After Effects & Photoshop tutorial: Create cosmic glows and lighting effects with particles

Learn how to produce a stunning particle animation without having to render it in 3D, then discover how to make a striking hi-res graphic from it to flesh out a branding campaign

In this Masterclass, Sri Lankan animator Buwaneka Saranga explains how to create a cosmic motion graphics scene derived from a particle animation using After Effects and Red Giant’s Trapcode Particular. 

The latter is a particle generating plugin that presents the user with intuitive parameters to create various particle effects. As with most particle systems, it works best on a powerful workstation, allowing you to see high-quality previews at a decent framerate and render the final results without having to wait too long. 

The technique Buwaneka’s going to demonstrate is how to use the primary particles (Main particles) to drive secondary particles (Aux particles). You’ll also learn how to create complexity using turbulence and spherical fields. You can use the same technique with different parameter values to create a multitude of effects. 

Buwaneka also shows how to enhance a still frame from the animation, turning it into an artwork to be used alongside the animation in a branding campaign. Often we think of animation in branding as putting pre-created static elements in motion or seeing them manipulated across time – but it’s just as valid to create your animation first and then work up stills into materials to be used in print and on the web. The still composite will be done in Photoshop. You’ll learn how to create glows and colour effects from scratch to turn the frame into a stunning design.

In the project files you’ll find the complete After Effects project file and layered PSD for reference, plus a 4K output frame.

Time to complete 

25-30 minutes


After Effects CS4, Trapcode Particular 2, Photoshop CS5 or later


Files for this tutorial are downloadable from here


To start, create a new composition (Cmd/Ctrl + N) at a resolution of 1,280 x 720 pixels, a framerate of 24, and 10 seconds in length. Next, create a new solid (Cmd/Ctrl + Y), name the layer ‘Particular’, make it black in colour and select Make Comp Size. Go to Effect > Trapcode > Particular. Particular will now be added to your solid with its default parameters and settings.


In the Particular parameters in the Effects panel, open the Emitter section. Change the Particles/sec parameter to 200, and the Emitter Type to ‘Sphere’. Enter 550, for Position Z, change the direction to Bi-Directional and reduce the velocity to 5. Reduce values of Velocity Random [%], Velocity Distribution, and Velocity from Motion [%] to 0. Leave the other parameters under the Emitter section at their default settings. 

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Open the Particle settings and leave all the attributes at their default settings except for Opacity – turn this down to 0.

This will make the main particles disappear, which is exactly what we want. We don’t want to see the main particles; we only need them to drive the aux particles. 


Under Physics, increase the Gravity value to 30 so that the particles are forced to pull down, rather than being thrown off. Make sure the Physics Model is set to Air and leave the Physics Time Factor at 1. Under Air, use 0 for the values of Air Resistance, Spin Amplitude, Spin Frequency, Fade-in Spin [sec]. Enter 65 for Wind X – so that the particles will be biased to the right side – and set Wind Y and Wind Z to 0. 


To see a preview of what’s happening so far, scroll down to reveal the Aux System, and under Emit, select Continuously from the drop-down list. Hit 0 on your numeric keypad to create a RAM preview.

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Under Aux System settings, leave the Emit Probability [%] at 100, change the Particle Emit Rate to 800, and increase the Life [sec] to 5. Set the Particle type to Sphere and turn down the Velocity to 0 and decrease the size to 1. These parameters combine to produce the strings that are drawn across the screen by their emitters. 


The Size over Life graphic initially appears as a red rectangle indicating that the size remains the same. We want it to die off, so use your mouse to draw a curve like the one shown. This curve is perfect for the look I’m creating, but a linear descending curve may work just as well. Next, set the opacity to 50. We’ll modify this over time next.


Set Opacity over Life to a linear curve using the presets on the right of the graph. Change the Birth colour to R57, G115, B187; and the Death colour to R210, G64, B49. Next, move the slider positions to match those shown here. 

Change the Transfer Mode to Screen, and the Turbulence Position to 570 – this is found under Aux System > Physics (Air mode only). Leave the rest at their default settings. 

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We’re now done with the Aux System. Scroll back up to Physics > Air > Turbulence Field. Enter 600 for Affect Position, 10 for Scale, 5 for Complexity, 1 for Octave Multiplier and 1.2 for Octave Scale. Leave the rest as defaults.

The values entered here create a turbulent field for the main particles that give random movement to the particles. This is not the same as velocity being applied, this is a secondary way to give complexity to the particle’s motion. 


To give this piece a spherical look, we’ll be using the parameters in the Spherical Field section. Increase the Strength to 100, set Position Z to 550, and increase the Radius to 300, leaving the Feather to 50.

Our particle effect is now created, so start a RAM preview to see how it looks. Tweak the settings until you get a result you like – and your animation is complete.


Let’s take our 720-pixel comp to a higher resolution, so we can create the basis for a print-resolution artwork. In the same composition as you’ve been working on, hit Cmd/Ctrl + K to open up Composition Settings. Change the preset to Film (4K) and leave the other settings as default. 

Create a new comp-sized solid, name it 4K, copy and paste the particular effect from our previous solid to the new solid. Hide the previous solid. 

Next, create a new camera (Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + Shift + C), selecting the preset 50mm camera. Use the Track XY and Track Z camera tools to centre the particle effect on the large 4K space. 

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Select a frame that has lots of dynamism to use as the basis of your artwork in Photoshop (I went for 0:00:01:19). Now save it as a PSD. 

Go to Composition > Save Frame As > File (Cmd/Ctrl + Alt + S). The Render Queue will open. Under Render Settings make sure that Quality is set to Best, and Resolution is to Full. The Output Module format is Photoshop sequence, and select a location where you want to save. Hit Render.


Open the PSD in Photoshop. Change its colour bit depth to 16 bits per channel. Erase the faint areas, as shown in the image. 

Create a background layer, and apply a radial gradient as shown, drag out long from the centre. Change the blending mode of the top layer to Screen. To add the glows, create a new layer, name it Glow and make the blending mode Screen.


Select the Brush tool (B). Pick a light blue colour from the particle effect by holding Alt and using the Color Picker. Change the blending mode of the brush to Screen, and reduce its opacity to 35%. 

Make the brush size larger, preferably something between 900 and 1,000, making sure that the hardness is set to 0%, click to make a spot. Then reduce the brush size a bit and make another spot. Keep on making spots as you reduce the brush size. Now you’ve made your glow. 

Keep on creating glows – feel free to pick your own colour choices here. I’ve marked in blue where I created the glows.

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On the Layers panel, click the Adjustment Layer button and create a Curves adjustment layer. Modify the contrast curve to intensify the glows, and to reduce the flat look of our final creation. And you’re done.