Photoshop Fundamentals: Create Three Quick Special Effects

The Photoshop Workbook:
Professional Retouching
and Compositing Tips,
Tricks, and Techniques

By Glyn Dewis
(Peachpit Press)
288 pages, $39.99

In what follows I share some special effects that I regularly use in my own pictures. I’m often asked how I create these effects and whether they come from using third-party plugins. The great thing is that they’re all created within Photoshop, and each one is quick and easy to produce. I’ll show you techniques I use for turning day into night, creating a cartoon/painterly effect and making your own dust, debris, snow, and rain brushes.

Turning Day into Night

Techniques for turning a day scene into a night scene open up a whole new world of creative possibilities. Here’s a really simple way to do exactly this, and how to add realistic street lighting by using the Camera Raw filter and a layer mask.

Step 1. With an image file open in Photoshop, create a copy by going to Layer > New > Layer via Copy (Command/Ctrl+J). Name this layer night.

Step 2. Because we’re going to make use of a filter for this effect, we want to use it as a Smart Filter, so go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters, and then to Filter > Camera Raw.

Step 3. To create the nighttime look, move the Temperature slider to –55 so that we introduce much more blue into the picture. Then darken the picture by moving the Exposure slider to –3.00, and click OK.

Now that we have the beginnings of our nighttime scene, we’ll move on to adding the street lighting.

Step 4. Click the original background layer at the bottom of the layer stack, and create a copy by pressing Command/Ctrl+J. Rename it light, drag it to the top of the layer stack, and go Filter > Convert for Smart Filters.

Step 5. Go to Filter > Camera Raw, increase Temperature to +100 and Vibrance to +100, and click OK.

Step 6. Click the triangular icon to the right of the night and light layers to hide the layer masks that are attached to the Smart Filter, and to prevent the layer stack from becoming too long.

Step 7. Click the uppermost layer (light), and Option/Alt-click the layer mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. This adds a black mask and hides the contents of the light layer.

Step 8. Press D to set the foreground and background colors to their default, and then with a white foreground color and a normal soft-edged brush at 25% opacity, paint around the wall light and down to the ground and pavement.

Tip: Releasing and pressing down with the brush increases the opacity of the light layer showing through the black layer mask.

Step 9. Let’s take this a step further and make it appear as though there’s a light inside the doorway that is spilling out onto the road surface. With the same white brush, change the hardness to 90% and, with the layer mask selected in the Layers panel, paint inside the doorway and onto the road.

Note: Option/Alt-click the layer mask to see that the area around the door and road surface is pure white, meaning that the full color of the light layer is showing through. To reduce this, we need to make the white area not quite so white. We can do that with the output levels. Option/Alt-click the layer mask to go back to the picture.

10. Option/Alt-click the layer mask to go back to the picture. Use the Lasso tool to make a rough selection around the doorway and the light on the road surface. Then go to Image > Adjustments > Levels and drag the White Output Levels mark to 170. Click OK, and then choose Select > Deselect (Command/Ctrl+D). This makes the light in the doorway and on the road surface not quite so bright.

Note: Option/Alt-click the layer mask and you can see that the area of the door and road surface has gone from pure white to a light shade of gray.

The Cartoon or Painterly Effect

Contrary to what most people believe, this effect isn’t created by using a third-party plug-in but instead makes use of two filters built into Photoshop: Reduce Noise and High Pass. It creates a wonderful textured feel and seems to add more dimension to a picture—as if it’s coming out of the screen or off the print a little. It works especially well when used on pictures with a fun element.

Step 1. Create a merged layer at the top of the layer stack by going to Select > All, then to Edit > Copy Merged, and then to Edit > Paste (Shift+Command/Ctrl+ Option/Alt+E). Rename the layer painterly.

Step 2. Create a copy of this new layer by pressing Command/Ctrl+J. Name this layer sharpness.

Step 3. Turn off the sharpness layer by clicking the eye icon to the left of the layer. Click the painterly layer, and go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters and then to Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise.

Step 4. With the Reduce Noise properties open, set Strength to 10, set all other sliders to 0, and click OK.

Tip: If you place your cursor within the preview inside the Reduce Noise filter, and then click and release, you will see the before and after views.

Step 5. Most times I apply this effect twice, but the second time I use a slightly lower strength. Go to Filter > Noise > Reduce Noise, and this time set Strength to 5 and click OK.

Applying this effect tends to reduce the sharpness in areas like the eyes, hair, and so on. To bring some of this sharpness back but maintain the painterly effect, we can use the High Pass filter.

Step 6. Click the sharpness layer and click to turn the eye icon on so that the layer is visible. Then go to Filter > Other > High Pass, add a Radius of 1 pixel, and click OK. Then change the blend mode of the sharpness layer to Overlay.

The result of adding the cartoon/painterly effect

A radius of just 1 pixel is enough to bring back sharpness for most pictures; very rarely would you want to use an amount of 2 pixels or beyond. Also, applying this effect using Smart Filters means that you can very easily and quickly increase or decrease the final result.

Debris and Dust

Debris and dust are something you often see in movie posters when there’s a lot of action and explosions. As always with Photoshop, there are countless ways to create this debris and dust effect.

Creating the Brush

Step 1. Create a new document: go to File > New, make the dimensions 1500px width and 1500px height, set the resolution to 240ppi, and for Background Contents choose anything other than Transparent. Click OK.

Step 2. Then go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise, set Amount to 400%, set Distribution to Gaussian, and select the Monochromatic checkbox.

Step 3. For this effect to work we need to make the noise bigger. Choose the Rectangular Marquee tool, Shift-click, and drag out a square in the center of the document.

Step 4. Copy this selection onto its own layer by pressing Command/Ctrl+J. Then go to Edit > Free Transform, Shift+Option/Alt-click any corner transform handle and drag outward so that the square fills the document. As a result, the size of the noise has been increased. Flatten the layers by going Layer > Flatten Image.

Step 5. Go to Filter > Filter Gallery, and then to Stylize > Glowing Edges. Here is where you can experiment with the Edge Width, Edge Brightness, and Smoothness settings to create random shapes that will pass as being debris. In this example I found that setting Edge Width to 14, Edge Brightness to 20, and Smoothness to 1 worked great.

Step 6. Click OK to close the Filter Gallery, and then press D to set the foreground and background colors to their default of black and white. Press X so that white becomes the foreground color. Choose the Gradient tool from the toolbar and, in the options at the top of the screen, select the Foreground to Transparent from the Gradient Picker, and the Linear gradient.

Step 7. Drag inward from each side (left, right, top, and bottom) and from the corner of the document several times. This will cover the debris that is too close to the edge and ensure that there are no straight lines. Then go to Image > Adjustments > Levels, click the Black Point sampler icon. Zoom in on the document and click any of the debris shapes (this darkens them all so that they stand out more). Click OK to close the Levels Adjustment dialog.

The result of using several gradients to remove the debris from the edges and to remove any straight lines.

Note: When you’re defining (creating) a brush, Photoshop makes the darkest areas opaque and the gray areas semitransparent. White areas are completely ignored.

Step 8. Choose Edit > Define Brush Preset, name the brush Debris, and click OK. Choose the Brush tool (B), and in the options at the top of the screen click to open the Brush Preset Picker. The brush we just created will appear as the very last in the list. Click this new brush to select it, click the gear icon in the top right of the Brush Preset Picker properties to open a menu, and choose Save Brushes.

Step 9. Name the brush set Particles, and click OK. The Particles brush set, which contains the Debris brush, is now stored for future use and will appear in the Brush Preset Picker’s list of brushes, meaning you can share it and export it. (Brush sets are a great way to keep similar brushes together.)

The Particles brush set is now stored in Photoshop for future use.

Saving Brush Presets

Now we can make some adjustments in the Brush panel to make the Particles brush look and behave as we want it to.

Step 1. Choose the Brush tool (B), and from the Brush Preset Picker choose the Particles brush. Click the Brush panel icon.

Step 2. In Brush Tip Shape, set Spacing to 60%. In Shape Dynamics, set Size Jitter to 5% and Angle Jitter to 100%. In Scattering, set Scatter to 25% and Count to 1. In Transfer, set Opacity Jitter to 65%.

Making changes in the Brush panel.

Step 3. To save these settings as a preset, click the gear icon in the top right of the Brush panel properties and choose New Brush Preset. Name the preset Debris/Dust, and click OK.

Saving brush settings as a preset for future use.

Using the Debris Brush

We’ll now add depth using several layers.

Step 4. With an image open in Photoshop that you want to add debris to, add a new blank layer to the top of the layer stack and name it debris 1.

Step 5. Use the Debris brush with a black foreground color to paint the debris. Debris in the distance would be small because it is farthest from the camera, so to make it appear out of focus go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters and then to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. I used a blur amount of 20 pixels. Then click OK.

Step 6. Add another blank layer and name it debris 2. Increase the size of the brush a little because the debris nearer to the camera would be larger, and then apply a few brush strokes. Go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters, and then to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and apply less blur than in the previous step. I applied a blur amount of 15 pixels. Click OK.

Step 7. Add another blank layer and name it debris 3. This debris should be slightly larger than the previous layer, so increase the size of the brush. Add a small amount of Gaussian Blur (5 pixels) so that it still has the look of movement. Click OK.

Step 8. Add another blank layer and name it debris 4. This will be the debris nearest the camera. This debris needs to be largest of all, so increase the size of the brush to the maximum and apply a few brush strokes (if you want the debris to be even bigger, use Edit > Free Transform and resize the contents of the layer). Finally, go to Filter > Convert for Smart Filters, and then to Filter > Gaussian Blur and add a blur amount similar (if not slightly more) to the amount you used on the debris 1 layer.

Note: Below you can see that adding layers of debris at varying sizes and with different amounts of blur creates the feeling of depth. You can add as many layers of debris as you like, but I recommend no less than three: farthest away, in line with the subject, and closest to the camera.

Adding multiple debris layers to create depth.

Creating a Snow Scene

Here’s a simple technique that I use for creating a realistic snow scene. When it’s used on a picture in which there is little or no detail in the sky, it is incredibly effective, especially when falling snow is added.

Step 1. With a suitable picture open in Photoshop, go to Select > Color Range. In the Color Range properties, choose Sampled Colors from the Select menu, choose the Selection option, and choose None from the Selection Preview menu.

Step 2. Move your cursor on top of the open photo, and click once with the Eyedropper tool. You can see what is being selected from the white areas in the Color Range preview box. Now that you have sampled an area of the picture, move the Fuzziness slider left or right to add or take away from the selection. When you are happy that enough has been selected, click OK.

Step 3. Add a new blank layer to the top of the layer stack by clicking the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Name the layer snow (Figure 4.30). Go to Edit > Fill, choose White from the Contents menu, and click OK.

Step 4. Go to Select > Deselect (or press Command/Ctrl+D). Add a small amount of blur, so that the snow has no sharp edges, by going to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, adding a Radius of 2 pixels, and clicking OK.

Note: You may need to make a few attempts and experiment with Color Range by clicking and sampling different areas of your picture before you get the result you’re after. You can also duplicate the snow layer by pressing Command/Ctrl+J, which will increase the amount of snow cover.

You can take it one step further by using the Particles brush to create falling snow. The technique is exactly the same as for debris, but use the brush with a white foreground color.


Here’s how to create rain using a few Photoshop filters, as well as how to turn it into a brush that you can keep and use in the future.

Step 1. Press D to set the foreground and background colors to their default of black and white. Create a new document by going File > New. Set Width to 1200px, Height to 800px, and Resolution to 240ppi, and click OK. (It doesn’t matter what color you set as Background Contents so long as you don’t use Transparent.)

Step 2. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise, set Amount to 400%, and choose Gaussian and Monochromatic (Figure 4.34). Click OK. Go to Filter > Blur > Motion Blur, and set Angle to –52 and Distance to 70 pixels.

Step 3. You may notice that the motion blur around the edges of the file don’t look quite right. Go to Edit > Free Transform, Shift+Option/Alt-click a corner transform handle, and drag outward until the edges aren’t visible. Press Return/Enter.

Note: If you can’t use Free Transform, then the layer you’re working on may be locked. Simply click the padlock icon to the left of the layer to unlock it.

Step 4. Go to Image > Adjustments > Levels, choose the Black Point sampler, and then click within the image. This changes the look of the layer entirely, and you’ll see lines appear that we’ll be able to use as rain. Try clicking around different areas of the layer, which will create results with more or less rain. Once you have the look you’re after, click OK.

Step 5. To turn this rain effect into a brush, go to Image > Adjustments > Invert so that the rain effect is now black against a white background. Photoshop uses the dark and gray areas to form the brush, ignoring the white areas. Go to Edit > Define Brush preset, name the preset rain, and click OK.

Tip: When adding rain to your pictures, stick to the principles covered earlier: Create a number of layers with rain of different sizes and blur strengths to add depth.


Excerpted from The Photoshop Workbook: Professional Retouching and Compositing Tips, Tricks, and Techniques by Glyn Dewis. Copyright © 2015. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.


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