Photoshop tutorial: Balance lighting perfectly when compositing elements

Erik Herrström offers a step-by-step guide to adding shadows and uniform lighting to a scene conjured up in deep space

Intro


Though compositing images together is a commonplace task, doing it right when there are a lot of objects to assemble is always tricky, especially when they are all lit differently.

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Erik Herrström says there is a way to succeed. By colourising everything to the same colour temperature and contrast, you can make it look as if all the elements came from the same shoot.

Here he shows you how to add different lighting effects in Photoshop using brushes, the Lasso tool and adjustment layers. The goal is to create an image with a deep blue/magenta cast, in keeping with the cold outer-space backdrop. You will also learn to add simple shadows. Finally Eric shows how to use adjustment layers and filters to get the look you want.

To follow the tutorial directly, you will need Erik’s head shot of a clown from the project files, plus extra circus-themed images and photos of spotlights (to tie in with some of the lighting effects).

Time to complete

6-7 hours

Software

Photoshop

Project Files

The files for this tutorial are downloadable from here.

Step 1

STEP 1

Create an A4 portrait document in Photoshop and add a black background with the Paint Bucket tool (G).

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Mark the centre of the image using guides. Go to the Gradient tool (G) and create a transition between a light blue (I used #3399ff) and black. Then drag a radial gradient from the centre of the canvas. Change this layer’s opacity to 35%.


Step 2

STEP 2

Roughly sketch out the piece you want to create, then look for elements to use in your poster (try stock sites in addition to your own image library). Mask out your elements if necessary and place them in different layers in the composition. Scale and place them to match to your sketch.

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Step 3

STEP 3

We’ll need to add shadows to the objects in the composition. To do this for any particular element, Cmd/Ctrl + click on the layer thumbnail of the element to select the element. Create a new layer and fill the selection with black using the Paint Bucket tool. Then move the layer beneath the original element’s layer and use Edit > Free Transform (Cmd/Ctrl + T) to shape, size and position your shadow. Reduce its opacity to 85%.

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Repeat this for all elements except the main clown’s head.


Step 4

STEP 4

As a first step towards the cold feel that we want, add a Gradient Map adjustment layer at the top of the layer stack. Select the black to white gradient in the Adjustments panel.

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To get the level of contrast I wanted, I duplicated the Gradient Map adjustment layer and adjusted the opacity of the new layer as I saw fit.


Step 5

STEP 5

Now add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer above the Gradient Map adjustment layer. Check the Colorize tickbox, then set the Hue to 225 and the Saturation to 50 to give a blue/purple tinge.

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Step 6

STEP 6

This gives us a good sense of the overall composition and whether it needs more elements. I chose to added a few more details – some spotlights on the ‘ground’ and make-up on the clown’s face, for example. Ensure you add some spotlights or other lighting devices as they will play a role in steps 8 to 10.

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Step 7

STEP 7

To get an even better match between the objects, adjust the Curves on each. As before, to select the element to work on, Cmd/Ctrl + click on the layer thumbnail of its layer. Then add a Curves adjustment layer. Here you have to adjust every object until it simply looks right in the context of the other objects.

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Step 8

STEP 8

Add light beams to the spotlights by creating a new layer beneath the Spotlight layer, then making a selection with the Polygonal Lasso tool (L) where you want the beam to shine (from the spotlight up into the air). Fill the selection with white using the Paint Bucket tool.

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Step 9

STEP 9

Use a Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) to make the beam edges a lot smoother. Set the radius to 25 pixels, press OK, and set the layer opacity to 10%.

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Step 10

STEP 10

To make the light beam fade out, use the Eraser tool (E) in brush mode – make the brush large (1100px) and smooth (Hardness 0), and set the brush’s opacity to 50%. Apply it at the end of the beam furthest from the spotlight. Repeat steps 8 to 10 for all the lights you added.

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Step 11

STEP 11

Now we’ll create a background light effect. Make a new layer beneath the object furthest down in the layer stack. Paint with a large (1300px) and smooth (Hardness 0) white brush outwards from where the effect will be centred – for me, it’s where the clown’s forehead ends.

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Step 12

STEP 12

We’ll also do a magenta background light effect by adding a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer at the top of the layer stack. In the Adjustments panel, choose a colour that is equivalent what you’re striving for (I set Hue to 110 and Saturation to 75).

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Step 13

STEP 13

Select this new adjustment layer’s layer mask thumbnail and fill it with black using the Paint Bucket tool. Add white to the layer mask to select the area to modify. Do this with the Brush tool and select elements as in Step 3.

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Step 14

STEP 14

Here I felt the lighting needed to be more hazy, so I repeated Step 11 a few times to add a succession of white light effects just on top of the background light effect we added there.

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Step 15

STEP 15

Boost the contrast by adding an Exposure adjustment layer as the top layer with the exposure at 0.9. Then do the same with the layer mask as in Step 13, but this time just apply the white brush in the centre of the background light effect. This is to add even more ‘energy’.

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Step 16

STEP 16

To finish the piece, I added ‘stars’ (painted), meteorites (images of rocks) and planets (stock photos) just on top of the background layer. I also added motion effects to the acrobats and the person being fired from the cannon using Filter > Motion Blur) mixed with stars.

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About the artist: Erik Herrström

STEP 17

Erik Herrström is a Swedish designer with passion for digital art and graphic design, and has been working in these areas since he was a teenager. Now 23, he is studying digital media at Hyper Island and will graduate in mid-2012. His clients have included Vogue and GQ in the UK.

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Contact

erikherrstrom.com

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