Photographing real lightning can be quite challenging, but Photoshop allows you to render rather realistic lightning instead! This can add a lot of interest and increase your photograph’s ‘wow’ factor while still looking realistic paired with a stormy sky.

So here’s how you can make lightning in Photoshop in just 12 simple steps.

How To Make Lightning From Scratch In Photoshop

After finding a good photo for the edit, load it into Adobe Photoshop. Just make sure you’re using an image of a dark and stormy sky, as we have here, to make the edit convincing. 

Step 1: Duplicate Your Base Image

The benefit of Photoshop is that you can use layers to protect your original image. It is always suggested to duplicate the base image and work on the copy so that you can always restore the image should something go amiss in the editing process. 

In the Layers panel, you can copy your base image by right-clicking on the layer titled Background

When the options menu appears, click Duplicate Layer

A window will then pop up asking for the layer name. 

Press OK when done.

You can also duplicate the base layer by selecting the base layer and pressing Control + J (Windows) or Command + J (Mac). 

If your Layers panel is hidden, you can add it to your workspace by going to Window > Layers or clicking F7

Step 2: Add A New Blank Layer

Once you’ve duplicated the base layer, you need to make a blank new layer on top of that. You can do so by clicking the New Layer icon in the Layers panel

Step 3: Add A Black-To-White Gradient

I’m going to add a gradient in the new blank layer I just made. Start by finding the Gradient Tool in the Toolbar or pressing G on the keyboard. 

I then need to select the color gradient that I want. As lightning is black, gray, and white, I want to ensure my gradient is also — press D on the keyboard to switch the gradient to black and white. Make sure the preview in the gradient panel shows black and white!

You also need to make sure that the Linear Gradient option is selected. You will find this directly next to the gradient panel itself. 

Once the above is done, go to your image and click the top of the photo. Hold down Shift and drag down to the bottom. Holding down Shift ensures that you draw a perfectly vertical line.

When releasing, you’ll be left with a gradient across the entire canvas. 

Step 4: Add A “Difference Clouds” Render

Now we are going to make the lightning bolt. Go to Filter > Render > Difference Clouds in the menu bar. 

Upon pressing Difference Clouds, your photo will look like this. 

Step 5: Invert The “Difference Clouds” Render

To start creating the lightning bolts, the “difference clouds” need to be inverted.

You can do so by going to Image > Adjustments > Invert or pressing Control + I (Windows) or Command + I (Mac). 

The result will look like this: 

Step 6: Adjust The Image Levels 

These edits will all start to make sense once you adjust the image levels! Open the Levels panel with Image > Adjustments > Levels or press Control + L (Windows) or Command + L (Mac). 

A window with a histogram display will appear. 

In the Shadow field, input 200. 

In the Midtones field, type in 0.24. 

Leave the Highlight field at its default setting. 

Your image will now look like this: 

Step 7: Isolate The Lightning Bolt 

Although the above image result can look crazy and messy, there is definitely a lightning bolt in there! I like this little section to use for the lightning. 

To isolate the bolt I want, I’ll use the Brush Tool (B). First, make a new layer above this one. 

Then, for the brush tool settings, make sure you use the Soft Round brush with a Hardness of zero (you want the edges nice and soft). You should set the Mode to Normal and the Opacity to 100% in the Options bar

Set the foreground color to Black in the Toolbar.

Then, I will paint away all elements that aren’t a part of my lightning bolt. You can use the [ and ] brackets on your keyboard to adjust the brush size. 

Step 8: Select The Lightning Bolt 

To select the lightning bolt, I’m going to use the Lasso Tool (L)

Once selected, draw a rough outline around the lightning bolt. 

Step 9: Copy & Paste The Bolt Into A New Layer

Once the bolt is selected, use Control + C and Control + V (Windows) or Command + C and Command + V (Mac) to copy and paste the isolated bolt into a new layer. 

You can then delete the original layer with the whole bolt image! Delete the layer by selecting it and pressing the trashcan icon in the bottom right corner or by pressing Delete on your keyboard. In the above screenshot, that is Layer 2 that I am deleting.

Step 10: Remove The Black Around The Lightning 

To remove all of the black around the lightning bolt, all you need to do is change the layer’s blend mode. In the Layers panel, make sure that the layer with the lightning bolt is active by clicking on it. 

In the Blend mode menu (which says Normal by default), click to activate the dropdown menu. In the dropdown menu, select Screen

The result will show just the lightning and make the black transparent.

Step 11: Place The Bolt In The Right Spot 

As you can see, my bolt is horizontal, but I need it to be vertical. Press Control + T (Win) or Command + T (Mac) to activate the Transform adjustment. With Transform active, you can rotate, stretch, and shrink the bolt in any way needed. 

I placed the bolt in this particular spot of my photograph, ensuring that the top touches a cloud and the bottom is close to the ground. 

Step 12: Adjust The Image As Needed 

In some cases, the bolt could look like natural lightning as is! But in others, you may need to make some adjustments. 

I suggest using the Dodge Tool (O) to lighten all the areas around the lightning bolt, as that bold flash will spread the lightness around. Remember to always work on the duplicate background layer, never on the original background layer! 

Set the Dodge Range to Shadows and Exposure to 100% in the Options bar and paint behind the lightning bolt. 

My photo was significantly enhanced by the addition of a lightning strike, changing the entire feel of the shot itself! You can do the same to your photographs, and I hope this tutorial helped you achieve just that. 

To further blend this effect, you can try to stretch the bolt out further to connect it with a point on the ground or make it appear behind certain clouds. This can all be done with the help of a layer mask once the steps here are completed.

Then to add more drama to your photo, you can add extra lightning bolts by repeating the same steps as previously!

Happy editing!