photoshop creative

Create a Northern Lights effect

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Mark White
November 30, 2016

As the weather gets colder, turn an ordinary Arctic scene into a technicolour explosion


1. Create the sky


Northern lights, of course, are best seen at night. Use gradient to create a backdrop, and drag a starry night stock image and shooting star image into the piece. Set both to Screen to just let the stars shine through.

2. Bring in the foreground


Drag mountains, ice, an iceberg and snow pictures, and use the Pen tool to cut each object out before masking (Elements users: use the Polygonal Lasso). Use Curves or Levels to adjust lighting with each layer; clip an adjustment by Alt/opt-clicking the layer you wish to clip it to.

3. Embellish further


Drag trees in and cut out with Color Range (Select>Color Range). Elements users: pick Magic Wand with Contiguous unchecked. Insert a moon, set to Screen. Use brushes to draw subtle clouds around the peaks of the mountains; drag them into Photoshop, select the Brush and pick them in Tool Presets.

4. Insert bears


Drag in images of polar bears. Hit mask for each, and use a 20% opaque, white brush to cut them out. Photoshop users may wish to use Puppet Warp to adjust the adult bear’s posture (Edit>Puppet Warp), but this isn’t essential.

5. Create some fibres


Set your swatches to black and white (D). Beneath these foreground layers, insert a new layer and fill with white. Go to Filter>Render>Fibers and choose Variance: 15, Strength: 4. Next go to Blur> Motion Blur, set Angle: 90 and Distance: 100 pixels. Set to Screen.

6. Add the colour


Ignore the fibres you’ve just created, and on a new layer with a soft, 100% opaque brush, draw out the direction of the aurora. We’ve gone with a cartoon-esque, smoke shape; study pictures to get a feel for the effect you want to create. Mask the fibres around this shape.

7. Brush some more


Create a new layer: set to Color, 60% Opacity. Choose a bright colour and brush onto the sky. Brush some bright shades that you may wish to use in your aurora, but it’s up to you; greens and pinks tend to look best. Repeat this step.

8. Give it a little more focus


Once you’re happy with the composition of colours in the sky, provide a little more focus by stroking a path along the aurora with a white soft brush (Elements users, just brush straight onto a new layer). Apply a 90-degree Motion Blur of 100 pixels.

9. Colourise the scene


With much of the sky complete, it’s time to unify the entire scene. In most pictures, this doesn’t take long, but given that this whole composition revolves around bright colour, create a new Color layer, set to 20% Opacity, and use the colours that you used in the sky to apply overall hue to the piece.

10. Dodge and burn


Highlights and shadows are also paramount in this picture, given the brightness of the sky. Insert a new layer of neutral grey (#808080), set to Overlay and with 10% opaque black and white brushes, apply shade and highlights where necessary, such as on the tree tops and polar bears.

11. Unify the colour


We’re going to unify the colours further with a Gradient Map, so head to the Adjustment panel and select the icon. Use a bright gradient based on the colours in the sky, hit OK, and set to Color, 20% Opacity.

12. Use Camera Raw


Take the image to Camera Raw by going to Filter>Camera Raw, or File>Open In Camera Raw if you’re using Elements. Make subtle tweaks to the temperature, sharpness and clarity of the picture; we’ve supplied an action with our exact tweaks for you to use if you wish.

13. Edit further


With your Camera Raw adjustments complete, now’s the time to make minor changes to the picture. You may wish to use a Color Balance adjustment, brush some more colour into the picture and use Curves or Levels to tweak the lighting slightly. Have a play to see what appeals most.

14. Master sharpness


Finally, create two merged layers (Cmd/Ctrl+Alt/Opt+Shift+E). With one, go to Filter>Other>High Pass and select 4 pixels; with the other choose Filter>Blur>Surface Blur and select Radius: 10, Threshold: 50. Mask each to sharpen the foreground and blur the background.