Two Easy Tricks For Adding Light In Photoshop


If you’ve been reading my articles for a while, you already know two very important things about me and my approach to photography. The first– getting it right in the camera– is certainly not unique, but I truly believe that a unicorn loses its wings and the Earth briefly stops rotating on its axis every time the words, “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop” pass someone’s lips. The other has become a bit of a mantra in my photography classes– Photoshop is a tool, not a crutch. A bad photo is a bad photo– no amount of Photoshop is going to change that. But working a little bit of Photoshop magic can, in fact, bring that extra creative dimension to the work if used carefully. When I look at a photo, my first reaction should be, “Nice image.” It shouldn’t be, “Nice editing.” Having said that, however, I recently learned a couple of easy tricks for adding light to almost any scene in Photoshop.

Trick #1

I particularly like this effect for indoor sports or concert photography because of the contrast and gradient quality of the light, but as you’ll see in one of the examples, it also works well for creating lens flare. I’m not a huge fan of lens flare myself, especially when it includes a vintage couch that miraculously appears in the middle of a corn field. Or next to railroad tracks.

1. After opening the image in Photoshop, add a new blank layer by either clicking the new layer icon at the bottom of the layers palette, or Shift+Ctrl+N. (Click here for a detailed overview of Photoshop keyboard shortcuts).


2. Select a large, soft-edged brush. Remember that you can adjust brush size by using the bracket keys. Adjust the softness by holding down the Shift key while using the bracket keys.

3. Making sure you have the brush color set to white, click the brush once or twice in the general area where you want the light to be. You may want to dial back on either the opacity or flow of the brush in order to help blend a more natural look for the added light.


4. Next, select the Move tool and click the box labelled “Show Transformation Controls.” Using the controls, you can either expand or contract the new layer to suit the needs of the image. Once you think you have the size and shape right, drag the layer to where you want it. Hit the Enter key to commit the changes. Also keep in mind that in addition to expanding the size of the layer, you can also rotate it to create more directionality.



5. If you are using this technique to create lens flare, I suggest switching the brush color to light yellow in the color picker. You may have to play around with the opacity or flow of the brush to make sure you don’t overdo the effect. Again, I’m not a huge fan of the effect, but with a little practice you can perfect it.


Trick #2

The beauty of this next trick is its subtlety. It’s a great way to add light to targeted portions of the image without making global adjustments to curves, levels, etc. No layer masks necessary. You’ll notice that our steps here are almost identical to the technique we started with, but there is one major difference.

1. After opening the image in Photoshop, add a new blank layer by either clicking the new layer icon at the bottom of the layers palette, or Shift+Ctrl+N.

2. Select a soft, white brush and adjust for size.

3. Click a soft spot of white in the general area that needs more light. Again, pay attention to opacity and flow.


4. In the layers palette, change the blending mode of this new layer to Overlay. This is the important step that separates this technique from the one before it, because the overlay blending mode causes the new light layer to interact with the overall contrast of the targeted area.


5. Again, select the Move tool and use the transformation controls to adjust the size. Commit the changes by using the Enter key, or by clicking the check mark at the top of the screen. In the example below, I used the technique to artificially add a little bit of fill light to the left side of the face (camera right). While this is a great technique for adding fill light to your subject, it also works well if you need to brighten up any dark corners of your background. One word of caution, though– this will not do much for a black background because the overlay blending option relies on contrast for the effect to work. It works in this example because I was adding light to the subject, not the background.


A Few Notes On Opacity and Flow

It’s important to understand the difference between these two brush options, because at first glance they appear to be pretty much the same. Opacity controls the translucency of the brush stroke. So, at 100%, the brush stroke is completely opaque. As we adjust the opacity percentage down, however, the white background begins to show through, making the brush semi-transparent. In the examples below, the figure on the left was drawn at 100% opacity, while the one to its immediate right was drawn at 25% opacity. Notice how the color of that second figure is the same, even where the stroke overlaps? That’s because a single stroke of the brush will retain the same opacity throughout. Once we release the mouse button, however, adding an additional overlapping brush stroke will affect opacity. You can see what I mean in the third figure, where the overlapping portions are darker.

Flow, however, has a completely different effect. Where opacity affected each complete brush stroke, flow affects each individual brush tip within the stroke. It’s important to remember that each brush stroke is made up of several brush points– that’s why in the figure on the far right, the overall stroke is made up of several overlapping dots. It’s important to note that regardless of this darkening overlap, it will never get darker than the opacity setting.

As with everything, opinions vary on which of these two brush options is “better” than the other. The simple fact is that whichever works better for you in any given editing situation– either individually or in conjunction with the other–  is the one that’s best.


The things we can accomplish in Photoshop never cease to amaze me. While I try to not rely too heavily on Photoshop beyond cropping and simple adjustments to tone, color, and contrast, it’s nice to know that there are still subtle ways to have a significant impact on your images.

All images are Copyright Guyer Photography. All rights reserved.


  • Vicky Tang

    Trick#1….so fake….

  • Doc Pixel

    You should stick to getting it right in camera.

  • Guy Finger

    trick one is terrible …. why not just using lens flare? it’s doing much better job in … well… lens flare….

  • Roger Lambert

    “When I look at a photo, my first reaction should be, “Nice image.” It shouldn’t be, “Nice editing.””

    Why? Ask Ansel Adams if he doesn’t appreciate good editing! Photoshop is part of the process – as valid as any other part. I don’t see anything wrong with “I’ll fix it later in Photoshop” if that is your bag. I don’t think there is anything wrong with “getting it right in camera” either – IF that is your bag.

    But I don’t like these value judgements that one approach is better, or more refined, or more honest, or more artistic than another. It’s the finished product that is important. There are very successful artists with their own galleries who don’t “get it right in camera”. They get it “good enough” in camera. That’s good enough for them. And their many satisfied customers.

  • Caroline Lefebvre

    both are

  • echomrg

    trick N°1 is really terrible.
    please don’t do it.

  • Rob van Meeuwen

    I agree with the others: trick #1 is horrifying, unbelievable bad imo. Trick #2 can easily be done in LR, using the radial filter, so you don’t need to get out of LR for this (which is much easier)