Tutorial: How to create and use different colored lights for composites

Sep 22, 2016

Robert Cornelius

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Sep 22, 2016

Robert Cornelius

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

Share on:

"Finders Keepers" featuring Amy Wilder and Thomas Willeford
“Finders Keepers” featuring Amy Wilder and Thomas Willeford

As some of you may recall, one of my very first blog posts (my 4th to be exact), was about compositing. I talk about compositing constantly in many of my posts, because I guess it’s sort of my “thing,” but I figured it was about time to share another of my handy dandy tricks for pulling off convincing composites. So here goes nothing … well I mean here goessomething … it’s compositing tips and tricks for working with different colored lights! Or just faking the colors later. ;)


In my first compositing tips post I talked a bit about how lighting is everything. This still applies, and always will. When choosing what background to use for a composite, pretty much nothing is more important than finding (or shooting) an image that compliments the lighting of your subject. The. Lighting. Must. Match. Last time we talked about paying attention to what direction the light is coming from, but we didn’t go into any detail about the color of the light. If your subject was lit with very cold lighting (aka blue-ish) but your background image has nice warm tones, the subject will obviously not look convincing on that background. That should hopefully be a no-brainer. You’re always going to have to match the color balance of your subject to that of your background (or vice versa), but what some might not think about is using multiple colors of light to your advantage.


For “Finders Keepers” I used a background image I shot at an abandoned factory – one room had this great fan-hole-opening-thing above a door, which provided some natural light. I lit my subject with some harsh light from that direction – so when placed in the scene it looked like the light was actually coming from the background of the picture and extra sold to the viewer (that’s you) that my subjects were “really” there. However, since I had a very similar quality of edge light falling on my characters from the left side as well (by similar I mean I lit it from either side with two of the exact same light … ), it wasn’t making any sense that the hair/hats/everything were being lit from the left while the background was dark over there. Looking at it you might not know why right away, but it’s the little details like light-coming-from-nowhere that make a composite look fake.


So in the ever-present quest to fool the audience (that’s also you) into thinking the characters could actually be in the scene, I decided to add a light to the left side of the frame so the other edge light would be motivated. NOW is when the fancy light color technique comes into play! Basically, by having a warm light coming from one side and cool light from the other, I can apply those tones to the edges of my characters on the appropriate sides to play up the fact that the light from the scene is actually affecting them. Sometimes I’ll think of this ahead of time and put colored gels on my lights (like in this post), so the lighting already has the colors I want. For this image it was an afterthought, so I used some Photoshop magic to add the colors to my subjects and the background.


I have a super fun/very effective trick for embellishing an edge light that I figured I’d go into some detail about. Here’s what you’re gonna do … Make a copy of your subject. Or, you can just load the selection of that layer (by holding down COMMAND and clicking the little picture of that layer in the layer palette, or CTRL button for PC users), then fill that selection with a solid color. It really doesn’t mater either way because we are essentially going to be making this transparent later on. You just need a new layer that’s an exact cut-out of your subject. Once you have your layer, double click on it to bring up the “Layer Styles” pop up window. (You can also right-click a layer and select “Blending Options” from the very top of that menu.)


On the very first tab of the pop up under “Advanced Blending” there is a “Fill Opacity” slider. Take that all the way to 0%. You’ll notice at this point that the layer will disappear, but fear not – it’s still there. Next thing you want to do is go to the “Inner Shadow” tab on the left. Once in there, set the Blend Mode at the top to “Overlay” … “Soft light” will also work; it’s just a bit more subtle – your call. Any and all of these adjustments can and should obviously be made to suit your own taste, according to how it affects your specific photo and how drastic of an effect you’re going for. The great thing about layer styles is that you can always go back in and tweak them later. Next, double click on the little rectangle to the right of the Blend Mode drop down (It’s blue in the image below if you need help finding what I’m referring too).


After you click on the color box a color window will pop up and you can select a tone that mimics one of your light sources. For “Finders Keepers” I was going to be making the natural light from the right side a bit more blue, so I selected a pale blue color. Now, below that next to “Angle” you’ll see what looks like a clock that only has the big hand. You can grab that “hand” and rotate it around to point it towards where the light source is coming from. Imagine that your subject is the center of the clock. Since the natural light was coming from slightly higher on the right side, I pointed the hand to that general direction. You’ll see it change on your subject every time you let go of the hand to help you decide where exactly to place it. After that’s set you’ll want to turn off the “Use Global Light” option. Otherwise when you add your other colored light in a minute and change your angle it will change the angle of this one as well, and we don’t want that. That last thing to take care of is to fuss around with your “distance” and “size” sliders. You can see where mine were set (in the above graphic), but this will always be different depending on file size and again your own tastes/how you’d like this to look.


After you’ve hit “ok” and applied these changes, you can then duplicate the layer so we can work on adding the other colored light from the left side. Once you have your second layer, you can double click on it to bring up its “Layer Styles” window and then just edit the styles you’ve already set up for the other one. The only things you should majorly have to change areobviously the color, and also the angle. (See above) I selected an orangey-yellowish tone for my color and then moved my angle around to the left side (using the “clock hand”) to where my warm light was coming from. When all is set up you should have two layers that look like the ones below … Although the colors would obviously be according to the different colors of light you have in your image. Also, I put the below layers on a black background and I turned off the “Overlay” blending mode so you could actually see them.
(Left: Just blue side  Middle: Just Warm side  Right: both together)


Now you may have noticed that there is some light falling where we don’t necessarily want it. It’s not necessary … we do not want it. For example, there ends up being a little bit of light at the bottom where the subject meets the ground and we most definitely do NOT want that. It wouldn’t make any sense for light to be there unless they were perhaps floating. So here is where we run into a problem. If you just throw a layer mask on the edge-light-layer and try to paint the light away from areas where you don’t want it, it just moves the “edge” of the layer and keeps the inner shadow. If you look at the below graphic you’ll see where I’ve tried to mask the bottom of it away (middle image), and it just moves the edge up in a very unpleasing manor. Not. Pleasing. So I found a work-around … YAY!


(EDIT: Guys I totally learned something new since writing this post … and I learned it on my own blog … what!? Yeah.  I learned from Mark Johnson that you can basically skim/skip the next paragraph of this post because my whole work around is pointless hahaha. There is a check box on the first tab of the Layer Style pop up that says “Layer Mask Hides Effects.” If you just click that guy, you can mask away the light from the bottom/unwanted areas ….. No matter how good you get at Photoshop there is always still mroe to learn. THANKS MARK!)

If you take your edge-light-layer and put it into a “group,” then add a layer mask to the group and use that to paint areas away, it works perfectly. You can either right click the layer and choose “Group from Layers” or just click the little icon at the bottom of the layers palette that looks like a small image of a folder and drag the edge-light-layer into the new folder/group. Once you have your layer in a group (…folder), you can then click the group and add a layer mask by either using the little icon (a few to the left of the new-group-folder-icon) that looks like a rectangle with a circle in it. Then you can select the layer mask by clicking on it and paint with black over the areas you want to disappear. In the above graphic (on the far right), you’ll see that I’ve only left the blue edge on the parts I think the light would actually fall on. Then you’ll obviously want to do with same thing to your warm layer, removing it from all the parts on the right side of your character that it wouldn’t be shining on.


Hopefully this doesn’t seem like too much work, or too terribly complicated. Once you get the hang of it you’ll find yourself using this technique all the time for various images. Even when you only have one colored light source this can still look great. (Just note that it works about a zillion times better if your subject already has an edge light to begin with.) After applying these edge light layers I used a couple of “Color Balance” adjustment layers to take the effect even further. For one of them I made the highlights more blue, then masked that layer off of the left side of the image (where I wanted the warm light), and then did a second “Color Balance” layer to push a bit of yellow/red into the highlights and painted it away from the right side of the image (where the blue light was coming from). Also as with allll of my images I did a good amount of digital painting on top of everything to enhance the details and play up the two different color tones.


You might recognize the gentleman in “Finders Keepers” from a previous shoot I did. His name is Thomas Willeford and he is alllll kinds of badass. All of the kinds. Like, see that crazy mechanical arm? And did you perhaps notice the epic clockwork corset/bra situation in “Finders Keepers”? Yeah, um he made those. NBD. You can read more about him and the above imagein this post if you’re interested, BUT can we just talk about the other individual in “Finders Keepers” that isn’t a big burly man?


When Thomas Willeford asks if you want to do a shoot with his awesome model friend who is in town …. you just say yes. Amy Wilder was that friend and boy was she awesome and model … and friend. What an absolute joy it was to shoot with her!!! (Thomas too, obviously, but that’s old news haha.) My only “issue” with Amy was that while trying to decide which image to edit first, I about ripped all of my hair out because she looks freakin perfect and incredible in every single shot. Like, seriously every one …. It was SO hard to choose. It’s definitely a much better problem to have than, “Well she only looks good in this one, I guess I’ll use it.” Way to be too good at your job, yah big jerk! ;)  Expect more images of her in the future.  


So, basically, the point of this story is always shoot with kickass people and you’ll end up with some kickass shots! Oh yeah and play with colored lighting techniques, because it’s fun and can yield some pretty dang cool results, if I don’t say so myself.

YouTube video

If you want to get your hands on many of the particle textures, and smoke images, as well as the lens flares that I used while creating this image, you can find them all through those links! There’s SO much amazingness over on the RAW Exchange Store!!!

About the Author

Robert Cornelius is a conceptual photographer and Photoshop artists from Lebanon, PA. You can read more of his writing on his blog and say hi on his Facebook and Instagram pages. This articles was also published here and shared with permission

Find this interesting? Share it with your friends!


We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Join the Discussion

DIYP Comment Policy
Be nice, be on-topic, no personal information or flames.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 responses to “Tutorial: How to create and use different colored lights for composites”

  1. Richard Wakefield Avatar
    Richard Wakefield

    This is one of your best images yet Robert! You should really be making Hollywood movie posters by now! Love it, keep up the great work :)

  2. James Cooper Avatar
    James Cooper

    I do not have expertise in edge-light. Actually, when you are going image manipulation than edge tool and pen tool will you using most commonly.

  3. ext237 Avatar

    This is some next level awesome. Thanks for taking the time to map this out.

  4. Micle Avatar

    A very special work had been done by yourself i think by creating this type of very special image….

  5. Micle Avatar

    an excellent image it is,you should make a movie …