How to Add Light Rays in Lightroom

by May 12, 2023Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How to Add Light Rays in Adobe Lightroom

In many instances, the difference between a nice image and a dramatic photo, is the quality of light. One way we can add drama to an image when editing is by adding light rays or light beams. In this article, I’ll explain how you can add light rays to a photo using only the tools in Adobe Lightroom.

The image we will be using for this is a shot of the interior of Norwich Cathedral.

Starting image of Norwich Cathedral before adding a light ray

If you look at the windows at the top of the image, you can see that the light is coming from the right side. We’ll therefore add a light ray coming from the top right to the bottom left of this image.

Initial Adjustments

Before we get to creating our light rays, we first need to apply one additional adjustment to this image. This is simply to drag the Exposure slider over to the left, to darken the image. Don’t worry that this makes the image look very dark because we can correct that later. Working on a dark image makes it easier to see and shape the light ray when we add it.

You can see the darkened image below, together with adjustments applied in the Lightroom Basic panel.

Image after basic adjustments to darken it

Adding a Light Ray with the Radial Gradient

We are now ready to add our light ray to the photo. We will do this using Lightroom’s Radial Gradient selection.

To add the first Selection to an image, click the masking icon below the Histogram. This then displays a list of selection tools you can use, including the Radial Gradient.

adding the first Radial Gradient to the image in Lightroom

Click the Radial Gradient option to select it. When you do this, you will see the Masks panel appear to the top right of the image. This is where you will add further masks and selections as you continue editing.

Move the mouse pointer over the image and then click and drag to draw the Radial Gradient. You can see a screenshot of this below.

Drawing a Radial Gradient selection on the image

After drawing the Radial Gradient onto the image, you can release the mouse button.

You can now move the Radial Gradient into position by clicking and dragging its centre pin. It’s also possible to resize the Radial Gradient by clicking and dragging any of the drag handles. These are located on the outer edge of the gradient, at the top and bottom and left and right.

At the bottom of this illustration, you can also see a rotation handle on the edge of the gradient. When you click and drag this, the gradient rotates around the centre point. This allows you to position and angle the gradient so that it will appear to be a beam of light coming from the window. Here’s what it looks like once in position.

Radial Gradient when in position

When the Radial Gradient is in position, increase the Exposure slider (for the mask). This increases the brightness of the areas selected by the Radial Gradient, making a beam of light appear to come from the window.

Refining the Light Ray

The next step is to refine our light ray to make it appear more realistic. This involves adding an edge to the top and bottom of the light ray. To do this we will need to refine our mask using the Subtract option.

In the Masks panel, click the Subtract button. This displays a series of selection tools you can use. Click the Linear Gradient from this list.

removing an area of the Radial Gradient to create a light ray

After selecting the Linear Gradient option, you can click and drag with your mouse on the image to draw the gradient. As you draw the gradient, you will see that it removes part of the Radial Gradient (because we click the Subtract button) to produce an edge on the light beam.

Using the Linear Gradient to remove part of the Light Beam

Having moved the Linear Gradient into position, we can repeat this to add another edge to the top of the light beam.

As before, click the Subtract button in the mask panel. Then in the list of selection tools, click the Linear Gradient. You can now move your mouse pointer over the top part of the gradient before clicking and dragging to draw it. When you have a second edging position it will look like the image below.

Adding a second edge to the light ray with a second Linear Gradient

One benefit of combining selection tools like the Radial Gradient and Linear Gradient is that you can continue to refine them. Even though they are combined to create one mask, Adobe Lightroom keeps them as separate selections. You can therefore continue to modify each element to shape the light beam.

Refining the Window Light Area

At this point our light beam or light ray has a top and bottom edge to it. This however highlights the problem area around the window. If you look at the right edge of the window, you can see that the light beam now extends beyond this and appears to light the edge of the wall. We therefore need to remove that part of the Radial Gradient. The best way to do this is using the Brush Tool.

As before, click the Subtract button in the Masks panel. Then in the options choose the Brush Tool. You can now paint over the area using the Brush Tool to remove the unwanted light.

When you do this, it’s probably best to use a flow of around 50% and have a soft edge to your brush. This makes it easier to remove that area of the light ray without creating other problems.

You now have the basis of a light beam or light ray which you can modify further. To understand how and to correct some other problems that we see in this image, watch the following video.

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Although we’ve discussed how to create more dramatic images by adding light rays in this article, that’s not the only thing we can do. Another common technique in fine art photography is to create a dark sky image as explained in this article. This is where the image appears to have been taken at night, but certain areas are highlighted with light.

If you would like to know more about how to use the new Lightroom masking a selection tools, see my book “Mastering Selections & Masks in Lightroom Classic CC 2023”.

More Lightroom Tutorials

You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Lightroom Tutorials page.

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