Get updates by email for exclusive video tutorials, stock resources and more - for free!

Tutorial Index

Would you like to learn the art of photo manipulation, but don't know where to start? Check out our Tutorial Index, which lists all articles in order from Beginner to Advanced:

SurrealPSD Tutorial Index

Highlights in Photo Manipulation


Highlights in Photo Manipulation Title PostPhoto Manipulation is unique in the fact that you can combine the surreal concepts of fine-art with the clarity of photo-realism. Once you have a basic understanding of Photoshop, you will find that your focus shifts to more artistic pursuits such as producing lighting effects and environments. Serious stuff, but very much the core of the visual arts! Collected in this article are a few observations and techniques, looking at highlights in photo manip.


The Saga Continues..

This guide is a continuation of our Lighting series, so you may want to check out the previous installments:

>> Lighting in Photo Manipulation (Part 1 – The Theory)

>> Lighting in Photo Manipulation (Part 2 – Shadows)

>> Lighting in Photo Manipulation (Part 3 – Highlights)


The Good and the Great..

We like to squawk about lighting at any given opportunity; that’s because the best practitioners in photo manip (..and the visual arts in general) are masters of manipulating the light. Light injects drama, ambience and a sense of realism into a piece and can really elevate any type of work. Some may argue that abstract work may bypass lighting considerations, but the serious artists in that field also display a firm grasp of the concepts.

A lot of talk, but let’s see it in action.. Heres a ‘work in progress‘ – not a great deal has been done; some colour processing, background removal, and of course simple lighting. To illustrate the dramatic impact that lighting can provide, here’s a before and after – showing the image with and without lighting effects:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 1

Stock image by Reine-Haru (DeviantArt)

As you can see pic two is starting to feel like an art-piece – there’s something strange going on in this scene, the ambience adding a sense of mood. Pic one, although strong in it’s own right, is more of a digital snapshot with some simple processing.


Brass Tacks

When taking my creative practice further, I often look at the work of photo manip masters to try and figure out how they achieved their aesthetic. Here’s a piece I have marvelled over since I first saw it; Day Watch poster by Pavel Lagutin. Aside from the flawless compositing and digital painting on display here, there’s a seriously enviable execution of light in this scene:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 2

The first major consideration when dealing with light in your own work, is identifying where your light source is. In many cases there will be more than one, so you have to judge the intensity of each source. In the above image, the most prominent light is cast by the light tube on the Wraith’s back, however the flames from the hand even casts a slight orange hue on the arm of the jacket and the leather trousers.

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 3

Upon closer inspection you can see that it is the edges that catches the highest intensity of cast light, which then dissipates as it goes further from the source. I think in this example piece there may have been a lighting source captured ‘in-camera’, however these conditions can be replicated in Photoshop.


Doing It..

Transferring this knowledge to Photoshop can be challenging at times; Im still in the process of refining these techniques myself! The execution is very simple, however developing the visual awareness to understand when and where to apply highlights is the tricky part. With practice, these things work themselves out 8-)

Here’s a boring old apple with a strong light source to the left:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 4

The idea here is to add a bit more prominence to the side of the apple that faces the light. Hardly groundbreaking stuff, but these little considerations build up to a more refined piece. Ctrl / Cmd + click the layer icon of your object to create a selection:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 5

The first method is to create a new layer above your object, use a small Soft Edged Brush (B) set to white and paint in the highlights. Keeping the layer mode set to Normal keeps the highlight at maximum intensity. It is recommended that this technique is reserved for the most striking highlights and used with subtlety:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 6

Another technique that produces more subdued results is to do the same as above, but changing the highlights layer mode to Overlay. With this approach, you can often get away with using wider brushes and be more liberal in the application:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 7

At times you may be working with a specific colour palette in your piece, so you may want to substitute white for a light tone sampled from the image. Many scenarios are different, so experimentation with Soft Light and Overlay modes for your highlights can yield better results. Here the apple scene has gotten a little cooler, everything has a blue hue – in this case a light blue (see swatch) was used as the highlight colour, and the layer mode was set to Soft Light:

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 8

When lighting becomes more extreme / dramatic, you will often have to exaggerate the shadows to keep things coherent (but not always). The example piece needed a bit more punch in the shadow, so I created a Levels Adjustment Layer above the apple. Using the layer mask, I selectively painted in the shadow using a large Soft-Edged Brush (B):

Highlights in Photo Manipulation 9

You may find that layer modes such as Screen, Linear / Color Dodge and other ‘light’ layer modes may be more suited to particular scenarios; so please don’t feel restricted to the above!



A few simple observations and techniques that may help in your lighting endeavours. As ever, looking closely at great work helps to refine visual awareness and an understanding of how others deal with the physics of light. Please feel free to share your own tips in the comment section below – we’ve been getting some great comments recently.

Conzz 8-)

Follow on Twitter >> @Conzpiracy

Enjoyed the article? Give us a shoutout!

8 Responses to “Highlights in Photo Manipulation”

  1. Kiren says:

    Great addition man! You should think about releasing a book sometime in the future :)

  2. seff01 says:

    Hi, great article as usual!
    One technique i have seen when watching the top secret tutorials is as follows:
    Firstly decide where you think light will be reflected on your subject, then select quick mask mode and paint where you think the light will fall, switch back to normal mode and inverse the selection (this will create a selection of where you have painted).
    Next, create a colour balance adjustment layer and move the sliders to the same tone of colour that represents the color of the light that is shining on the subject; work your way through the shadows, highlights and midtones until desired colour is attained.
    Have you tried or seen this technique? im still on a steep learning curve so alternative suggestions will be met with much gratitude!

  3. robin says:

    thank you for the great tutorials helping me to understand light. I especially appreciate being encouraged to understand the ‘nature’ of light rather than just being given settings to copy. That being said however i would like to better understand how you created the color changes and lighting on the example of the woman at the top. i downloaded the original file that you used and have tried working on it but I’ve worked on it so long now that i am finding myself more confused than enlightened. the lighting on the original had that strong tungston cast which i was able to neutralize fairly well but from there i have lost my way. it makes me realize that i need as much work understanding color theory as i do light theory. if you could direct me to another tutorial that wold help me understand color theory as straight forward as your lighting tutorials that would be appreciated. if you would tell me what type adjustments led you to the above changes on your example i would love that too. color balance? gradients? curves? gradient map? all of the above? thanks again for the tutorials they are very well done.

  4. robin says:

    ps. i wanted to add this on to my comment above. i have read your ambient color tutorial which is very helpful as far as giving the different options for color adjustment. i realize the gap for me lies in learning far more about color theory. The experimenting method i’m using is just not working well without more basic knowledge. thanks!

    • conzpiracy says:

      Hey Robin. I was going to email you with the link for the ambient colour tutorial, Im glad you sought it out. Im learning something new about lighting everyday – so I look forward to posting more articles in this vein, in the near future.

      Appreciate your comments :)

Leave a Reply