8 Steps to Adding Fantasy Lighting with Photoshop

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One of my absolute favorite things to do in Photoshop is to play with lighting effects. Whether that be to make something glow, create a spotlight sort of effect, or set my hands on fire, I’m always so impressed with the many ways Photoshop allows you to alter lighting.

Because of the skills I’ve gathered for bending light to my liking, I no longer look at an image I’ve taken and think, “Oh man, I wish I would have brought some flash equipment with me so there could be light spilling through the archway from behind her.” I now just think, “Wouldn’t it be simply fantastic to have some magical light coming from behind her? Yes, yes it would… I think I’ll add some.”

Don’t get me wrong: it’s always going to look better if there was actually some real light falling on your subject from the get-go, but that’s not going to stop me from adding a bit of illustrative “oomf” to my images whenever I see fit!

"The Secret Doorway" featuring Kara Markley
“The Secret Doorway” featuring Kara Markley

I took this picture on a trip to Key West, Florida for my uncle’s wedding. Well, this picture wasn’t for the wedding (obvs), but the trip was! Needless to say, Key West is FAN-FREAKIN-TASTIC and I can’t wait to go back. Can’t. Wait. Anyway, my cousin/best friend James and his fiancée Kara were also down there for the wedding and Kara just so happened to have a lovely dress with her — James and Kara shoot store fashion images for ReminisceShoppe on Etsy.

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I’ve been wanting to do a shoot with James and Kara for years and we all finally happened to be in the same place that just so happened to have some truly stellar locations within walking distance of the house we were renting. (Key West is only a couple miles wide, so really anything on the island is basically walking distance). Kara donned the pretty maroon dress and we set off to shoot some photos! It was such a fun afternoon wandering around this amazing fort-turned-garden club snapping photos of lizards, flowers, trees, and of course Kara.

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Kara is an absolute DREAM to work with. Like any experienced model, she just knows how to move and alter her position ever so slightly between shots and each pose she strikes is perfection, right down to the delicate angle of every little finger tip. Other than, “Can you move your hair onto that shoulder?” I don’t think I gave her much direction at all. It really was a simply wonderful and easygoing artful afternoon in the sunshine. (Can I go back now please!?)

Alright. Let’s get down to business and take a little adventure down Photoshop lane. I’ll lead you on a wondrous journey in which you will learn to add some magical lighting effects to your images! (Note: You’ll notice that most of the example images below are on a dark grey color. This is just to show you exactly what the paint layers look like and is not some weird tip about doing your shading on dark grey first or something like that.)

Step #1: Mask It Out Already!


I feel like this is the first tip in most any major Photoshop technique I talk about. It’s going to be basically impossible to add some semi-convincing light behind your subject if you don’t have a nice selection, so please take the time to pen tool them out.

Normally I would mask the hair using Fluid Mask (a plugin I’m addicted to) or just the “Refine Edge” tool in Photoshop. (Which, if you haven’t learned to use, Google it now!) However, for this picture, Kara’s dark hair would not easily come off of the also dark background. In order for this lighting technique to not look like total crap, I was going to need a really nice solid edge. So, I took my time to intricately pen tool the hair as best as I could knowing that I was going to paint in some individual strands later to make her look less cardboard-cut-out-ish.

Step #2: Big Soft Normal Brush


Photoshop’s default brush is one of my best friends. I use it for something like 80% of what I do in Photoshop. On a new layer, using the default brush with 0% hardness and about 50% opacity, paint by just clicking a few times behind your subject where you want the light to be coming from. (FYI this step would be totally useless if you didn’t already cut out your subject and have them on their own layer).

You’ll want to use a really large brush to get the soft gradated lighting effect. For any and all lighting scenarios I create in Photoshop, I usually have at least two (most often 3… or 47ish) separate layers with different blending modes all stacked up.

For this base layer to start off our back-light effect, you’ll want to leave the blending mode on “normal.” As far as what color to paint with, that’s up to your discretion. You could certainly go with a clean pristine white, a delicate blue tone, or whatever might suit the mood you’re trying to create. For my image I used an ever so slightly yellowish hue. Whatever you choose should still be a pretty darn bright shade. (Also note that I took the time to mask around the opening of the archway on the right so that the light appears to be coming from inside, but you obviously wouldn’t have to do this if your subject is standing in a field or somewhere open.)

Step #3: Shade Your Subject and Praise Clipping Masks


If you are not already loving the majesty of “Clipping Masks,” you most definitely are about to. Again, since you have already delicately clipped out your subject (please see step one), you’ll now be able to paint leisurely upon them without having to be careful of edges. It’s like having a coloring book that will not let you color outside the lines — you can scribble all over the place and this shit will keep you in check.

What you’re going to do is make a new layer above your subject, then hold down the “alt/option” key and hover over the line between this new layer and your subject’s layer. You’ll see this little symbol like a piece of white paper with a little black arrow next to it appear – click once. (See below for visual aid, or you can skip this clicking nonsense and use the quick command “Control + Alt + G” for PC or “Command + Option + G” for Mac.)

Left: Where to click. Right: How it looks after clipping mask is applied
Left: Where to click. Right: How it looks after clipping mask is applied

Now you’ll notice that the new layer indents slightly and the little arrow appears next to it. (See above on the right). This tells you that when you paint on the new layer it will only go on top of the layer below it. (AKA only inside the lines!)

Now shade and highlight around the edges of your subject to mimic how the light would be falling on them. You can use a medium-sized soft brush and actually paint just outside the edges of your subject and since it will only paint on the subject, you’re basically just painting with the very edge of the brush and can get a really nice gradated edge. This is a slightly more subtle step for this particular edit, but you can really see this technique in action in this picture.

Top left: No painting. Top right: Paint without clipping mask. Bottom: Clipping mask applied
Top left: No painting. Top right: Paint without clipping mask. Bottom: Clipping mask applied

Step #4: Normal Paint on Top


Make another new layer on top of your subject and leave the blending mode on “normal.” (DO NOT use the clipping mask for this layer.) With white (or as I said earlier, something close to it) at around 10% opacity (again with a totally soft brush), click a few times where you want some of the light to be wrapping around your subject and their surroundings. It starts to build up that hazy light flaring look. You’ll want to focus a bit more towards the center of the light source you painted behind your subject, where it’s brightest.

This step really starts to meld your subject in with the light and make it a bit more convincing. I added some red circles to the above image to show you the general size of my brushes and roughly where I clicked. I also started adding some of these glow effects to areas above my subject where I wanted the light to be spilling through the trees a bit more dramatically.

Step #5: “Soft Light” Blending Mode


Next make yet another new layer and set this layer’s blending mode to “Soft Light.” This step starts to kinda become my usual dodge/burn/shadowing/highlighting painting stage I do for all of my images. Really look at where you have your light coming from and start to shade and highlight accordingly. Be thinking things like, “If the light was coming from over here, the opposite sides of these roots would be shaded.” I also added some subtle light rays coming out of the archway to give the light some texture and character.

Step #6: Overlay Some Color


Next I made another new layer and set this one’s blending mode to “Overlay” and selected a pretty saturated warm orangey/yellow color. Just like the last couple steps, I clicked around with a large soft brush on top of the areas where I wanted my light to be glowing brightly with some warm tones. Any one of these last few steps can get you the effect you want, but by stacking them up you can really get some beautiful results.

In addition to the big soft yellow glows, I also took some more time to paint in detailed shadows and highlights on the roots and leaves around her. For the shadows, I selected a very dark purple-ish color which was a nice contrast from the orange tones in the highlights, so it really added some richness that I was hoping for.

Left: No colored overlay layer. Right: With colored overlay applied
Left: No colored overlay layer. Right: With colored overlay applied

Step #7: Textured Light, AKA Dust Particles, AKA Magic Sparkles!


No good fairy tale lighting effect is complete without some magical fairy dust, right? Maybe that’s just me, but I do feel it adds a lot of interest to have some little particles floating in your light source. I find that a lot of great dust-particle-type-textures can be found in underwater images. Usually the light coming through the water illuminates all the floaty flecks of…. fish poo?

Whatever it is, I like the way it looks! So I used an image of some particle-y water and set the blending mode to “Screen,” and placed pieces of it over the light coming from behind Kara. Then on another layer using my main squeeze the soft default Photoshop brush at about 1 or 2 pixels in size and 100% opacity, I clicked around randomly and added in some extra bright particles. I like to take it a little above the norm and paint in some some extra glowing little flecks to up the fantasy aspect of the effect.

Step #8: Color Balance Finishing Move

Left: No color adjustment. Right: With color adjustment
Left: No color adjustment. Right: With color adjustment

To tie everything up and meld all of the different layers together, I finished with a “Color Balance” adjustment layer. Like all Photoshop techniques, there are about a zillion different ways to go about doing them. For a warm glowing light source like I’m creating in this image, one of my favorite ways to give it one more little punch-up is to tweak my colors in “Color Balance.”

By going to the highlights (from the little “tone” drop-down menu at the top of the Color Balance dialog box) and pushing some yellow and a tiny bit of red in, it brightens and warms the lighter parts of the image. Then I went into the shadows and added some blue and magenta to make my shadows a bit more purple. (This also darkens them slightly.)

No matter what color you decide to go with for your light source, it’s always a really great move to have your shadows and highlights be opposite on the color wheel, aka complimentary colors. Obviously it’s not mandatory (there are not rules when it comes to making art), but it’s done quite often for a reason: It just looks good. Yellows/oranges are opposite of purples/blues, and this is one of my favorite combos to work with.

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Well that about sums it up! You could apply all (or most) of these steps to all kinds of different lighting effects, so don’t think that you have to use this solely to add a light behind your subject.

Oh and before I release you back into Photoshop land to try your own magical lighting effects, I wanted to take a quick second to talk about moths. James and Kara are really super awesome humans: they have so many talents and hobbies, but one that I find particularly fantastic is that they raise giant moths!


I thought it would be pretty special to add in a bunch of the moths that they have raised to my creation. James sent me images of some of the various kinds of moths they have and I Photoshopped them into the scene.

Be sure to check out both Kara and James on Instagram! Here’s an 11-minute speed edit video that shows how I created “The Secret Doorway.”

About the author: Robert Cornelius is a photographer and an award-winning Photoshop guru based in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. You can find more of his work on his website and read more of his writing on his blog. This article was also published here.