How to Add Light to an Image in Photoshop

by Sep 10, 2020Photo Editing Tutorials

Robin Whalley Landscape Photographer

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How to Add Light to an Image in Photoshop

In this tutorial, we look at how to add light in Photoshop. To illustrate the lighting effect, we will be using a landscape photo, but you can apply the same techniques to any photo. You can use these same principles in all kinds of ways from lighting a lightbulb to casting directional light where there wasn’t any. The best advice is to learn the techniques and then experiment with adding types of light effects to different photos.

Here is a simple example using the technique in this tutorial to add a new light source to the top left of the image. The image on the left is the starting point while the image on the right shows additional side light. Notice how natural this appears.

Before and after adding a light in Photoshop

Creating the Components of Light

To add light in Photoshop, we need to introduce and control three elements:

  1. Brightness or luminosity to lighten the area where we want to pain the light.
  2. Blur or diffusion to create the glowing effect of the light we are painting.
  3. Colour and saturation if it’s necessary to introduce colour to the glowing light.

There are lots of ways we add elements in Photoshop but one of the easiest to start with is the Photoshop Camera Raw Filter. You may also hear this referred to as ACR or Adobe Camera RAW.

Using the Photoshop Camera Raw Filter to Add Light

Before we can use the Camera Raw filter in Photoshop to add our light effect, we need a duplicate layer to apply the effect. We can then convert the layer to a Smart Object, allowing us to use a Smart Filter which makes it a non-destructive edit. It may sound complicated but it’s really easy. If you haven’t done this before I’ve produced a beginners guide to Smart Objects and how to use them.

If the image you’re working on only has a single background layer, then you can duplicate it. Do this in the Photoshop Layers window, by clicking the layer to select it. You can then right-click on the layer with your mouse and select “Duplicate Layer…” from the popup menu. Alternatively, use the keyboard shortcut “Cmd + J” on a Mac or “Ctrl + J” on a PC.

Next, we convert the new layer to a Smart Objet which allows us to use Smart Filters. The benefit of using Smart Filters in Photoshop is that they will retain your adjustments so you can change them in the future. Photoshop applies regular filters directly to the pixel in the image, preventing you from adjusting the filter later. You can learn more about Smart Filters in this tutorials.

To convert the layer, select it by clicking it in the Photoshop Layers window. Then in the Photoshop “Filter” menu select the option “Convert for Smart Filters”. If you see an information dialog displayed click “OK” to continue. After a few seconds delay, you will see an icon appear to the bottom right of the layer thumbnail. This indicates the layer is ready to use Smart Filters.

New Layer converted to use smart filters in Photoshop

Adding the Light Source in Photoshop Camera RAW

We now need to open Photoshop Camera Raw filter on the new layer to add the light.

Select the layer in the Photoshop Layers window if it’s not already selected. Then in the Photoshop “Filters” menu select the “Camera Raw Filter…” option. You will then see the Camera Raw filter dialog as shown here.

Drawing the light source in Photoshop Camera Raw filter

In the Camera Raw filter select the Radial Gradient option on the right side of the interface (1). You then use this to draw a selection on the image. This is the area that will become the light source (2).

To help you see the area covered by the light you are adding, it’s helpful to turn on the Mask Option (3). This covers the unselected area with a coloured overlay. If you find the selection is the opposite to what you want, click the “Invert” option.

Finally, you can refine the selection using the “Feather” slider (4). This helps to blend the selection across the image for a natural appearance.

When you’re happy with the selection, untick the “Mask Options” to hide the coloured mask.

Adding the Light Effect with the Camera Raw Adjustments

Remember the three components of the glowing light effect we discussed at the start of the tutorial. It’s now time to apply these using the controls of the Camera Raw filter:

  1. For the Brightness element, increase the Exposure and Contrast sliders. If this causes problems with the highlights becoming too bright, try reducing the Highlights or Whites slider.
  2. To create the glowing or soft diffused effect, use the Clarity and Dehaze sliders. Moving these to negative values can soften the image as well as lighten the area further.
  3. To add the colour to the area, you could use the Temperature and Tint sliders.

Here’s a screenshot of the adjustments I applied to add the light.

Light effect adjustments in Photoshop Camera Raw

Another way to add colour to the light is the “Color” overlay you will find at the bottom of the Radial filter controls. This is more flexible than using the Temperature and Tint sliders as you can pick any colour.

Scroll down to the bottom of the Radial Filter controls in Camera Raw and you will find the “Color” option. Click the icon to open a colour picker tool where you can select the colour to use.

Selecting a colour to use for the lighting effect

When you select a colour, you will see it applied to the selected area and it also appears as a swatch in the “Color” section. When you are happy with the colour and level of saturation, click the OK button to close the picker.

You can then click OK to close the Camera Raw filter and return to Photoshop.

Refining the Light Effect

Sometimes you will find you return to Photoshop and feel you need to refine the adjustments further. Because we converted our lighting effect layer for use with Smart Filters, we can reopen the Camera Raw filter. You can do this by double clicking the “Camera Raw Filter” in the Photoshop Layers window. You will find it under the new layer you created. This opens the filter again and you will see the adjustments you previously applied.

Another useful option when adding a light effect is to use the Luminosity Range Mask with the Radial Filter. You can use this to prevent Photoshop from applying the effect to the shadow areas. This could create a more natural effect with some images.

A third and much more powerful option is to use Luminosity Masks to control where the effect is visible. You can do this by painting on a layer mask through a Luminosity Selection. Luminosity Masks can be quite complex to create but there’s a free Photoshop Extension that removes a lot of the effort. I’ve explained everything in my easy Luminosity Masking tutorial.

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Summary of How to Add Light to an Image in Photoshop

In this tutorial we’ve looked at how to add light in Photoshop using the Camera Raw filter. Whilst the example used a landscape photo, you can use the same approach with any image. It’s also possible to create different types of light effect using this technique. Just remember the three components of the effect that you need to add and control:

  1. Luminosity or brightness.
  2. Blur and diffusion.
  3. Colour and saturation.

By thinking in this way, it becomes easier to add light in Photoshop. You can then use techniques like masking to further refine the effect.

More Photoshop Tutorials

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

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