Painting with Light Tutorial

I saw this pic online and thought, “What a good-looking guy,” and then I realized he might be a nice example for our tut. Here he is, straight off the internet. 1 (1)

He looks okay, but we’re going to make him look better. First, duplicate layer; never work on the original in case you screw up and need to start over. Leaving the original layer alone also gives you a point of comparison to see how you’re doing. 

First thing we do is adjust contrast, meaning lights and darks. Ctrl+M in PS brings up curves. As you can see, we got rid of the muddiness in the photo.

After curves

Next, I run it through Topaz, a plugin filter, and choose “Clarity” which bumps the contrast a bit more and does some of the light painting for me. If you don’t have Topaz and don’t want to get it, no problem. He’ll look almost as great by simply adjusting curves, as noted above.

I like the highlights on his face, but if you don’t, you can tone them down later, using the black brush for lowlights.

After Topaz Clarity

Looking good! Now for some final touches to highlight the parts of the photo we want the viewer to notice first.

We want to add an additional layer, but in a particular way. In the layers window on the right, click on the small icon all the way to the right in the top line. It’s a bunch of short lines with a downward-pointing arrow to its left. Alternately, press Shift+Crl+N. Choose “New Layer.” Then plug in the settings I show below.

Extra Layer with Gray

If you want a more subtle effect, you can choose blending mode of “soft light” or go to even more extreme by clicking on “hard light.”

You will now see a layer filled with gray above your second layer. This is where the fun happens, and keep in mind, anything you do here is non-destructive. Delete the layer and your picture is unaltered.

Change to the brush tool. Change to default colors of black and white; reverse so white is on top. Dial back the opacity of your brush to 3 (or 4 or 5; use what works for you) and make sure it’s set to maximum softness.

Brush settings

Making sure your gray layer is highlighted, brush a stroke or two across his hair in the direction it grows. Choose the section above his forehead. Notice how it lightens where you paint? The effect is subtle, and you can build it with additional strokes.

Try to hit areas already highlighted to brighten them. Keep it natural looking. While I was at it, I made my brush the exact size of his eyes and lightened them a little too.


Hit anything else you want to highlight with the white brush, then switch to black to do lowlights. This is where you’ll tone down his face shine if you choose to. Make your brush very large and use it sparingly. I left them alone.

I’ll darken the eyelashes a bit but otherwise, he’s in pretty good shape. Remember, if you go too far, simply reverse brush color to white and lighten again.

His eyes are pretty, but look a little washed out. When I zoom in, I can tell they’re green, so making sure I’m on the picture layer (not the gray layer), I select the eyes and adjust hue (Ctrl+M). I’m famous for saturated colors, but in this case, I left that slider alone. It wasn’t necessary. You want your work to look natural.

green eyes

Wow, he’s cute. I think I’m in love. 🙂

Continue to play with the photo until you deem it finished, then merge all layers.

Last step is always to remove noise, but as this is a 72 dpi pic from online, removing too much “noise” will make him look weird and smooth his skin in unacceptable ways. I ran it through the filter at the lightest possible setting. I use Topaz DeNoise.

And here’s the finished portrait.


And to show you just how much change we effected in only a few minutes, here’s a before/after.

Before After

Easy, right? And a lot of fun. Now his eyes are the focus of the photo, as they should be.


About Fenraven

Fenraven happily lives in south Florida, where it is really hot most of the year. Find him on Twitter, Google +, and Facebook by searching on 'fenraven'.
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17 Responses to Painting with Light Tutorial

  1. W. Lotus says:

    I love painting with light in software. Back when I first began making photos I thought that was cheating, until an instructor said all of the things you do above can and are done in a darkroom when processing film. “If it can be done in a darkroom, it isn’t cheating to do it in software,” was his mantra. I always remembered that.

    Yesterday I made a couple of nice street photography portraits I am going to play with today. Your post has given me ideas. Thanks!

    • You’re welcome. 🙂 I have a friend that insists post-processing in PS is wrong, but your instructor is correct. Everything we do in PS is merely what was laboriously done in the darkroom. So much easier and faster today, and no stinky chemicals to deal with.

  2. Ka says:

    Wow, thanks for that 🙂 x

  3. Helena Stone says:

    Wow, I’m completely impressed. I know you explain it all very clearly and you do make it sound easy but I’m sure this is one of those things that would end with me throwing my computer at the wall should I ever try it. So I guess I should be grateful it is not where my interests lie right now. Of course I said the same thing about writing less than 6 months ago…

    • The tutorial does assume basic knowledge of PS, but this is pretty easy. I bet you could do it, no problem.

      • Helena Stone says:

        LOL, I adore you for the vote of confidence but I doubt it. I purchased Scrivener a while ago, turned on the tutorial and decided that no, it was way more than my technology challenged brain could deal with. Word is still my best friend.

  4. Brandilyn says:

    Thanks for this. I will be revisiting it when I get home.

  5. Jinai says:

    You make that look so easy! Wow, what a difference. When I had Photoshop it seemed overwhelming but fun to explore. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  6. diannegray says:

    Woah! I think I’m in love 😀

  7. Patricia says:

    This was intriguing but I’m old school and need more nudging to try this. I recall being taught old fashioned black and white film developing in a makeshift darkroom by my dad. But you did make it sound very easy.

    • Even if you skip the rest, at least adjust the contrast. There is an immediate difference in many photos. People continue to think pics straight off the camera are okay, but obviously, they aren’t. Camera sensors are getting better all the time, but they aren’t there yet.

  8. valjo44 says:

    Even though I pretty much use my iPhone to take pictures 🙂 this was really educational and the way you did it was easy to follow, much better then the class I tried (and dropped). So, even though I probably will never use PS I would really enjoy seeing this again…..maybe every once in a while you could do another “class”. (And the subject matter was definitely a plus 🙂 especially the eyes, before and after!)

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