Photoshop: Christmas Lights

Christmas is in just a few days! It’s time to add some magical digital lights to your boring building or house!


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In this image of the Massachusetts State House, we’re going to string up the christmas lights, using a custom brush, and some Layer Styles!

The first thing we’re going to do, is we’re going to set up our brush. To start, grab your Brush Tool () from your Tools Bar on the left, then select a standard soft brush. It’s very important that you use a brush with a Hardness at 0%.

When that’s set, we need to choose our colors. I want to string up a variety of colored light, in the range of red and green. So for my foreground color, I’m going to use a neon red, then for my background color, a neon green.

Now we can customize our brush a bit. If you don’t have your Brush Panel open on the right, head up to Window > Brush.

In the Brush Tip Shape section, we want to focus on two values. The Size, and Spacing. The Size will determine not only how big our lights are, but also how much they glow. I chose to use a 25 pixel brush for this image. Your images might require a larger or smaller brush. As for the Spacing, this will tell Photoshop how much space is in between each light. Again, this value can change depending on the image that you use, but I chose to use a value of 30%.

Next, to give some ‘bounce’ to our lights, turn on Scattering. As we don’t want the lights clumped up horizontally, turn off the Both Axes checkbox. In terms of the Scatter value, you need to ask yourself how much movement you want for the lights. I chose to go for a subtle scatter, using the value 15%. As for the other values, keep everything off, or at the minimum value.

The only other option that we want to turn on, which is optional, will be Color Dynamics. This will allow us to use multiple colors in our lights, without having to switch colors manually. To allow Photoshop to switch between the foreground and background color, make sure the first setting is at 100%. Everything else can be set to the default values.

At this point, we’re ready to start brushing in our lights. In your Layers Panel, create a new layer. This will make sure that we can edit our lights once they are brushed in. When the layer is created, let the brushing commence! One tip that might be useful in a situation like this, is if you’re working with straight edges, which you most likely will be, you can click once at the beginning of the string of lights, hold Shift, then click at the end. Photoshop will fill in everything in-between.

Now, before you start freaking out that this looks nothing like Christmas lights, you’re right. They don’t. Let me explain what’s going on before you start raging in the comments.

As I was figuring out the best way to create multiple colored lights, I realized that there wasn’t an easy way to deal with the glow that the light omitted. Adding an Outer Glow to a string of small, multi-colored dots wouldn’t work very well, as the Outer Glow can only be one color. So instead, I decided to use large, soft dots, which will eventually act as the glow, then we’re going to use an Inner Glow to create the light. You’ll see in a moment how that works.

At this point, you should understand how to brush in the lights. You should have something like this when you’re finished brushing.

Yes, it looks like madness. Don’t worry. Let’s deal with our Layer Styles to fix everything up. When you doubleclick on you layer to bring up the Layer Style dialogue box, stay in the Blending Options section for a moment. The Blend Mode can be changed to one of a few settings. I found that Color Dodge, Linear Dodge, and Overlay work well. I chose to use Overlay for this image. Depending on the image you’re working with, you might find better results with the other Modes. In terms of the strength of the glow, it’s way too bright for me. To dim the glow down, decrease the Fill Opacity to 25%. You want to make sure to change the Fill Opacity rather than the Opacity, so that once we add our Inner Glow, the lights won’t be effected.

Now to add our lights, let’s add the Inner Glow. Again, you can use a few different Blend Modes, but I chose to use Color Dodge for this one, with an Opacity of 100%, and my color set to pure white. Down under Elements, make sure to change the Source to Center so that the light is omitting from the middle of the glow. Set the Size to 0.

Under Quality, I chose to use the Gaussian Contour for this layer. I found that this Contour allowed the lights to fade off nicely in different lighting conditions. And finally, to end on a bang, we need to decrease our Range. This will turn our lights into sharp dots. A value of 4 worked quite well for me.

That’s looking a lot better. Massachusetts is in the holiday spirt!

Now it’s your turn. Grab a photo of a boring house or building at night, add some lights, then post if to our Facebook page. I’ll take a few of the best, then feature them on in a few weeks.