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Electrify your skies with a photo-realistic lightning effect

Added on Friday 21st of August 2009 05:10 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS/CS2/CS3/CS4

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


Catching a lightning bolt with a digital camera is difficult——not to mention dangerous. You need to either spend lots of time outdoors waiting for the perfect stormy moment, or spend money on expensive photography equipment to capture the shot for you. Fortunately, we have an easy solution to add extra impact to your ominous images with a photo-realistic lightning strike.


To show you how to create a lightning effect using Photoshop, we’ll:

     Make a small diagonal gradient that we’ll use as the basis of our lightning bolt.

     Use the Difference Clouds filter to transform the diagonal gradient into a jagged line.

     Cut the lightning to make branches for a realistic and random-looking strike.

     Soften any hard edges for a natural representation of the sky.


Lightning is a powerful way to set your images apart from others and demand a viewer’s attention. But you don’t need to be out in the elements to capture the storm. Instead, you can punch up the drama in any foreboding sky with our electrifying lightning creation. Here’s how to do it.


Storm on the horizon

Let’s begin by selecting a stormy photo that lends itself to our electrifying effect. To follow along with us, download the file from the URL at the beginning of this article, extract the file storm.jpg, launch Photoshop, and open the file shown in Figure A. (Images provided by PhotoSpin. Some images modified for educational purposes.) With the image open, it’s time to create a new layer to house the lightning bolt effect.



To create the lightning layer:

1.       Click the Create A New Layer button at the base of the Layers panel (Window > Layers) to add a new layer.

2.      Rename the new layer Lightning.

3.      Select the Gradient tool from the Tools panel and then, on the tool Options bar, choose Foreground To Background from the Gradient Picker.

4.      Press D to set the foreground and background swatches to the default black and white.

5.      Draw a short gradient diagonally in the middle of the sky, as shown in Figure B. Your Layers panel should look like the one shown in Figure B.



To add clouds and a bolt:

1.       Select Filter > Render > Difference Clouds and a jagged line appears through the layer of clouds.

2.      Choose Image > Adjustments > Levels to display the Levels dialog box.

3.      Drag the center gray slider (below the histogram) to the left until the bolt is a defined jagged line within the clouds, as shown in Figure C.

4.      Click OK.

5.      Select Image > Adjustments > Invert or, press [command]I ([Ctrl]I in Windows) to change the lightning bolt from black to white.


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