Lighting Manipulation with Layers

(click on images for larger version)

A friend of mine has been working on a photomontage of one of my model photos into a 3d rendered scene. He sent me the image above, which is pretty cool, but invited me to "fart around with it as necessary" because he wanted to see what I would do with the brightness and contrast in some areas.

There are lots of ways to do this in Photoshop, but I am going to use an old trick instead of the newer adjustment layers.

The first step is to load the image into Photoshop and pull up the Layers dialog box (Window -> Layers):

Now, we create a new layer (Layer -> New -> Layer)

As you can see, the new layer is empty and sits "on top of" the background layer containing our image.

We want to turn this layer into the "mysterious fairy glow" layer so we right-click on the Layer 1 icon in the layer window and drag down to the menu that says "Blending Options"

The blending options menu conceals a whole plethora of incredibly cool options that you should plan on spending a day or two exploring; it's that complex. The one we want, however, is the "Soft Light" blending mode.

Now, our blank layer becomes the layer that filters virtual light onto our image. Black areas on our blending layer will darken, white areas on our blending layer will lighten. What does red on our blending layer do? You got it, it will "pinken." Ponder the possibilities for a second and your mind will explode with creative excitement!

To make some "pools of light" I create two selection areas that are large-ish and light-pool-ish. To soften their edges I go to Selection -> Feather and feather the edge of the selection area by a handful of pixels.

Looking more closely at the layers menu you can see that the brightening layer is transparent except for where I filled the selection area with white to give my "beam of light" -- I can paint black or any other color I want into that layer to affect the lighting. What's really neat is that I can adjust the entire lighting effect from a single place, now. For example:

By filling the light pools with red instead of white, I create a truly wretched-looking effect. Ugh! That's horrible! Please let your good taste continue to guide you in this process.

Since we want the effect of light, let's use 2 layers atop eachother. One is the "soft light" adjustment and the other is a simple "lighten" to give the effect of atmospheric haze. Fiddle with the intensity of the effect by adjusting the transparency. It was a bit hard for me to initially wrap my brain around, but the transparency, when you're working with adjustment layers, really affects the intensity of the layer.

Last, but not least, you can use the other painting tools to manipulate your layers. I wanted the light-beams to look like they were in the air but not on the grouns, so I simply used the eraser on the "lighten" layer but not on the "soft light" layer.

There's my version, with the added light-beams. Maybe the effect is a bit too strong, but I left it "turned way up" to illustrate the effect. Photoshop effects are a lot like make-up: use the right amount and it looks fabulous - use the wrong amount and your image will look like a cheap tart.

Inside his fortress of solitude, Morrisdale, Pa, Nov 7, 2005