

    You’ve made that child look terrifying.

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