Home The Basics Intro to Painting with Light with Photoshop 7, CS or CS2
Intro to Painting with Light with Photoshop 7, CS or CS2

Last update:  12-31-1969

Submitted by Frank Lopes

A fairly simply technique to add "punch" to an image by enriching the colors, deepening the shadows and brightening the highlights. All done without touching the original image.

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Many times you will see images that look "flat".

This sometimes is a hard concept to explain but it is something that you recognize as soon as you see an example. Sometimes you hear someone mention that the image lacked "punch" or "pop". These all mean the same: the main subject (or sometimes the whole) image did not have rich colors, deep shadows or bright highlights.

One way to to solve this problem, is via a technique that many people call "Painting with Light" or sometimes referred to as simply "PWL".

This process could also be called a "dodge and burn" technique since it relies in using its principles, however, PWL seems to describe a little more accurately what it is accomplishes.

One more comment regarding this technique: the final results could be accomplished using other tools in your favorite software package. These are just the steps that I use and they work for me.

I shot this photo and, I think we can all agree, it is somewhat "flat".

The greens are green, the logs are brown... but there is something missing: there is very little diferentiation between the elements in the photo.

Open the image in Photoshop, add a layer on top of it and fill it with black.

Name it "Highlights" and set its blending mode to "Color Dodge".

On top of the "Highlights" layer add another layer and fill it with white.

Name it "Shadows" and set its blending mode to "Color Burn".

At this point you should have an image with 3 layers, starting at the top: Shadows, Highlights Background.

Select the Shadows layer.

Make black your foreground color and select a large brush (100 to 200 pixels). Set its hardness to 0 (zero) and set the opacity to 5%.

Look at the image and visualize the areas where you would like to see "richer" colors. Those are the areas that you should paint with this black brush.

Select the Highlights layer.

Make white your foreground color and leave the size, hardness and opacity settings of the brush the same as before.

Look at the image and visualize the areas where you would like to see "brighter" colors or highlights. Those are the areas that you should paint with this white brush.

At this point turn off the visibility of these newly created layers and look at the original image in the background layer. Do you see the difference?

What we started with...
The finished work...

Another example of before...

And after...

Not all images lend themselves to this kind of treatment. Photos with rich textures and somewhat subdued or unsaturated colors make the best candidates. Photos shot in very bright sunlight with large, flat, colorfull areas don't work as well.

There are no set rules regarding brush opacity, hardness or size. It all depends of the resolution of the image and of the look that you are after. There is only one way to find the correct values: experiment, experiment, experiment...

Other more dramatic looks, can be achieved if instead of black and white you use other colors. The difference will be that, in addition to the colors becoming "richer", they will also shift somewhat. Try very dark greens or blues in seascapes or deep browns and yellows in autumn landscapes to see the differences.

So, experiment and have fun.