Digital Painting with Light

Like dodge and burn on steroids, this approach to image manipulation is the foundation of many advanced techniques. This is the first of two parts.

This tutorial is split into two parts to cover both basic concepts and advanced techniques and discussion. In this primer, we will look at the ideas behind creatively reinterpreting the light in an image. We do this to change the focus or dramatic impact of the image, usually because the available lighting wasn’t what we needed, or because our intent for the image might have changed. The techniques can be useful for product photography, portraits, fine art, or whatever strikes our fancy.

Vincent Versace recently published a book called Welcome to Oz: A Cinematic Approach to Digital Photography With Photoshop. In it, he describes much of what goes on here, and since it’s a book, he can go into much greater detail. I am not attempting to summarize Mr. Versace’s work, though there are a lot of similarities. Instead, the techniques presented here are the result of individual experimentation, and a lot of interaction with the members of

But since this is a tutorial, we should get started!

I presume the reader has an understanding of the following:

  • Basic painting skills.
  • Layers, including visibility, opacity and blend modes.
  • Masks.
  • Adjustment layers and curves.
  • Black and white conversion.

I have made the source image available here:

However, you can use whatever image you like. Here’s the basic idea of where we are going:

  • Start with a good, clean image.
  • Duplicate layers as needed to allow for light, dark, and neutral adjustments.
  • Push individual layers to extremes using adjustment layers, looking for desirable details.
  • Paint on the adjustment layer masks to select only what you want.
  • Add finishing touches – tints, borders, etc.

First, we need to choose our candidate image. Anything that has relatively flat lighting will work, but at this stage it helps to have a strong subject which can be isolated from its surroundings. In part 2, we’ll talk about more detailed choices, and how to modify the technique for a broader approach. Right now, just get something similar to the source image we are using here.

Next, let’s set up the Photoshop document. Here is the layer order I will be using:

Color Fill (optional)
Border (optional)
Light Beam
Overlay w/ Gradient
B&W Copy
Black Fill (optional)

1) Image Prep & Clean up

Open your image in Photoshop, and duplicate the Background layer. Call the duplicate ‘B&W Copy’. On the B&W Copy layer, make any adjustments to the core image you like; sharpening, color correction, dust removal, etc. You want to end up with a technically good exposure, but not a final image.

2) Black and White Conversion

After you are done with the B&W Copy cleanup, it’s time to convert to black and white. I used to prefer using the Channel Mixer method, but you can also use the new B&W Filter in Photoshop CS3. However you get there, make sure you leave detail in both the blacks and whites.

3) Duplicate the B&W Layer
Make a new copy of the B&W Copy and call it Overlay w/ Gradient. Add a layer mask.

4) Make an overlay mask

Here’s the first tricky part – creating your overlay mask. In most situations, you can simply add a layer mask to isolate parts of an image. In this case, however, we will be setting the blend mode to Overlay, so anything that is masked won’t be affected. What we need to do is actually blacken parts of the layer that we don’t want highlighted. To do this, we need to use a temporary layer filled with black *underneath* the Overlay w/ Gradient layer.

4a) Create a black fill layer
Just below the Overlay w/ Gradient layer, create a new layer filled with black.

4b) Paint the overlay mask
On the Overlay w/ Gradient layer mask, begin painting with a soft, black brush on low opacity. Slowly take away the parts that will be darkened or hidden layer.

4c) Merge the result
Once you are happy with the mask, select both the Overlay w/ Gradient layer and the black filled layer below it and merge [Layer > Merge Layers or Ctrl/Cmd + E]. This should leave you with a single layer and no mask.

5) Set Overlay Mask to Overlay Mode

That’s pretty straightforward… change the blend mode of Overlay w/ Gradient to well… Overlay. The image should look a little more interesting right now. There should be much more dynamic range, and some nice, deep shadows. In the next step, we’ll create a little more drama with some additional lighting effects.

6) Create a Light Beam layer

Create a new, blank layer above the Overlay w/ Gradient layer, and call it Light Beam. Using whatever method you like, create some soft, white light beams. For this example image, I used the Polygon Lasso tool with about 20px of feathering to draw a triangle. I then filled with white, and blurred this a couple of times. Next, I rotated the triangle slightly, and then duplicated it to a new layer, which was flipped about the vertical axis. Finally, I merged the two together. However, you may find it much easier to simply paint your light beams, and then use a transform warp. Whatever works for you! Set the Light Beam layer blend mode to Overlay, and lower the opacity to taste. I used 46%.


7) Survey the results!
At this point, it’s important to look at what you have so far. For my example, the top flower is centered and highlighted, with other elements lower down the stem fading to darkness.

We are now done with the basics of the technique. “But wait,” you say. “Where’s the painting?” Well, remember when we did the masking and the light beams? That’s the very beginning of where you can go. We just created the beams to a general shape, but you could have painted them for specific highlights. In part two, we’ll cover some actual painting on the masks to draw out very specific highlights, flatten the lighting, and completely remake an image just by manipulating the lighting.

For now, it’s important to see the concepts at work. The blend modes are added to push the dynamics, and we added a light layer to focus and enhance the effect even more. With a little playing around, you can develop your own approaches, such as building light layers from other images, or adding filters to get special effects. In this image, I added a 1-pixel border, and an additional color layer at the very top to give an aged feel.


To get a nicely toned monochrome image, simply add a blank layer at the top of everything else, and fill with a color of your choosing. Set the blend mode of that layer to Color, and reduce the opacity or fill to suit your tastes. For my version, I used a kind of light tobacco color, and set the opacity at 50%. Finally, I added an oval vignette layer mask to my B&W Copy layer, just to give it that old portrait feeling (this also requires a black filled layer underneath so the original doesn’t show through).


Keep using this technique, and you’ll find all kinds of variations. Use any combination of the steps you like. Leave some out, duplicate others, and substitute your own. The key is to experiment. In part two, I’ll show you some ways you can quickly try many different things and still keep the process flexible. It’s a good way to look for candidate images that you want to develop further. I’ll also discuss in more detail what to look for, and how to shoot images that lend themselves to this technique.

Happy ‘Shopping!


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Comments Spill 8 Comments »

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  5. January 16, 2009 8:40 amilyas

    superb lighting effect .. it’s like real photography…

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    [...] photography, photos, photoshop, techniques, Tutorial, tutorials) Beautiful tutorial from PhotoshopLab. Have to try this one myself! Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Digital [...]

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