Lightning Effects | Photoshop Tutorial

In this quick tutorial, I’ll show you how create realistic lightning in Photoshop.

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Our night-time scene starts with a rooftop layer, and a stormy sky layer, which I’ve used to replace the original sky using a mask.

First let’s place our basic lightning by going to File…Place and selecting our lightning file. It’s best to use a vector graphics file, but you can achieve more or less the same effect using free lightning brushes, which I’ll link to in the description.

After positioning my lighting, I notice there are a few extra areas of lightning that I don’t want. I hide these by selecting my lightning bolt with the Polygonal Lasso tool, and then pressing the mask button.

Then, because my lightning starts out as black, I clip an Invert adjustment layer to it to change it to white.

Now let’s begin making this lightning look more realistic. First I add some glow by going to Layer…Layer Style…Outer Glow. I set the color to light blue and then tweak the sliders until I’m happy with it. I don’t recommend using too much glow though, as subtle effects tend to look a little bit more realistic. Therefore I tone it down using the opacity slider.

It’s beginning to look OK already. But if you look closely, there’s a slightly pixelated quality to it. To fix this I go to Filter…Blur…Motion Blur. And then tweak the filter amount.

I’m also not happy with the intensity of the lighting. It should have a slightly over-exposed feel to it. I correct this by clipping a Levels adjustment layer to it, and moving the left slider almost all of the way to the right.

There’s still something missing though. The lightning should be lighting up the surrounding clouds. To create this effect, I clip an Exposure adjustment layer onto my sky layer and then raise the exposure. Next I select the adjustment layer’s mask, fill it with black by going to Edit…Fill…Black and then paint onto it with a soft white brush on a low flow setting. You’ll see this adds an awesome translucent quality to the clouds in the areas surrounding the lightning.

Now it’s time to work on the lightning impact site. I place an image of some welding sparks into my scene. Then I change the blending mode to screen to hide the black background. After positioning it over the bell I notice that, in this case, the background is actually slightly off-black – resulting in some color contamination. To fix this, I clip a Levels adjustment layer to it and move the center slider to the right to increase the contrast.

Now it’s time to add some extra light coming from the welding sparks. To do this I create a new layer, select the Gradient Tool and set it to Radial. I’ve set my gradient so it starts off yellow, cools into orange and then decays into transparency – just as a warm light would do in real life. I click and drag outwards from the impact site, to paint the gradient onto the empty layer. Once I’m done I set the blending mode to Overlay and tweak the opacity down.

At this point, I decide to add some extra lightning in the distant background. For the most part, I use the same technique as before. The only difference is, this time I slightly lowered the lightning layer’s opacity, so it looks further away. This adds to the sense of depth, and makes the scene look that much more dramatic.

That’s it for this tutorial. If you enjoyed it, please subscribe and hit the like button – and I’ll see you next time!

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