L’église Sainte-Emerence, Rochemenier

How to Add Light Rays to Photos

By Mark Kneen

I little while ago I mentioned the Digital Film Tools plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom that will create light rays in your photos. Now this is a good application and gives you plenty of control over the finished look. However it does of course cost and if you have already splashed out (a lot) on Photoshop you may be wondering if it’s possible to do the same sort of thing from within Photoshop without the plug-in, as Photoshop seems to be able to everything else right? Well yes of course there is, in fact there are are at least two ways that I know of and I’ll run through them here. Both are very simple and quick. A few of you have been asking is it possible in Lightroom? No it’s not, you do need a 3rd party plug-in for Lightroom (and Aperture if you are into all that sleek thin white fruitiness).

For both methods the key component is the right starting image. It should be one that has quite distinct highlights and will look OK with light rays. Sun behind clouds, darkish room with open dooorway to the light, light falling through church windows, light falling through leafy trees to name just a few.

Method 1 – Threshold & Blur

OK, here is a picture inside L’église Sainte-Emerence in Rochemenier, France. This is a great place by the way; this church is built over an underground chapel dug into the sandstone by the troglodyte dwellers who built/dug out something in the region of 250 underground rooms in this area alone dating back to 13th Century. If your are ever in the area, go and have a look, it’s fascinating.
Right, we are going to create some light rays coming through the rear window behind the crucifix.
First of all, we need to open the image in Photoshop and duplicate the original layer; one of the ways to do this is right click the layer in the layers pallete and select “Duplicate Layer”



Make sure the duplicate layer is highlighted/selected in the layers palette, as this is the one we will work with. Then go to Image » Adjustments » Threshold and adjust the threshold until your area of highlight is dominant. This may not be entirely possible but we can sort that later. The key is experiment, each image will be different but somewhere between 100-150 should be OK and you will now have a layer with everything either black or white.

Now go to Filter » Blur » Radial Blur and set amount to 100, Method: Zoom and Quality: draft. The reason to use draft is that it may take multiple attempts to get the rays where you want them and it’s quick. If you have a fast computer you can set ‘Best’ here straight off. Then move your cursor over to the “Blur Center”, then click and drag its center point to the point where you want the rays radiating from. Note:Where you drag this will depend on your image and depend on where you want the source of light to come from and may need some further trial and error. Once everything is OK, ‘Undo’ and go back and set ‘Best’ if you’ve been working in ‘Draft’ and click OK. You can repeat this blur process on this layer 3-4 times to increase the definition of the rays, again it’s about experimenting and personal preference.

Now set the layer’s blending mode to “Lighten” or “Screen” and change the opacity to around “60-70%”. This is what can make those rays really stand out or make them a little more subtle. Lighten & Screen can give quite different results and it will depend on your image and personal preference which is best. You can just switch between the two.

If you have light rays where they shouldn’t be you can either create a layer mask and brush over with black or use the eraser tool with the soft brush (size 150px soft brush) and erase out parts of the layer where obviously light is not passing through.

Then right click in the layers palette, flatten your image and save in your chosen format, et voila, the final image, slightly overdone for effect.

L’église Sainte-Emerence, Rochemenier

Method 2 – Levels Tool

This method is exactly the same as the above method except that you use the levels tool to pick out the highlights. Duplicate the layer as above (or Ctrl/Alt & J). Go to Image » Adjustments » Levels and drag the middle “input” slider to the right. Play with the other sliders too if you want, remember you are just trying to isolate the light source.

From there, everything is exactly the same as method 1, although “screen” blending mode seems to work best and the overall effect appears to be more subtle, at least on the images I’ve tried it on.

Once you have the effect you are after, right click in the layers palette and flatten your image and save.

Grand-Moutier Cloister

Any questions or comments, fire away below. Thanks for reading.


2 thoughts on “How to Add Light Rays to Photos”

  1. Great work this. I have bookmarked this and will have a go when I get a photo that will be made into a stunner with the aid of you tute.
    I see many images with these rays in them and for the most part I am sure they are enhanced by giving them this sort of effect.


    1. Thanks Gaz, appreciate the comment and glad you enjoyed the post, I hope it turns that next photo into a stunner. Let me know how you get on.



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