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Movie Poster Lighting in Photoshop


movie poster lighting photoshop tutorial title postMovie Posters can be highly emotive examples of Photoshop compositing and design. There are a broad range of techniques used to grab a viewers attention and deliver maximum impact. These approaches can be used to produce photo manipulation work with a higher sense of drama and urgency, most notably the use of backlighting and vignetting. In this tutorial we’ll be looking at a couple of simple lighting techniques to make your foreground elements pack serious punch.


The Theory

In a sense, we ‘read’ any image we view – locking onto the primary focal points first and then the supporting information. Some form of differentiation between background and foreground elements helps to produce a sense of hierachy, and in turn a more visually appealing composite. Movie posters utilise these techniques all the time, particularly the use of ‘backlighting’ – which pushes the foreground element(s) forward. Aside from backlighting, vignetting can also be used to ‘shape’ the light and draw the focus to the central elements.

Check out the infogram ‘The Psychology Behind Movie Poster Design’ by JD Rucker to learn more of the techniques used in this awesome artform.


Shaping the Light

When starting out, beginners often neglect the use of lighting when producing composite work in Photoshop. As a result, the work can often seem ‘flat’, one dimensional or difficult to discern whats happening in complex pieces. Fortunately, the techniques to get started with light shaping are pretty straightforward!

In the example piece we have a foreground element (the mannequin) on it’s own layer, in front of a fairly complex background. The mannequin was extracted from it’s original background using the Pen Tool. The piece works ok, but it’s definitely lacking in drama and intensity! To the right you can see roughly 10 minutes worth of Photoshop work – adding focal prominence and seperating the elements, making the image more pleasing and easier to ‘read’:

movie poster lighting photoshop tutorial 1



Start with a composite that contains a background and at least one foreground element; this technique works particularly well with figurative pieces. Create a new layer underneath your foreground element and use a very large Soft Edged Brush (B) apply the backlight, using the colour of your choice. As opposed to ‘painting’ in the backlight, you may want to just click a few times in the areas where you want it to be applied.

Another process that works pretty well is to create a selection based on your foreground element (Ctrl/Cmd + click the layer icon), and fill it with white on a new layer below. Apply a Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur) and use a value that gives the desired ‘spread’ – this will produce a uniform haze around the outside of your object. Like an ‘Outer Glow’ effect, but way more versatile ;)

Movie Poster Lighting Photoshop Tutorial 2


Backlighting Tweaks

Tweaking the opacity of your backlight layers is highly advised, as well as experimentation with different colours. As the example piece is using muted tones, pure white was used (#ffffff) – however in your version try using bright variants of existing colours in your scene.

Aside from the points above, different layer modes can often be useful for achieving different qualities of light – Overlay usually works well in a wide range of circumstances. Try duplicating your layers, and mix different layer modes to achieve the level of intensity you desire. Here is the layer breakdown used in the example piece, with layer opacity and blend modes:

Movie Poster Lighting Photoshop Tutorial 3

In the example, both techniques (brush technique and the ‘outer glow’) were used to create the backlight using multiple layers.



There’s always a good excuse for bringing in ‘vignetting’, and Im guilty of utilising this technique all the time! To the unititiated, vignetting is the reduction of brightness at the corners of an image, bringing focus toward the centre. Often employed by Photographers to add a sense of mood to their images, vignetting also has a place in the world of digital art and compositing.

There are tonnes of ways to implement vignetting in Photoshop – here’s the method used in the example, and a personal favourite of mine. Add a new layer above your lighting, and set the mode to Multiply. Sample a dark tone from your background using the Eyedropper Tool (I), select a large Soft Edged Brush (B) – and literally paint in the corners until you achieve the desired effect. When working with large brushes, it’s worth zooming out a fair amount (Ctrl/Cmd -) to give you the space to work.

Here’s a before and after, showing the emphasis that vignetting brings to the composition. Again, work with the layer opacity of your vignette layer if necessary!

Movie Poster Lighting Photoshop Tutorial 4

Another great technique for producing vignettes is to use a Levels Adjustment Layer to selectively paint in darkened tones at the corners. Experimentation will bring you the results you want.


Some Finishing Touches..

Im currently experimenting with high contrast / sharpening techniques – so I thought I’d bring in a few for these finishing touches for our example. Aside from the high contrast, a sepia Photo Filter was thrown in under the mannequin to add a dash of colour. Et Voilà, the finished composite:

Movie Poster Lighting Photoshop Tutorial 5


Many of the principles covered here have been explored in previous tutorials. If you’d like to learn more about light shaping, why not check out some of the following:

• Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 1 – Principles of Lighting

• Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 2 – Shadow Techniques

• Lighting in Photo Manipulation Part 3 – Highlights

• Highlights in Photo Manipulation

Conzz 8-)

Follow on Twitter >> @Conzpiracy


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5 Responses to “Movie Poster Lighting in Photoshop”

  1. CeejayShadow says:

    Hey, AWESOME tutorial man :) Thanks so much for this continuing series!

    I actually did get a bit of time today to have another go with the image you made the suggestions on. It was before I read through this so I maybe missed a trick (or 10!) but I think it might be an improvement on the first attempt:

    I’ll resist the urge to have another go at that image with this guidance I think lol :P But I definitely feel a new project coming on with this tut in hand!

  2. Mark says:

    Great stuff again Conz! fantastic advice

  3. visit site says:

    Great website. Thanks for taking the time. I will definitely check back to find out more and tell my coworkers about your writing.

  4. [...] • Movie Poster Lighting in Photoshop (Level: Intermediate) >> Use the light shaping techniques of the pros to create dramatic, eye catching work. [...]

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