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Lighting in Photo Manipulation (Part 1)


Lighting in photo manipulation p1 title postTo achieve a sense of realism in your photo manipulation work, understanding light and manipulating it to your needs is a fundamental skill. Much like the other visual mediums, a mastery of lighting will elevate your Photoshop work and make your illusions more tactile and believable. In this new series we will examine the basics of light and it’s effective use in photo manipulation.


Let there be light

Prior to the supreme masters of the High Renaissance, artistic pieces were rendered as flat dimensional planes, layered with artefacts but with no sense of depth. The premise of 3-dimensional space had gradually evolved, the use of light and shadows to create the illusion of depth have become integral to the creative process of the visual arts.

Natural media has had thousands of years to develop, and as Digital Artists it is essential to glean as much knowledge as we can from this vast pool of experience. As I write, I know there will be an inward groan from the ‘quick-fix crowd’, but I believe that assimilating the know-how of traditional forms is key to true artistry in photo manipulation.

Leonardo Da Vinci Light

The Lessons of Natural Media

When I started to really investigate the role of lighting in natural media, my work took a stratospheric jump. In the pursuit for info, I came across an awesome walkthrough by Arne Niklas Jansson which outlines all essentials of lighting in art: PSG Art Tutorial

This really is the greatest, user-friendly explanation I have found and I sincerely urge you to read the tutorial in it’s entirety. Here is an excerpt from the PSG Art tutorial:


Light stuff

There’s really just one kind of light. It bounces. You can only see the light (photon) if it enters your eye. Light does two important things when it hits a surface. First, a part of it is absorbed. This is how colors are made. A red apple reflects mostly red wavelengths, the rest are absorbed and turned into heat or something. That’s why black stuff get so hot in the sun. Anyways, the reflected light bounce away differently depending on the surface. If the surface is bumpy it will bounce away sort of randomly, like a tennis ball that hits rocky terrain. If the surface is smooth it will bounce away in a predictable path. A mirror is very smooth so the light comes back undistorted, so we can see our reflection.

Note that all surfaces have speculars, because speculars is just reflected light. It’s just more broken up/diluted on dull surfaces.

PSG Light Tutorial 1

Depending on where the eye/beholder is, it’ll see different light and different specular spots on a curved surface such as this. A puddle isn’t curved (other than the edges because of surface tension) so you’ll only get a shiny reflection from a certain point of view. Point speculars can only appear in an environment where there’s a point light source, like a sun, lightbulb or small window.

Outstanding stuff.


The Photoshop Transfer

Transferring all this great knowledge to Photoshop is the challenge we face – but that’s the fun part! Over the years I have developed, copied and found a number of useful photo manipulation lighting techniques which have helped me on my way.

I still see loads of great photo manipulation work and can’t get my head around how they done the lighting, but like you Im eager to keep pushing forward and figure these things out. For now, invest half hour in the PSG tutorial and get a feel for the concepts, in part 2 we’ll hit the ground running and apply these techniques in Photoshop.

Conzz 8-)


Image Credits: Leonardo Da Vinci, light rays – Studio-International // Light diagrams – PSG Art Tutorial


Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 1 – Overview

Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 2 – Shadows

Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 3 – Highlights

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11 Responses to “Lighting in Photo Manipulation (Part 1)”

  1. arke1 says:

    Great little article mate. Nothing really beats just studying photo reference and analyzing lighting in your day to day travels though.

  2. Kiren says:

    Lighting, for me at least, was always experimental. I’ve always studied photographs and even used a flood lamp to test out how light reflects or casts on certain objects. Great post man!

  3. Irene says:

    Observation is one of the greatest tools one can take into photoshop. Sweet article.

  4. wow very interesting tutorial!!!!!!

  5. Josh says:

    great tutorial. really enjoy the site

  6. Salemik says:

    The link to the “PSG art tutorial” seems to be broken Sir. It leads to a world of Yoga, rabbit food and other unnecessary hippy shizzle.

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