The sun’s rays are one of the most beautiful details about an early morning stroll or a beautiful sunset. Yet despite their beauty, light rays are often challenging to capture with a camera alone, which is why many photographers resort to adding in rays with Photoshop during their editing process.
Creating rays in Adobe Photoshop may seem daunting, but the process is quite simple once you understand how it works. To create an image with rays, you first need to have an idea that would make sense for that detail.
The best images to practice with will be those where the sun is visible — perhaps when rising among the trees, setting over the ocean, or casting a soft light over a beautiful mountain landscape. These images are often the ones you took when light beams were present to your eyes, yet the rays did not come out in the image.
This detailed and easy-to-follow Photoshop tutorial will walk you through exactly how to create and add rays in Photoshop, recreating that moment you witnessed.
Step 1: Add a New Layer
Once you have your image loaded into Photoshop, ready to go, you need to add a new layer.
Blank layers have a checkerboard pattern because they do not contain any information or pixels.
To create a new layer, you can go to Layer> New > Layer on the top menu or use the keyboard shortcut of Shift + Ctrl + n.
If given the option to rename this new Layer, name it “sun rays” for the organization. Your main photo will be considered the “background” layer.
Step 2: Make Sure Your Foreground and Background Colors Are Set To Their Default
After naming your layers, press the letter “D” on your keyboard to reset the Default foreground and background colors.
Near the bottom of the Tools panel, the Foreground and Background swatches are displayed as a black and white square, slightly covering each other. The foreground, or upper left square, should be black while the background, or lower right square, should be white.
Step 3: Add The Clouds Filter
Next, you’ll need to put the Clouds filter on the “light rays” layer.
Go to the Filter menu on the top of the screen, select Render, then select Clouds. So Filter > Render > Clouds.
The Clouds filter will overtake your entire “light rays” layer with black and white puffs that somewhat resemble clouds. The clouds are in black and white because those are the default colors selected from your foreground and background.
Step 4: Make Sure to Apply The Blending Mode To “Overlay”
When you put the Clouds filter, the “light rays” layer will become completely unviewable as it is. That’s because the Blending Mode is automatically set to Normal. We want to change the blend mode from Normal to Overlay to see our image through the cloudy, light beam layer.
Overlay mode also increases the contrast of your image, so you’re able to make out your image’s details through the Layer on top.
To change the blend mode, navigate to the Layers panel. On the panel’s upper left-hand side, you’ll see the Blending Mode is set as “Normal.” Click “Normal” and change the blend mode to Overlay.
You should now be able to see the light source and most of your main image’s details.
Step 5: Apply the Sun Rays Layer to a “Smart Object”
To take the blurry, cloudy Layer and turn it into something resembling light beams, we will need to convert that layer into a smart object.
With the “light rays” icon selected, click on the small Menu icon in the right corner within the Layers panel. From that menu, select Convert to Smart Object.
Nothing will change on the image itself, besides a small Smart Object icon will become present in the lower right-hand corner of that Layer’s thumbnail. Smart Object layers are similar to those that include photo information because they have information and can be manipulated.
However, Smart Objects allow you to perform and create non-destructive edits an unlimited number of times.
Step 6: Add the “Radial Blur” Filter
Next, we’ll need to work with the radial blur filter. To do this, navigate to the Filter menu at the top of the screen, select Blur, then Radial Blur. So Filter > Blur > Radial Blur.
Using the filter Blur Radial will create light beams because the Layer will create an entire filter blur, coming from the light source.
Once the Radial Blur dialog box appears, set the Blur Method to Zoom. The Zoom method will give the illusion of the long, straight beams shining through the trees or onto the beach. The blur radial is what will keep those beams from looking too artificial.
After selecting the Zoom method, set your Quality. Experts might go ahead and choose Best at this point, but those unfamiliar with these editing processes should select Good for now. The quality can always be changed later when needed.
Next, select the Amount of Blur to be applied to the image. Large images will demand a higher filter blur number, whereas smaller images will show the filter blur effects more drastically. You will create a new look on your image depending on the Amount you select and the light source.
Before closing out the dialog box, you’ll need to select the Blur Central of your image. This point should be where your sun is located in the sky of the image.
To select the Blur Central, drag your mouse to the approximate spot on the example square that the sun is located in the real image. Despite Photoshop’s advancements, this step is always tricky because the box used to select the location does not include a preview of your actual image.
Make the best guess you can and rest assured you can always edit the filter blur radial and positioning of the light beams if necessary.
The filter blur radial can be difficult to adjust, but practice makes perfect!
Step 7: Re-Check the Radial Blur Smart Filter and Change the Settings to Your Desired Look
Once you exit out of the Radial Blur dialog box, your image will represent the changes you made to the background layer. Frequently, the beams will be too defined (which means you should lower your Amount), or the center of the blur will be slightly off from the sun (which means you should readjust your Blur Center).
To reopen the Radial Blur settings, double-click on the words “Radial Blur” within the light beams preview box. Now you can change the blend mode and create effects with the sun rays in Photoshop to your liking.
You can change the Amount, Radial Blur Center, and Quality as much as you want in the settings. Edits to this Layer will not harm the image because the Smart Object status of the Layer makes it non-destructible.
Continue adjusting these settings until you are happy with the image you see.
Step 8: Make Sure the Radial Blur is Set From “Good” to “Best”
As soon as you are happy with how the light beams on your image look, change the quality of your Radial Blur from Good to Best, then reload the filter for a final time.
Using the Best Quality available will take longer to load the filter because of the high quality of the effect. This higher quality of sun rays should be prevalent by the way they appear in the photo.
Step 9: Apply an Additional Layer Mask
Now that you have perfected how your light beams look, it is time to perfect where the beams will and will not appear in your photo.
Some photos will look okay with rays of light throughout the image, whereas others will not look realistic.
To hide the sun rays in certain areas, we will use a Layer Mask. To create a Layer Mask, click on the Layer Mask icon (which resembles a square with a dot in it) while the “light rays” layer is still selected.
A layer-mask thumbnail that looks like a white square should appear within the “sun rays” preview box.
Step 10: Click on the Brush Tool
Along the left side of your Photoshop screen, there should be a Tools panel with multiple buttons. Select the Brush Tool from this panel before continuing with your editing process.
Step 11: Set Your Foreground to Black
Since our goal is to hide individual sun rays, we need to set the foreground color to black. Photoshop will use the color of the foreground as the Brush Tool color.
To make sure your foreground is black, press the D letter on your keyboard. This action should set your foreground to its default — white. Now, press X on your keyboard to swap your foreground and background colors.
The current Foreground and Background colors are now visible in the color swatches on the Tools panel. The upper left square, indicating the foreground color, should now be black.
Step 12: Select a Soft Round Brush
Navigate to the Brush Preset Picker by right-clicking or control-clicking anywhere within the image on Photoshop. From the menu that appears, select the soft round brush from the very left side of the top row of brush choices. Once you have double-clicked the brush tool size, the Brush Preset Picker should close automatically.
Using the brush, begin to paint over your image where you do not want to see the sun rays. You won’t see a trail of black where your brush has been, but you’ll notice the sun rays disappearing in those areas because the brush is acting as an eraser at this moment.
You can change your brush’s size to be larger or smaller by navigating back to the Brush Preset Picker. Some images may require additional edits, while others may not be as involved.
You can see where you have painted by referencing the Mask Preview Thumbnail near your “light rays” thumbnail. The black areas have been painted over, and the white areas are where the light beans are still visible on the image.
Step 13: Apply a Photo Filter Adjustment Layer
Once you are satisfied with each of your beams’ location, you can play with the color of the beams to better match the tone of your image.
Hold Alt (for Windows users) or Option (for Mac users) while clicking the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon. This icon looks like a half black, half white circle located at the bottom of the Layers panel.
Select Photo Filter from the menu that appears. This selection will create a New Layer dialog box, similar to what we used at the beginning to make the beams layer. Select the option to Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask to only change details on the beams layer, rather than the entire image.
The Photo Filter Adjustment Layer should be added directly above the light beams layer.
Step 14: Click the “Warming Filter” and Adjust the Density to Desired Look
Settings for the Photo Filter Adjustment Layer will appear in the Properties panel at the Photoshop screen.
Once you have navigated to the correct settings page, set the Filter option to Warming Filter (85). Next, bring the Density of the sun rays up by sliding the slider towards the right. This increase will warm up the sun rays, helping them to blend in with the environment.
If your photo features a lot of soft light, you will want to add warmth to the light rays slightly, but not all the way. You should aim to create a feeling of fullness and warmth with your edits to the light.
The farther right you increase the density, the warmer the light in the beams will look. You can adjust these settings multiple times to your liking until you are happy with the result.
Step 15: Lower the Opacity of the Sun Rays for a Natural Appearance
Now that we’ve perfected the sun rays’ position and temperature, it’s time we polish them off by making sure they aren’t too bright.
Opacity measures the brightness of part of an image, so if you would like to alter the Opacity, you should navigate to the Layers panel again. Opacity gets measured as a percentage when using a mask to create sun rays in Photoshop. You can raise or decrease this percentage by playing with the dial in the panel’s upper right-hand corner.
You can lower or raise the Opacity percentage to your liking. You know you’re done editing when the light beams look and feel as real as you remember them!
Photoshop editing techniques like this are part of what keeps photo editing so exciting and creative.