You went out there, you got the subject, angle, composition, all technical requirements. But nature just won’t cooperate. You might have captured the most exciting moment but you just need that rain or sun flare to prove your point. There’s only so much you can do in given conditions during any particular photoshoot. The best and easiest way around is to use ready-made free Photoshop overlays.

graphic designer working on her computer

If used correctly, an overlay can completely alter the photo’s message and context – or simply add some oomph to it. It’s like fusing two images into one. Photoshop overlays are most often a PNG file that you can treat as just another layer. Tweak your photo with overlays while tweaking the overlays themselves to improve the overall effect. You can even combine multiple overlays in one photo – just make sure they work together.

There are other advantages too. If you become good at it, you can create your own overlays. Just take an adequate photo, isolate the elements you need, save them as a separate PNG file, and there you have it – another side job or even business idea may be sitting right there.

But until you learn to make them, the Internet offers a plethora of options. Most overlay bundles and combos come at a price. But if you don’t need too many, you can always download a few for free to play and experiment.


Do I Need to Install Overlays?

No need. These are not add-ons. They are just regular images. All you need to do is download or buy a set of overlays and store them some place convenient, so you can easily pull them up when needed. A cloud storage such as Dropbox or Google Drive is a better option than your hard drive if you wanna make sure they don’t get lost.


Quick and Easy Guide to Using Overlays

  • Open up the original photo
  • Either drag and drop the overlay on top of the photo, or click File => Place Embedded and select the overlay
  • Change the Blending Mode from Normal to Screen. This will unmask bright colors, while hiding dark ones
  • Move and resize the overlay so it would fit your photo or part of it
  • Modify the overlay’s opacity, saturation and other parameters – just like you would do with any other layer
  • If you don’t need the whole overlay, select the layer and use Paintbrush (in black) to erase the unwanted parts

Getting Photoshop Free Overlays

men typing on laptop surrounded with colored pencils

Let’s be clear about this: if you plan on working with a bunch of different and professionally looking overlays, it’s probably best to purchase them in bundles. The price range varies and can go anywhere from a few bucks to hundreds of dollars, depending on the quality and number of overlays included in the pack.

But if you only need them occasionally, there are websites that offer samples or sample packs with free Photoshop overlays. In most cases, you will be required to subscribe to their email newsletters. Take a look at some of the free downloads you can do right now:

  1. Sample Pack from Adobe. In a way, this bundle of 12 overlays could be the best place to start. It contains some of the most common overlays you will need, including sky, bubbles, Bokeh, fireworks, rainbow. Or you can purchase the full collection of over 600 overlays here – if you plan on spending money, $49 is not much for this all-inclusive pack, which probably contains everything you’ll ever need and more.
  2. Sky & Sunset Overlays. These are great for adding a bit of romance or drama to your photo’s atmosphere. Take a look at this huge collection – whether you prefer cloudy daylight skies or magnificent sunsets, there’s a lot of materials here for you to play with. Make sure to also check out this Rainbow Sky overlay.
  3. Grunge, Flare & Haze, Folded Paper and more from BrushEezy. These are not easy to find for free. The website also offers a variety of other Photoshop actions, brushes, effects, and presets.
  4. Fog, Snow, Brown Bag, Firefly. This website contains a handful of files. Make sure you have a Dropbox account, since these are stored there. No need to subscribe to their mailing list unless you want the Firefly overlay. If you’re after some more snow overlays, find them here.
  5. Rain Overlays. This bundle will provide you with nearly every kind of rain you might need as a background for your message. Some items included in this collection combine rain with fog or smoke. After you subscribe, find the download link in your inbox. As you probably know, rain is pretty hard to capture, and your shooting gear will thank you for using these.
  6. Spice up the scene with some falling leaves. Head on over to FixThePhoto and choose from ten options, each downloaded separately.
  7. Leverage the Power of Bokeh. As many of you already know, Bokeh is that beautiful effect of blurred light spots out of focus. When made properly, it will add a touch of abstraction or nostalgia to the scene without distracting the viewer from the subject. Whether you shoot a portrait, wedding scene, or a nature landscape, this effect will make your photo look fully professional. This download from GraphicsFuel contains a variety of overlays in a single PSD file rather than the usual PNG or JPEG. Even better – no signing up required here!
  8. Glitter Overlays. This pack contains 12 photoshop free overlays great for holiday scenery. Some of them also feature Bokeh elements. Choose from multiple colors such as purple, orange, turquoise, or white-ish – or customize them to feature any other colors.
  9. Sunshine Overlays. Head over here to subscribe. Upon confirming your email address, you will get an email with a link and password you need to enter, and that’s it! This subscription will also get you an access to a bunch of other nice Photoshop and Lightroom actions and presets.
  10. Search through free stock photos websites. Just search for textures (for example grunge texture) – most of them will do a great job when used as overlays. Plus, you are free to use most of them commercially too! If you haven’t done it already, make sure to bookmark PixaBay, Pexels, Gratisography, Reshot, StockSnap.

If you are aware of any other sources for free Photoshop overlays, let us know by contacting us through the form, and we’ll happily include them in this list!


A Few Tips & Tricks

  • Overlays are supposed to enhance a particular effect, not to hijack your photo. Be very careful not to put too much stress on them. They should never distract the viewer from the photography’s subject.
  • Consistency is paramount. For example, if your photo’s background is blurry, you will need to blur the overlay equally. Combine different elements without leaving trace of the combining itself.
  • Once the overlay is applied, make sure to add a Layer Mask and use Paintbrush in black on parts of the image you don’t want the overlay to affect.
  • If you want to increase the overlay’s intensity, you can do it manually or just duplicate the layer.