Light Painting Part Two - Photoshop

Light Painting Part Two – Photoshop


"1956 Le France Pumper"

In Part One of  the Light Painting Tutorial I went over how to do the photography part: equipment, camera settings, set up, lighting, potential pitfalls, and step by step instruction on how to do light painting shots.  In this article Part Two, we’re going to take a look at how to combine multiple exposures in Photoshop.


  • how to create one big layered file of all your images
  • what layer settings to use to “turn the lights on” with each added image
  • how to get rid of any unwanted areas of each image
  • how to easily “dim the lights” on any shots that were too bright
  • saving your final combined image as a masterpiece

Combining images in Photoshop is surprisingly quick and easy

What you need to do this:

  • a series of images of the same subject, shot with the same angle of view (you didn’t move the tripod), with each image lit just a little differently
  • Photoshop (CS or Elements) or some other photo editor that uses layers
  • a basic knowledge of how to use layers, blend modes and masking in your photo editor
  • a computer with good memory and speed – creating multi-layered documents can sometimes slow down your computer if you have an old processor, not enough RAM (put as much in as your computer will hold, I have 6gb and want more but I’m maxed on my 6 year old MacBookPro) or your hard drive is overly full (you want your hard drive never to go over 75% full max, otherwise it will bog down).

Note: if your computer is slow you may not need a new one: just upgrade your RAM and get a bigger hard drive or empty a bunch of stuff off and see if that helps.


If you are using Adobe Lightroom, you can open your original files directly from Lightroom into Photoshop (wherever I mention Photoshop you can use CS, Elements or your usual editor that has layers capabilities). I do find however that if you are shooting Raw opening 12 or more Raw files into Photoshop really tends to bog it down. So in this case I have exported JPGs first and then opened those into Photoshop. If you are opening from Lightroom directly follow these steps:

  • select all the images of your scene so they are highlighted
  • right click on one of the thumbnails
  • from the pop up menu choose “Edit in” and then “Open as layers in Photoshop” like shown below in Figure #1

Figure #1

If you are using Photoshop you will follow almost the same steps using Bridge (or the mini browser where you can see your thumbnails)

  • select all the images of your scene so they are highlighted
  • go to the Tools menu
  • select Photoshop > Load files into Photoshop layers (as shown below in Figure #2)
Open as layers from Bridge

Figure #2


Once you have all your files opened as layers into one document in Photoshop you want to make sure they are perfectly aligned.  If you used a tripod and it didn’t move they should be pretty close, but we want to make sure they are perfect. Follow these steps:


Figure #3

  • Turn on just your bottom layer by clicking and holding the Option or Alt key on your keyboard, then clicking on the little eyeball icon (next to the thumbnail of the layer) of the bottom layer. That will make that one active and hide all the others. (See Figure #3 right)
  • Next one by one turn on each layer by clicking the eyeball next to them. If you notice that any of the images seem to jump a bit as you do that, you’ll want to run an alignment. If not but you just want to be sure anyway, continue on to the next step
  • Select all your layers, click the bottom thumbnail, then shift>click the top one so all layers are highlighted (as shown below in Figure #4 below)
  • Align the layers by going to the Edit Menu> Auto align layers (see Figure #5 below) and just choose the auto method from the pop up box. If it adjusts any of the layers you may have to crop the result to get rid of any odd edges.
Figure #4 left - Figure #5 right

Figure #4 left – Figure #5 right


Now that your images are aligned perfectly we’re ready to do some magic!  In this section we’re going to “turn on the lights” from each image one by one. Here’s how:

Rename darkest image, put it as bottom layer

Figure #6

  • find your darkest image by going through each layer one at at time.  This should be the image you shot before you added light with your flashlight. The base image you created in Part One of the Light Painting Tutorial.  
  • drag the layer with your darkest image to the bottom of your layers panel.  Just grab the thumbnail for the layer and drag and drop it below the bottom one.  You can rename that layer “darkest” if you like by double clicking on the layer name and typing in your new one. See Figure #6 right.
  • turn on the layer just above the bottom one and make it your selected layer – use the eyeball icon, they should all be turned off except your “darkest” layer and the one above it now
  • change the blend mode of the selected layer to “lighten” – you do this by going up to the pull down menu in the upper left corner of your layers palette, right under the tab that says “Layers” and to the left of where it says “Opacity”. See Figure #7 below.
  • copy the layer style – right click on the layer itself and choose “copy layer style”
  • change the blend mode of all other layers to lighten – select all other layers, right click and choose “paste layer style”. That is the only way I know of to change them all quickly without having to do them individually, one by one. See Figure #8 below.
Figure #7

Figure #7

Figure #8

Figure #8


Now if you click on each of the Eyeball icons for the layers above, you will see the lights turn on in the different spots you painted in each exposure. In the example of the firetruck here are a few views of the overall image as I turn on a layer above one at a time.



I’ve skipped a couple here, but you get the idea. Notice how as I turn each subsequent layer on a new part of the truck is magically lit up. There are a few issues however, as it’s never, or rarely perfect right out of the camera. But we can fix those things easily too using layer masks. Do you notice the following issues in the image above?

  • a few stray light bugs in places we don’t want them (on the fence to the right of the truck)
  • the sky got overly bright as well (caused by some of the exposures being longer than the “darkest” base layer)
  • there are some double images of the tree branches in a few places (caused by wind and the tree moving from one exposure to the next)

To fix any issues and clean up the image follow these steps:

Figure #9

Figure #9

  • turn on just the bottom layer again (alt/option click the eyeball for that layer)
  • turn on each layer one at a time, let’s do the one above the bottom one first
  • review the image and look for any issues such as – areas that got too light, stray light bugs, your body showed up in the photo, etc.
  • create a layer mask by clicking on the “layer mask icon” in the bottom of the layers panel. See Figure #9 right.  ***Important to note: you can do this two ways. Just clicking it directly will create a mask that shows the whole layer (mask will be white).  Alt/option clicking on it will make the layer hidden or “masked” (mask will be black). If you only have a few issues to “paint out” use the direct click method.  But if you have a lot of issues you need to paint out, I suggest using the second method so the mask hides the layer and then you just paint in the good areas. Either way you’ll get the same result just with less painting or adjustments needed so choose the method that is best for each layer.***
  • mask-selected

    Figure #10

  • paint on the mask to show or hide the parts you want – TIPS: hit the “D” key on your keyboard, that will set your swatches to the default black/white for foreground and background colors. Then hit “B” to get your brush tool. Select a soft edge brush so you don’t get a harsh line where you paint on the mask. Paint at 100% using Black to over areas you want to hide and switch to white for areas you want to show. To switch the foreground/background colors back and forth use the X key. Here’s what it looks like – make sure you are painting ON the mask not the image. You’ll be able to tell because there will be little corner markers around the mask and not the layer thumbnail. See Figure #10 right.
  • repeat for each layer – turn it on, add a layer mask, paint to hide and show the areas you want. TIP: if you want to see what it looks like without the layer mask (especially useful if you are using a black mask and painting IN areas you want to show), hold SHIFT and click on the mask itself. A red X will appear and the mask is just disable. Do the same to turn it back on. 
  • if any of your images appear too bright you can tone them down by simply lowering the opacity of that layer, or by painting over the parts that are too bright with the layer mask to partially hide them (just set your paintbrush opacity to 20% and brush over that area gently)

This is what my layers look like with the masks added and areas painted to show only the bits I want from each exposure. Remember to save your file in two formats:  PSD to preserve all the layers, and a final JPG you can use for printing or sharing online (you may have to make a smaller one for email sharing).



Okay so it seems like a lot of steps but once you get the hang of it, then it really doesn’t take that long to make something you can wow your friends with. They’ll be asking you “how’d you do that?!” in no time! Let’s take a look at the steps in short form again:

  • open your files as layers into one document
  • align the layers in perfect registration
  • change the layer blend modes to “lighten” (all except the bottom layer)
  • add a layer mask to each layer and paint in areas you want, or hide areas you don’t want to appear in the final image
  • save as a layered PSD file
  • flatten and save again as a JPG (full resolution, no compression)

I hope you enjoyed this two part series, once again here is the final image.

"1956 Le France Pumper" Corpus Christi, Texas

“1956 Le France Pumper” Corpus Christi, Texas

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Darlene Hildebrandt is an educator who teaches aspiring amateurs and hobbyists how to improve their skills through articles on her site Digital Photo Mentor, online photography classes, and travel tours to exotic places like Peru (Aug 31st - Sept 13th, 2019), Thailand, and India (Oct 28th - Nov 11th, 2019). To help you at whatever level you're at she has two email mini-courses. Sign up for her free beginner OR portrait photography email mini-course here. Or get both, no charge!

Some Older Comments

  • Kevin Reeves October 3, 2013 12:39 am

    Darlene, thank you for posting. You're great at clarifying the details. Question; how to create a color balance adjustment layer for a single mask? I need to revisit and tweak after all the masking is done and that adjustment layer might be less destructive. Thanks again, Kevin.

  • Darlene August 2, 2013 01:48 am

    @Philip another nice job, the sky is really interesting I'm assuming it was a longer exposure as the clouds seem to be moving quite quickly.

    Funny when I read your comment I expected to see a little log cabin in the background, not realizing you meant the truck's cabin LOL.

    My only comment would be that the light on the truck itself is a bit flat. Did you do that with a flashlight or a flash? Perhaps try coming at the truck from the side so the light creates more cross lighting and shadows - it will give you more drama in the image and more texture on the truck.

    Other than that though really nice job combining the three images.

  • Philip Hallam August 1, 2013 09:07 pm

    Another go with another old truck. 1 exposure for the sky, 1 exposure for the truck and 1 exposure using flash to light the cabin.

  • Yvette July 11, 2013 12:55 am

    Trapper, it may not look nice in your living room, but it may be perfect for a book cover, movie poster, etc., I love the pic!

  • Darlene June 4, 2013 04:26 am

    @john yes it will be similar. Some of my students were using that and we got it to work for them no problem.

  • John June 1, 2013 01:36 pm

    Just wondering if these steps will be the same or similar in Photoshop Elements 11? I am not the greatest editor so if I miss a step, I won't know how to fix it. Thanks.

  • Darlene Hildebrandt May 23, 2013 08:44 am

    @dhiraj - looking good! Is this one image or a few combined, that's not clear. This is part two, using Photoshop to combine so I'm assuming multiple images?

  • Dhiraj May 23, 2013 06:31 am

    HI Darlene, Followed the stps mentioned by you. However I dint got time to go out so decided to give a try at home.Hope you will like it. If any suggestions do let me know. :)

  • Jeffrey May 19, 2013 03:54 pm

    When I look at a photo I like to see what techniques I might use to improve my photography
    so keep them coming, we like that alot!

  • Darlene Hildebrandt May 19, 2013 03:58 am

    @joern - yes. Multiple will take the layer selected and add it's pixels to combine them with the layer directly below. So it adds them together.

    Lighten mode takes only areas of the selected layer that are lighter than the one directly below it and shows only those parts. So that is usually the best option for stuff like this when you want only the parts you've lit up to show. It shouldn't darken your image at all.

    I'm not sure what "negative multiply" is that's not an option in Photoshop layer blending modes. Here's a couple good articles I found on explaining blend modes

    hope that helps

  • Niku May 19, 2013 12:25 am

    Thanks Darlene, great post.

  • Andrew Thomas May 17, 2013 09:40 am

    "Just FYI however, I’ve sold quite a few large prints of this image at art shows and recently sold a 24×36? canvas of it. So all that shows is that one person’s opinion is just that – and if someone says they don’t like your image or something you’ve done, don’t get too disheartened as it is just one opinion and there are many others out there."

    Darlene - well put, couldn't agree more!

  • Wagner Falci May 17, 2013 05:59 am


    I've tryed my first lightpainting with your tutorial.

    Thank you so much and congratulations for your job!


  • Duncan G. May 17, 2013 12:23 am

    Great questions and great answers given,...Thank you Darlene ..Hope you write more on this subject

  • Joern May 16, 2013 06:36 pm

    Thanks for the second part of this very inspiring tutorial. I've got one question regarding the layers: You recommend using "Lighten" as layer style. I tried this before the second part of the tutorial was published and I used "Negative multiply" instead. It worked too. The "Lighten" option seems to result in an overall darker image. I do not quite understand the difference of the two modes. Can you explain?

  • Dhiraj May 16, 2013 02:47 pm

    Wowww!!! Can't wait to find an interesting object and do Light Painting Photography.. Thnx Darlene for such detailed tutorial :)

  • Sarah May 14, 2013 01:22 pm

    Thanks Darlene, great post.
    ...and it's nice to see there are other people out there using a six year old MacBookPro :)

  • Darlene Hildebrandt May 14, 2013 10:20 am

    @Cramer no problem, do share if you try it

    @Jeff wow that's a lot of orbs and fire spinning! how long did it take you to do all that? Safety first for fire spinning though right?

    @trapper of course you can have an opinion. I fail to see how your dislike of the subject matter relates to the tutorial though, you can still apply the techniques to any subject of your choice.

    Just FYI however, I've sold quite a few large prints of this image at art shows and recently sold a 24x36" canvas of it. So all that shows is that one person's opinion is just that - and if someone says they don't like your image or something you've done, don't get too disheartened as it is just one opinion and there are many others out there.

  • Trapper May 14, 2013 09:02 am

    Would that look good hanging in my living room? That's the question I often ask when I look at a photograph. The fire engine photo is just plain ugly. Only my opinion,of course.

  • Jeff E Jensen May 14, 2013 06:31 am

    Great tutorial! I've done a lot of light painting, but only a few times have I had to stack images. I recently did a shoot at a spot that was really well lit, so we didn't have the opportunity to run exposures longer than about 30 seconds. This forced me to stack things. It would have been a lot easier had I read this first :o)

    The last to images in the below post are the composites:

  • Cramer Imaging May 14, 2013 04:51 am

    I've been wondering about how this was going to come together. I knew that there would be some layer stacking and masking. That auto align is going to be useful. Thanks for sharing this technique. I'm going to have to try it sometime.