How to Make Lightning in Photoshop

A lightning bolt can add a point of interest to a night shot. However, lightning bolts have a habit of not showing up in the wild when you need them. Luckily, there’s a way to create one in Photoshop. Read on to find out how it’s done.

First, open a suitable night shot in Photoshop. Then follow these simple steps:

Open a night shot into Photoshop CC

1.Hit the D key to reset your foreground and background colours to black and white, respectively. Then, create a new layer using Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N.

2.Activate the Gradient Tool by pressing G. In the Tool Options Bar select Foreground to Background. Select Linear Gradient. Set the Mode to Normal. Set the Opacity to 100%. Untick Reverse, them finally tick Dither and Transparency.

Create an abrupt Linear Gradient from black to white

3.Draw a gradient at the desire angle by clicking and dragging a short line. Try to keep the transition from black to white abrupt, as in this screenshot.

4.Go to Filter→Render→Difference Clouds. You’ll see a squiggly, black line appear.

Render Difference Clouds

5.Hit Ctrl+I to invert the colours and you’ll see a white line appear. That’s your lightning bolt. Change the Blending Mode to Screen. This shows the light parts of the Layer and hides the dark parts.

Take that black line…
… and invert the colours

6.Hit Ctrl+L to open Levels. Where it says Input Levels, drag the Shadows slider (the black triangle) to the right to add definition to the lightning bolt. Click OK to close Levels.

To hide any remaining white specs, click on the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers Panel, then brush over them with a soft, black brush (B). This will make them vanish. To make an area reappear, simply paint over it with a white brush instead.

Use Levels to add definition to your lightning bolt

7.Duplicate the Layer (Ctrl+J). Reduce the Opacity of the new Layer to 50%.

8.Duplicate this Layer (Ctrl+J). Increase the Opacity to 100%. Then go to Filter→Blur→Gaussian Blur. With the Preview box ticked, increase the Radius until the lightning looks natural. For this shot, that value was 35px.

Add glow with Gaussian Blur, then duplicate it

9.Merge the lightning Layers by selecting them and hitting Ctrl+E. Change the Blending Mode back to Screen. Hit Ctrl+J to duplicate your lightning bolt, then resize it by hitting Ctrl+T and dragging the corner handles. Reposition it with the Move tool (V) to create forked lightning.

10.Select the Background Layer, then hit Shift+Ctrl+Alt+N to create a new Layer. Change the Layer’s Blending Mode to Overlay. Reduce the Opacity to 40%. With a soft, white brush (B), paint over the lightning bolt to create more glow around it.

With that, you’ve finished your basic lightning bolt. If you’d like to make it more complex, select one of the lightning bolt Layers, duplicate it (Ctrl+J), then make the lightning bolt smaller by hitting Ctrl+T and dragging the corner handles to resize it. Reposition it until it looks right.

Keep repeating the process by duplicating (Ctrl+J) and then transforming (Ctrl+T) until you’re happy.

Duplicate to add some streamers

Image by Drew Coffman.