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Creative Lighting Effects with Adobe Photoshop CS6

Lighting Effects has been around a long time, but the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop CS6 is essentially a brand new feature in the sense that it has been completely remade. This article provides a general overview of the filter (including its new interface), and demonstrates how you can use Lighting Effects to dramatically impact the composition or look of your photographs.
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Photoshop’s traditional role is as a 2D photo editor. However, in recent years Adobe added some impressive 3D editing capabilities to Photoshop. You might think that 3D workflows don’t provide any benefit to traditional two-dimensional photo editing, but as Photoshop’s 3D technology has matured, the impact has been felt in other areas of the program. A great example of this is the new Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop CS6, which uses part of Photoshop’s 3D engine without actually creating the complexity of a 3D workflow.

Lighting Effects has been around a long time, but the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop CS6 is essentially a brand new feature in the sense that it has been completely remade. This article provides a general overview of the filter (including its new interface), and demonstrates how you can use Lighting Effects to dramatically impact the composition or look of your photographs.

Before we take a look at Lighting Effects, let’s consider the sample image I’ve chosen for a moment. This is actually an HDR photograph. The exposures were taken with the intent of accentuating the amazing “cloud lights” that were present just after sunset. However, even with the benefits of HDR the image is still somewhat flat in contrast, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The example image has some interesting aspects to it, but we can use Lighting Effects to draw more attention to the most interesting parts of the photo.

Lighting Effects UI

A quick note before we begin: Lighting Effects is a Smart Object compatible filter, meaning you can use it non-destructively, returning to change your settings (after applying them) as many times as needed without degrading file quality. To do that, create a duplicate of the layer you want to work on, right-click it in the Layers panel and choose “Convert to Smart Object” before beginning your edits. While this will increase the size of your file (especially for higher resolution photos), I think the benefits outweigh the added size

To begin the lighting workflow, choose Filter > Render > Lighting Effects. The first thing you will notice if you used Lighting Effects in the past, is that the filter is no longer limited to a small modal dialog box and preview. Instead it uses the main document window as a preview, as well as the panel area and Options Bar to display its controls (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The completely redesigned Lighting Effects UI. No more small preview!

This approach has the benefit of making the workflow easier to learn, as well as producing more accurate results due to the larger preview. Let’s take a look at the options and lighting controls for this new filter.

The Options Bar offers a new Preset menu with many different types of lighting options. A few are meant to mimic common studio lighting setups, while the rest have a more creative intent. Figure 3 shows the available options in the menu and one of the more basic presets called a “Crossing” spotlight.

Figure 3: If you need ideas for the types of looks that can be applied with Lighting Effects, the Presets menu is a good place to start.

To the right of the Presets menu there are three buttons representing the three types of new lights we can add to our photos (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The three available light types you can add to Lighting Effects are (from left to right) Spot Lights, Point Lights, and Infinite Lights.

Spot Lights work just as they do in the real world. You can control their intensity, the direction they are pointing, and their location in X, Y space. You can also control a Spot Light’s color and its “Hotspot”. You can think of the Hotspot as being the location where the light “hits the surface” of the image; just as a spot light in the real world is brightest where it hits the stage, your image is brightest under the Hotspot.

Point Lights work like a light bulb in open space; you can change its location or intensity, but you cannot specify a direction. You can also control the color of Point Lights.

Infinite lights simulate a distant light source where you can change neither its location nor its direction, but you can change its intensity and color.

The Properties panel is where you create the look of the lights you will be using, while the visual scope and placement of the lights (and directionality in the case of Spot Lights) is controlled directly via the image preview. You can also use this panel to modify the look of the “material” the lights are acting on. In the 3D world this usually refers to material textures that are placed on the surfaces of models, but in Lighting Effects it simply refers to the layer you are working on. The material controls include: Colorize, Gloss, Metallic, and Ambience.

Figure 5: The Properties panel inside the Lighting Effects filter is where you customize the look of your lights.

The Lights panel is where you select the light whose properties you wish to change. You can also delete lights in this panel by highlighting them and clicking the trash icon in the lower-right corner.

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