Photoshop tutorial: Create a city night scene with long-exposure effects

Create amazing long-exposure photography effects from humdrum images with these clever tricks.


In this tutorial, Photoshop guru Fabio Sasso demonstrates a straightforward way of transforming a scene from a straightforward daytime shot to a dynamic night-time urban landscape through clever use of blending modes, brushes and plenty of carefully applied Gaussian Blur.

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You’ll learn easy ways to fake lighting at night, and neat tricks with handling layers, including ways to apply effects to many layers at the same time, and ways to use layers to fine-tune the impact of other layers.

The key to photo-manipulation projects like this is to make lots and lots of small changes. As Sasso shows here, a series of painstaking tweaks creates a far more realistic end result than making two or three drastic changes.

Take your time – the end result will be worth it.


Adobe Illustrator
Adobe Photoshop

Time to complete

2 hours

Step 1


First, we’ll need a street scene that includes some sky, a car or two, street lights and some buildings. You can download the one I used for a small cost from iStockphoto here. Delete the sky from the image.

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Step 2


Now let’s add some adjustment layers. First, we’ll adjust the brightness and contrast: go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/Contrast. Set Brightness to -95 and Contrast to -1. Add another adjustment layer, and adjust the Hue/Saturation: set the Hue to 0, Saturation to -70, and Lightness to -30.

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Add a third adjustment layer and adjust the levels, setting the Input Values to 0; 0.79; 255. Create clipping masks for all the adjustment layers, group all the layers and rename the group, ‘City’.

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Step 3


Create a new layer on top of the ‘City’ group, and fill it with dark beige (I used colour reference #5b583f). Reduce the opacity to 25% and add set the Layer Style to Gradient Overlay. Use black and white for the colours and set the angle to 90º. Change the blend mode to Multiply.

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This layer is very important, as it will make all the lights visible. If you want the lights to be more visible later on, increase the opacity of this layer.

Step 4


In the Layers palette, create a new folder and name it ‘Lights’. Create a new layer inside this folder. Use a very soft brush (0% Hardness, 70% Opacity), paint in some white lights, using this photo for reference.

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Step 5


Grab the Pen tool (P), select the Shape Layers option and create a white triangle from one of the street light poles. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, setting the radius to 75 pixels. Repeat this for every street light, then change the blending mode of the ‘Lights’ folder to Color Dodge.

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Step 6


Repeat the previous step, adding more layers and lights. Ensure that any layers you add with lights go inside the ‘Lights’ folder – otherwise the lighting effect won’t work, as the blend mode won’t be Color Dodge.

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Experiment with using yellow and red for some lights such as traffic lights and windows, and use the Gaussian Blur to add some fog to the scene.

Step 7


Now we’ll create the light from the windows on the right-hand building. In the Layer Styles palette, select Color Overlay and choose a dark, murky yellow.

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From the original image, select the windows we’ll be illuminating, then copy and paste them into a new layer. Set a Gaussian Blur to a radius of five pixels. Duplicate this layer, and set another Gaussian Blur, this time with a radius of 150 pixels. Move both of these layers to the ‘Lights’ folder, where the blend mode will make the lights start shining.

Step 8


To create the windows of the left-hand side building, use the Pen tool to create Shape Layers in white. Next, select all the windows layers and merge them (Layer > Merge Layers), rename the layer ‘Windows’ and set an eight-pixel Gaussian Blur.

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Step 9


Duplicate the ‘Windows’ layer and give it a Gaussian Blur with a radius of 25 pixels.

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Illuminate any other windows using the same technique. Remember to duplicate the layers and add more blur on the duplicated layer, as this will make the lights brighter.

Step 10


Move the windows layers to the Lights folder to give them the same Color Dodge blend mode – this will make them behave like real light.

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Step 11


We’ll create the light beams from the cars in Illustrator, as it offers the easiest way to get the perspective we need. Create a new document in Illustrator, and use the Ellipse tool (L) to draw two circles, a small one and another far bigger one. Click on the Blend tool (W) and select the smaller circle, then the bigger – this will apply the blending effect. To edit this, double-click on the Blend tool icon to open the dialog box, then change the Spacing to Specified Step, and set it to 0.05in. Create two more blends.

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Step 12


Copy and paste each blend into Photoshop, positioning them as shown here. Add some Gaussian Blur, with a radius of about five pixels, to each one. For the one on the right, add a layer style and tick Color Overlay, setting the colour to red, with an opacity of 7%. Group the three layers, and rename the folder as ‘Cars’. Change the folder’s blend mode to Color Dodge, then change the opacity of the layers within the ‘Cars’ folder to 90%.

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Step 13


Add a sky – you can do this using the technique from my sci-fi poster tutorial. You can also add in a moon – I downloaded the moon I’ve used from here. The trick is to reduce the saturation and brightness (Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation) and then change the layer’s blend mode to Screen.

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Step 14


Add in more lights, billboards or other urban landscape elements. Remember to place the layers of any elements you want to be illuminated in the ‘Lights’ folder.

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Step 15


Group all the layers and duplicate the group. Go to Layer > Merge Group. Change the merged layer to Color Dodge and reduce the opacity to 30% that will increase the intensity of the lights. You can adjust the lights if you want them to be brighter or darker just changing the opacity of this layer.

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