How to Add a Sunburst in Photoshop in Under Two Minutes

How to Add a Sunburst in Photoshop in Under Two Minutes

Have you ever felt like your photos were missing something? In just two minutes, learn to make your portraits come to life by adding a realistic burst of light in Photoshop.

Photoshop is out there for us photographers to bring our visions to life and should be used as a tool to enhance our photos. In this short lesson, learn how easy it is to add a burst of light into any photo and bring it to life. This technique can be applied to indoor or outdoor photos ranging from portraits to landscapes. 

Step 1: Analyze the Light Direction 

Before even opening Photoshop, the first step is to analyze where the light in the scene is coming from. Is it coming from a window? Analyze where the highlights are and where the shadows are being cast. Do this first, so the added light is falling in the same direction as the existing light already there. Always start with a plan of action and draw it out. This will give you focus and direction for what you want to accomplish with the edit. 

Step 2: Make a New Layer

The first thing you want to do is open up your image that you will be editing. Once the image is opened, create a new blank layer. To do this press (shift+option+command+N). Call this layer "sunburst".

Step 3: Creating the Sun Burst

Once you're on the layer, head over to your brushes or press "B." Select a soft brush (low hardness), and make sure your opacity and flow are both set to 100 percent. You want to paint with 100 percent opacity and flow to maintain consistency throughout your stroke. Don't worry that it looks too bright now, you can always change the opacity of the layer later. 

To create the sunburst, select your soft brush and make a massive dab of white anywhere on the image. You want to make sure the light starts bright and slowly fades off. Obviously, at first, it looks like a big white circle, but in the next step, we will fix that. Below, you can see I pressed Command+T to bring up the transform window. I scaled it so the light is subtlety peaking into frame and so it's coming from the right direction and height to create the shadows that appear on the models face. This step is crucial in making it believable. 

Step 3: Adding Atmosphere

Even though the sun is added, it still looks fake. To make it more realistic, we need to bring the ambient exposure of the shot up and match the mood created by the light. The added light must match the light that is present in the frame. To create the proper atmosphere, we will make a gradient. To make a gradient, make a new layer by pressing shift+option+command+N and then press "G" to bring up the gradient tool. Make sure your gradient goes from foreground to transparent. This means that you're creating a subtle gradation from light to ambient. Set your foreground color to white and your background color to black. To toggle back and forth, press "X." 

To make the atmosphere more realistic and accurate to the sun, it must gradually go from light to dark. To accomplish this, draw your gradient from the top of the picture straight down and cover the entire picture. When you cover the entire photograph in a white gradient, you will inevitably lose contrast in the subject's face and will lose the lovely falloff. To get the contrast back, add a layer mask by going up to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. On the layer mask, after pressing G for gradient, draw another gradient. Make sure your foreground layer is set to black. Note that when you're working with layer masks, when the layer mask is filled with white, it means everything is visible. When the layer is filled or painted with black, the effect is being removed. So, starting from the bottom this time, draw the gradient half way, removing the effect from the bottom up, making a nice and soft, believable gradient of light. 

Step 4: Enhance the Photo Through Adding Vignettes

The above steps do a great job of starting us off, but we can take it one step further and enhance the final image by adding a vignette. A vignette is used to bring our attention towards the subject and enhances the effect even more. Some issues that I have found in vignettes is that they are uneven, some corners are too dark, others light. To make a consistent and natural-looking vignette, I developed a technique that gives you total control over the intensity of the vignette and making sure it's in the right place.

First, on a blank layer (Shift+Option+Command+N), make a gradient. Draw your gradient from the corner of the image towards the center. At first, it may seem way too dark and intense, so press Command+T to bring up the transform panel. Using shift and scale, stretch out the gradient and move it out of frame until it creates a smooth transition from dark to light. Once the first corner is drawn in, duplicate that layer by pressing Command+J, and go into the transform panel and flip horizontal. This will give an exact duplicate the first one, with the same tonality and scale. Move the second gradient out of frame again until you get a smooth transition. To get the same effect on the top two corners, press the rotate 180 degrees button and repeat. At the end, you can shift-click all your layers and group them together by pressing Command+G, and you will now have total control over the effect by lowering or raising its opacity. 

The Results

With just a little bit of practice, if you're a beginner, or a seasoned pro in Photoshop, you can enhance your portraits or landscapes by adding a realistic burst of sunlight or a vignette to draw the viewer's eye to the subject. If you found this tutorial helpful or you've tried the effect on your photos, let me know in the comments below!

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Eli Dreyfuss is a professional portrait photographer based in sunny Miami, Florida. He focuses on making ordinary people look like movie stars in his small home studio. Shortly after graduating high school he quickly established himself in the art world and became an internationally awarded & published artist.

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I appreciate all the helpful tips posted on this site, but I'm afraid all this accomplished was to ruin an otherwise decent portrait.

Thank you for your helpful critique. What was it that you didn't like about the advice?

It mostly has to do with the example photo used. The effect left the subject looking washed out and desaturated. It’s most obvious when comparing the before/after images. The before photo was a nice, properly exposed portrait, but in the after photo her skin tone looked all wrong. As others mentioned, I could see this being used to good effect in some settings. But this studio shot just didn’t work.

Thanks for the feedback. I understand where you're coming from. This effect took 2 minutes, and didn't really do my other steps in my workflow. Usually after this is done I would do dodge and burn, color correction etc)

Like i had mentioned, legit in every portfolio shot I have I have used this effect in studio to simulate a light coming from a lamp etc... if you're interested to see how this effect could be applied to studio work feel free to check out my portfolio here:

Below are some examples of it used in doors.

The idea is not a bad one but the effect is far too exaggerated in this case and doesn't improve the shot.

So you can always tone the effect down. What's funny is that I post these images and people love them, then the second I dissect how it was done, people hate it :)

That is ironic. Those are great photoshop skills you have and it's very kind of you to share them.

It's hilarious to me. See more of my work on my website: i use the effect all of the time to add atmosphere to any photo. I dont know it's worked perfect for me.

I bet you would enjoy a hazer.

I will be buying a smoke machine for my next shoots :D but for now this is working just fine. Again that's just my opinion.

A bit different from a cracker, I'd seriously try a can of haze in a can from filmtools if you like atmosphere. Best of luck

Can you provide a link to it? I've been trying to find it for a while now but haven't had any luck. Thanks so much for the suggestion

Fog in a can doesn't produce much volume compared with even a cheap $30 fog machine, but it definitely comes in handy in a pinch. One thing to watch out for is that it is labeled flammable so you have to be very selective when using it. A quick sample.

I wouldnt use it for fog effects. Just to add a subtle haze/diffuse area to a photo when there is a back light. Similar to this photoshop article.

Ah! Thank you for thje advice and links! I will be taking a look!

I think the difference is the audience. Not whether or not you dissect it. When people are looking at photos, your audience is a cross section of humanity. When you dissect it, your audience is other photographers who, as a group, are more liberal with their critiques than most other groups. :-)

I hear what you're saying with regards to audience. Will keep that in mind

Or don't.

Thank you. But I don't see how this is helpful at all? Feel free to explain.

Oh, no need to thank me. It wasn't meant to be helpful. No explanation necessary either. You either get it or you don't. :)

ok. I dont get it :)

Why on earth would anybody want to add sunburst to a photo?? is life that boring?

Because it works for some photos and is a useful tool to add depth to the image.

It definitely works for some photos but why would you want to add a sunburst to a photo that was taken indoors? It doesn't make much sense. Nevertheless the technique itself is very good.

The answer is simple. to create a mood or atmosphere. below I will attach some examples of the sunburst added indoors. Let me know if you have any other questions on how I achieved these I would gladly answer.

I definitely understand the appeal of the effect but it's become one of those things that are abused and over used by people just starting out in photoshop. I'm at the point now when I create real flares using flash , people will think it's fake. haha.

Ok. I hear your point. Yes it's definitely at sometimes overused but its really up to you how you use the technique

I love how the above comments just completely critique in a non helpful way. Here's my criticism: It is definitely a situational effect to use and this photo might not have been the best to use for an example of sunbursting but I do love the sunburst effect and did recently use it in a photoshoot. But cheers to showing the method and how to accomplish it!

I just sit back with my popcorn and enjoy a good show. Sure thing! I hear what you're saying. I really probably should have done it with a more finished image as i really didn't perfect the effect on this one. Like dodging and burning etc

This is a good first start, but considering this is a studio shot it's not realistic to believe that a sun would be producing this burst of light. I believe you had good intentions but I think if you used a photo shot outside it would've produced a more realistic result and less criticism. Also, there are additional PhotoShop techniques you can use to make it more realistic. Cheers.

Yep! Thank you for your critique. I appreciate it. Below are some photos i;ve done using the same effect :)

Maybe it's the title of the article that needs adjustment - How to create a light burst, light glare, or light haze, instead of specifically a "sun" burst. Great images btw.