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Creative Lighting Effects with Adobe Photoshop CS6


  1. Lighting Effects UI
  2. Creating and Placing Lights
  3. Conclusion

Article Description

Lighting Effects has been around a long time, but the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop CS6 is essentially a brand new feature in the sense that it has been completely remade. This article provides a general overview of the filter (including its new interface), and demonstrates how you can use Lighting Effects to dramatically impact the composition or look of your photographs.

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Creating and Placing Lights

Creating and Placing Lights

When you first open Lighting Effects, you are presented with a single Spot Light and no Material settings, the net effect of which is you have a black image with a small portion of your pixels illuminated. To get started with this example I want to modify and place a Spot Light near the glowing cloud structures in the top-left portion of the photo.

Let’s take a look at how the Spot Light widget on the document preview can be used to move and transform our virtual lights. First notice there is an outer oval with four handles located along its periphery and one handle in the middle (Figure 6). You can move the Spot Light (keeping the shape intact) by clicking and dragging inside the oval itself. You can use any of the four outer handles to rotate the oval or change its shape. As you change the shape, the Hotspot shape also changes.

Figure 6: Click and drag inside the light oval to move it. Use the handles to change its shape and the size and shape of the Hotspot.

For this example I first rotated the oval so that the Hotspot was inverted (at the bottom of the oval) and then stretched it out so that it threw a longer light across the image (Figure 7).

Figure 7: You can use a Spot Light to accentuate an area of interest in your photograph.

Next, I needed to reintroduce some ambient light to the scene without making it as bright as the original. The idea here is that I wanted the factory in the background and the other details to be more like silhouettes than visible objects with details that you can see. The easiest way to do this is to add Ambience (or ambient light) to the scene. This is accomplished using the Ambience control near the bottom of the Properties panel. In this case, I boosted the value to 65.

This gave me the general effect I wanted, but it also over-brightened the Hotspot in my Spot Light. In other words, Ambience will combine with the Intensity value of the lights that you have in the scene, thereby increasing their brightness or intensity.(Figure 8). Note that Intensity can be controlled directly by moving the Intensity slider in the Properties panel or by clicking and dragging on the white segment (looks like a black circle with a portion that is white) inside each light.

Figure 8: Adding Ambience to your scene is a good way to precisely control background brightness, but it can also increase the Brightness of your lights.

A good way to deal with over-cooked Hotspots is to reduce the Material Exposure. This tends to have the effect of pulling back the highlights without further darkening the Ambience or other areas of your Spot Light. If you reduce the Intensity, I find that this can reduce the “reach” of a Spot Light as well, not just the brightness inside the HotSpot. That was the opposite of what I wanted here, since the idea was to brighten up the torch-like structure in the clouds.

I reduced the Exposure value to -33, and then nudged the entire Spot Light upward so that the bright area coincides with the bottom of the brightest portion of the cloud formation. This creates a more natural looking result than the “bright halo” seen in Figure 8. I also narrowed the Spot Light slightly (Figure 9).

Figure 9: You can use negative Exposure values for the Material in order to recover lost highlights from the combination of Ambience and Spot Light Intensity.

Next I wanted to add some warmth to the cloud formation. To change the Color of a light, click the Color widget (located to the left of the Intensity value). This will open a standard Photoshop color dialog. Here I chose a light orange color to match what we’d expect from a sunset and to contrast with the blue-gray surroundings (Figure 10). Note that if you use a brighter or darker color, that will tend to make the light itself brighter or darker. As in the real world, all light sources and colors interact and combine.

Figure 10: Changing the Color value of your Spot Lights can create a more interesting lighting effect.

Once I had the result I wanted for the “cloud torch” area, I needed to selectively brighten certain regions near the top of the frame to add an element of realism. The torch area would not be as bright as it is without some other nearby, thinner cloud formations also being brighter. To accomplish this I needed a Point Light. I clicked the Point Light button in the Options Bar and then placed it in the general area I wanted to brighten, before tweaking the settings (Figure 11).

Figure 11: Point Lights are a great way to brighten portions of your image to match with other environmental cues. Here the initial light is shown at the default size and settings.

To increase or reduce the diameter of a Point Light, move your cursor over the green circle until it turns yellow, then click and drag (inward to decrease, outward to increase). Again there is an Intensity control located inside the Point Light, just as there is in a Spot Light. For this situation I wanted a much smaller light and a lower Intensity value with a blue-grey color (Figure 12).

Figure 12: The addition of small Point Lights can help to illuminate specific regions of the image without the Hotspot or intensity of a Spot Light.

The last step is to add one more (very small) Point Light, near the factory at the bottom of the frame. This will create a small “hot spot” that was there in the original series of exposures, but which has been muted by the lower ambient light of the filter. For this light I added a warmer color. This also lit up the bottom edge of the clouds slightly (Figure 13).

Figure 13: The final lighting effect, before it is applied to the Smart Object layer.

To put the finishing touches on many images, you may have to do a bit of extra work back in “regular” Photoshop mode. In this case, I needed to retouch some of the cloud areas to the left of my Spot Light, as the “cone” it creates is visible and unnatural looking (Figure 14).

Figure 14: Some visual cues that a lighting filter was used remain, and may need to be cleaned up with minor retouching edits afterward.

The easiest way to remedy this situation was to use the Burn tool in Protect Tones mode. I set the Range to Shadows, the Exposure value below 10, and then brushed a few strokes over the “light cone” area to the left of the main cloud formation. I also used the Spot Healing Brush in Content-Aware mode to soften some of the distracting elements in the clouds and throughout the shot. The retouched shot is shown in Figure 15.

Figure 15: When used in tandem with Photoshop’s powerful retouching tools, the Lighting Effects filter offers a lot of creative possibility!

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