Add Brilliant Light Effects to Your Work with Photoshop


Click on the preview below to see the full artwork.


Tutorial Resources

Step 1: Set up the background

Let’s start the tutorial by creating a new document (Ctrl/Cmd + N) in Photoshop. Since I like printing my work, I will typically choose a large standard document size (like A4) and set the Resolution at 300 pixels/inch.

Set up the background

Once the new Photoshop document has been created, fill (Edit > Fill) the default Background layer with a dark blue (#052b4c).

I start my work from the background. If you do the same, I suggest that you don’t give too much importance to your starting colors because we can change them later on once we have completed our foreground work. The most important thing at the beginning is to achieve a concept—something interesting to represent. The beauty of Photoshop is that it allows you to change colors and other aspects of your work at any moment. The best moment to work with colors is when you have more elements to play with, near the end.

Let us start by creating a new layer (Crtl/Cmd + Shift + N). Next, set white (#ffffff) as your Foreground color and then select a large, soft brush tip with Hardness at 0% for our Brush Tool (B).

Simply click once at the center of the canvas to apply your brush stroke.

Step 2: Create a simple ellipse light effect

Since the scene is focused at the center of the canvas, we are going to create a light effect that will enhance all elements that will be placed there. Press Ctrl/Cmd + T to activate the Free Transform command and contract the light source so that it becomes an ellipse.

Then, remove the edges of the brush stroke using the Eraser Tool (E) (or use a layer mask, if you want).

Create a simple ellipse light effect

Step 3: Create some clouds

We will now make some clouds. Make sure to have white (#ffffff) as foreground color and black (#000000) as your background color; you can press the D key to reset your foreground/background color to white/black and then press X to switch foreground and background colors.

Create a new layer and then go to Filter > Render > Clouds.

Create some clouds

Activate the Free Transform command (Ctrl/Cmd+T) and enlarge the clouds layer by pulling on one of the corner transform controls.

Create some clouds

Switch the layer’s blending mode to Screen to remove black parts of the clouds layer and also reduce the layer’s Opacity to around 30%.

Create some clouds

To make the clouds more realistic, use the Eraser Tool (E) to remove some parts to make it look randomized. As always, use a large, soft brush with a Hardness set at 0%.

Just to recap our simple five-step clouds creation process:

  1. Create a new layer and apply the clouds filter
  2. Enlarge the layer
  3. Switch the layer blending mode to screen
  4. Reduce opacity
  5. Remove unwanted parts

Create some clouds

Repeat the same process to create other clouds. Try experimenting with different layer dimensions and opacity. This is what I ended up with:

Create some clouds

Step 4: Select and prepare your subject

Choose a nice subject for your work. I chose this nice image of a dancer, but you can pick  any image that you like or have lying around.

Since we will create light effects to play with, I suggest you pick a dynamic moving subject such as a person jumping, an animal running, or a rock star jamming.

Once you’ve chosen your subject, copy and paste (Ctrl/Cmd + V) it into the canvas.

Select and prepare your subject

At this point, we have to modify the dancer. In particular, the aim is to increase the image contrast and to give the subject a grungier look. We can achieve both these results with a texture.

Firsst, you must download the free sample of my Bleached Paper Texture set, open it in Photoshop, and paste it into our document. Also, you can check out the Design Instruct Freebie section for other interesting textures to use.

Resize the texture with Free Transform (Ctrl/Cmd + T) so that it’s of the same size as our canvas.

Select and prepare your subject

Step 5: Apply a clipping mask on the texture layer

We want to apply our texture only to the subject. For this purpose, we can create a clipping mask. To do so, press Alt/Option and then click between the subject’s layer and the texture layer in the Layers Panel. A little arrow should appear and the texture layer’s name will move a bit to the right inside the Layers Panel indicating that you have added a clipping mask.

The clipping mask means that all the things we do in the texture layer will affect only the area delimited by dancer’s silhouette.

Select and prepare your subject

Switch the texture layer’s blending mode to Overlay and reduce the Opacity to 70%.

Step 6: Change the texture’s color

You can see how the texture details nicely interact with the human body. If you zoom in (press Z to activate the Zoom Tool, and then click on the canvas), you will notice that the grunge texture looks like veins. I want to play around with this idea/concept.

Let’s change the texture’s color. Press Ctrl/Cmd + U to open the Hue/Saturation dialog window. Check the Colorize option and move the hue slider to the area between purple and red.

Change the texture's color

Now create a mask on top of the texture layer by pressing the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

Next, grab a soft, black brush for our Brush Tool (B) and remove textures from some parts of the body. The image below will show you suggested parts to paint on:

Change the texture's color

Step 7: Add a vivid light effect

It’s time to add a more brilliant and prominent light effect. Right-click on the subject’s layer in the Layers Panel and then choose Blending Options from the contextual menu.

Add an Outer Glow layer style. Increase the Size of the outer glow to around 200px and set Blend Mode to Color Dodge.

Add a vivid light effect

The light effect you see at the top is the result of the combination between the ellipse light effect we created at the beginning and the Outer Glow layer style.

If you want to change the orientation of this effect, simply move the elliptical lighting effect layer around.

Step 8: Create an abstract Photoshop brush

Here comes the fun part. There are plenty of ways to create light effects. In this tutorial, I’ll show you one of the simplest methods. We will make abstract fractals for our custom brushes and then we will use these brushes to add lights into our work.

In order to create nice abstract fractal effect, we will use the flame tool, which is a free online tool made by Peter Blaskovic. This tool is amazing!

Add a vivid light effect

Create you own flames and save them to your computer. Use default colors and once finished, just press Save. Save your flame as a JPG image.

Open one of the flames you just created in Photoshop. We are going to create a cool brush set with these.

Add a vivid light effect

Desaturate the image by going to Image > Adjustments > Desaturate (Shift + Ctrl/Cmd + U).

Then invert the image by going to Image > Adjustments > Invert (Ctrl/Cmd + I). We invert the images because while you create Photoshop brushes, you have to consider that the white parts will be transparent and the blacker parts will represent the brush stroke. The parts that are in grayscale will therefore be the only ones saved as brushes.

Here is the result:

Add a vivid light effect

To save the brush, go to Edit > Define Brush Preset.

We have thus created the first brush of the set! Go ahead and create other brushes following the same process.

Add a vivid light effect

Step 9: Apply the custom abstract Photoshop brush

Create a new layer group (Ctrl/Cmd + G) and title it "light effect". Set the group’s blending mode to Color Dodge. Create a new layer (Ctrl/Cmd + Shift + N) inside the "light effect" group, set your Foreground color to white (#ffffff), and then click on the canvas to apply our custom abstract brush stroke.

Here is your light effect! Really simple, don’t you agree? I promised it would only take 10 minutes!

If you want a stronger light effect, duplicate the layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J) and experiment with the layer’s blending mode.

Apply the custom abstract Photoshop brush

You can now use all the brushes of the brush set you created. Try to combine them in harmony with the body of the subject.

Also try this: Create a new layer, apply an abstract brush stroke, then rotate it with the Free Transform command (Ctrl/Cmd + T). You can also flip the layer (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal or Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical). This can add variety to your abstract light effects.

Remember to create each brush stroke on a different layer so that you can move them separately to achieve a satisfactory composition.

Here is the result after I played around with all the brushes of my own set.

Apply the custom abstract Photoshop brush

Step 10: Add more light effects

Still inside our "light effect" layer group, create a new layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J). This time we will use soft brushes to enhance some parts of the body. For example, take a look at the left hand of the dancer—it’s covered by some light beams. We can start there. Add more light where you think it’s necessary.

Add more light effects

Step 11: Make energy particles

We will now create energy particles to detail our light effects. Create another layer inside the same group. Select the 16px Soft Mechanical tip.

Add more light effects

Next, we will modify the Brushes options. If it’s not opened, toggle the Brushes Panel (Window > Brushes).

Check the Spacing option and increase its value to 400%.

Add more light effects

Then, check the Shape Dynamic and set its options to the following values:

Add more light effects

Finally, check Scattering and use the following suggested settings:

Add more light effects

All that remains now is to paint over the canvas to create our energy particles. I suggest adding the energy particles on their own layers to compartmentalize our work. To increase the brightness and prominence of the energy particles, you can add an Outer Glow layer style to them.

Add more light effects

Step 12: Final adjustments

Our work is almost complete. As I wrote at beginning of the tutorial, Photoshop allows us to play with colors at any moment.

In another tutorial I wrote here on Design Instruct, I showed you the power of adjustment layers in Photoshop and how they can dramatically change our work. We will now follow a similar process to complete the work.

Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

Let’s start by desaturating our image a bit. This is something I often do because I’ll apply a Gradient Map later (with its blending mode set at Overlay) that will increase color contrast.

Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and reduce Saturation to -40.

Note that you can also add adjustment layers by clicking on the Create new fill or layer adjustment button located at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

Curves adjustment layer

Increase the image’s contrast using a Curves adjustment layer. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves. Create a curve as shown in the image below:

Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

Gradient Map adjustment layer

Finally, add a Gradient Map adjustment layer. Set the color gradient so that it goes from purple (#6f156c) to yellow (#f9e600).

Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

Afterwards, set the adjustment layer’s blending mode to Overlay and reduce its Opacity to 50%.

That’s it. We’re done!

Tutorial Summary

I showed you a variety of light effect techniques in this tutorial. We applied a simple light effect glow using a soft, white brush. Then we stepped it up a notch by adding an Outer Glow layer style on our subject. We created custom abstract light brushes as well as energy particles to enhance the look of our light effects. We applied a clipping mask to our subject for artistic purposes. To finish off our composition, we added some adjustment layers.

I hope that you enjoyed this tutorial and learned a few tricks for adding light effects on your own work.

Here is the final result:


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