Saturday, May 16, 2015

Adding color light bursts to an image using Photoshop

Many readers have commented on the bright, warmly lit color bursts I add to many of my images and have asked for an explanation of how I do it.  This tutorial is a step-by-step illustration of the process I use to create the star bursts and then apply them to my images.

There are two steps to the process of adding color star bursts to an image -- creating the star bursts themselves, and then applying them to an image. The image above has several star bursts applied for a more dramatic effect, while the photo below has only one toned-down burst coming from the upper window area.


1. Make a 4800 pixel square at 300dpi and 16-bit. Fill this with 50% gray. The reason we work in 16-bit color is to avoid posterizing problems later in the process.

2. Create a new layer and, using the Elliptical Marquee Tool  set to a "feather" of 5, draw a long, very thin ellipse. Fill this ellipse with white.

3. Create a duplicate layer of this white line (CTRL+J). Next rotate this duplicate layer 90degrees. Merge this layer down with the first line.

4. Duplicate this white cross layer and rotate the new layer by 45 degrees. Merge this layer with the other cross layer. Now you have an eight-pointed star.

5. Create a new blank layer and, holding down the shift key, make a circular selection with the Elliptical marquee tool. For this selection set the feather to at least 100px. Fill this selection with white.

6a. Set the Foreground color layer of Photoshop to a warm tone.  I use a muted orange, but you can change the color and its intensity to suit your own color palette.

6b. Create a new blank layer below the one you just made with the round blur. Make another circular selection with the same feather of 100px.  Fill this selection with the new color you just made. This selection should be almost the same size as the star burst. Don't worry too much about the exact sizing of these layer elements because we can always change that later. Center all these layers.

7. Merge the star layer and two blur layers together. Next apply a heavy Gaussian blur to suit your taste. The amount of blur will determine how much the points of the star show. Don't overdue the blur. Try to maintain the octagonal shape that is a result of the original eight-pointed star. This will mimic the shape of a camera lens iris diaphragm when we later apply the star burst.

8. Duplicate this star burst layer. Set it to 40% opacity and move it under the first star layer. Resize this new 40% star burst by making it larger to suit your taste.

Once you have all these elements you can modify them by resizing or changing the opacity to create different versions. You can also create different color variations to suit.

9. Collapse all the layers and convert the image to 8-bit. Save it as a jpg at the highest quality lever to further avoid banding.  If you find that your star burst does have some artifacting in the form of banding, you can add 1-2% noise to the image.

You are free to use the actual start burst I created in this tutorial by downloading the original, high res version it here.

Now that we have the star burst image, it is time to put it to use.


It helps to begin with a suitable image that was originally photographed with back lighting. Since I do this quite a bit, I usually leave a section of an image blasted out white for later placement of the star burst. I also warm the color of the image up in Camera RAW so it will harmonize better with the color of the star burst I will be adding to it later.

It helps to shoot the original subject using back lighting as I did here by placing the sun directly behind the model's head and using a pop-up, on-camera fill flash to brighten her face. This provides a bright, glowing area above her to later place the star burst. 

1. With a suitable image in Photoshop, drag and drop the newly created star burst image onto it.

2. Change the mode of this layer to "Hard Light". This will make it transparent and leave only the color burst.

3. Manipulate the size and shape of this star burst layer to fit around the main subject by using the Distort and Warp Transform editing tools.

4. Collapse the layers and  you are done.

You can apply multiple star bursts to the same image. Creating duplicate, over-lapping layers of the burst will also boost the color intensity. 

This is the original scene with a blasted out window area intentionally included for later placement of a star burst.  I also warmed up the over-all image and lightened it so it would harmonize better once I added the color bursts. 

For this scene, I added four star bursts: two overlapping in the window area, one small one as a reflection in the glass table, and one above and to the right of the woman's head. 


  1. Useful and much appreciated tutorial, Tom. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  2. Outstanding post! Very amazing shoot. I am curious how much a typical lifestyle shoots costs?
    Could you do a updated blog on stock shooting?

  3. I just revisited this post Tom, and discovered a possible error in the step-by-step description. In 6a you set a warm foreground color, and in 6b you make a new layer with a circular selection (but you never do anything with it...), and suddenly in step 7 you merge the star layer and the two blur layers. Is there a step missing in between these??

    Cheers, Eivind

  4. Elvind, I added another sentence to step 6b that will hopefully clarify what was missing from the instructions. See if that works for you now.