How to Use Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop to Make Stunning Light Painted Images

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I’ve always loved both sides of photography; taking pictures with a camera and finishing them with post processing. The possibilities are endless, and sometimes it’s fun to create images with post-processing techniques in mind. In this article and video tutorial, I’ll show you how you can use masking and layer blend modes in Photoshop to create stunning light painted images.

How to Use Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop to Make Stunning Light Painted Images

Car trails weaving through Arches National Park at sunset – five exposures to fill the road.

Creating the light painting images

While leading a workshop in Moab, UT a while back we did just that. After an incredible evening of photographing The Milky Way, we decided to make one last stop near the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park before calling it a night.

As the students were setting up their tripods, I noticed how cool our vehicles looked with the Courthouse Towers in the background. So I thought it’d be fun to take a series of images with the sole purpose of combining them in Photoshop later, as a way of teaching the students how to utilize blend modes and basic masking techniques for light painted images.

Here are the images we used to blend together:

The goal was to take a series of 30-second exposures, where each exposure had a different part of the scene illuminated. During each shot, I’d sit in one of the vehicles and turn different sets of lights on. Luckily for us, we had a crescent moon in the sky which lit up the sandstone cliffs beautifully without any additional light painting needed. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the North Star was right overhead as well and would add an unexpected (but welcome) effect in Photoshop.

This is the final image after combining in Photoshop. Notice the star trails we got as a bonus!?

For this shot, I used my Sony a7s and Sony FE 16-35mm F4 ZA OSS lens. With all my Sony cameras I’m able to get incredible detail from the night sky, even with a maximum exposure of just f/4. My ISO for this scene was 2,000 (it would have been a bit higher if we were still shooting The Milky Way) and like I said before, exposure time was 30 seconds.

The Photoshop method

Could I have just taken one shot for the foreground (with all headlights, tail lights, and interior lights on) and one night sky image? Maybe, but that wasn’t the point. The point was to show the students (and now you) how to take light sources from multiple exposures and easily combine them into one image using layer blend modes in Photoshop.

This technique has a multitude of uses outside the situation used in the video like combining fireworks, car trails on roads, lightning strikes, and much more. The only limit is your imagination!

More image examples

Here are a few other images from my portfolio using the same techniques in the video.

How to Use Layer Blend Modes in Photoshop to Make Stunning Light Painted Images

For fireworks, you can take multiple shots and combine the best in Photoshop using this technique. Fireworks at Magic Kingdom, Disney World – two exposures.

Car trails at an intersection in Fort Worth, Texas – four exposures to fill the streets with headlights and tailights.

Camping at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. One exposure was taken for the sky and sand, then I did several long exposures where I illuminated the inside of the tent with my iPhone flashlight.

Another scene very similar to the video, but this time with The Milky Way.

Try it

Give this technique a try and share your comments, questions and images below.

Read more from our Post Production category

James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

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