5 Tips For Adding Fire With Photoshop

Today I present to you,"The Pyromancer" featuring Lopti of Some Like it Blue. In the wise words of Alicia Keys, "This girl is on FIIIIIIRRRRRREEEEEEEE! She's just a girl, and she's on fire."

I didn't actually set a girl's hand on fire, although I'm told it's a thing that can be done without hurting someone - I'm just not ready to mess around with that quite yet. I mean, why temp fate (aka a giant expensive softbox up in flames) when you can digitally add the hot stuff to your composited masterpiece from the safety of your desk? Please enjoy these five tips to consider when adding fire to one of your images...

1. Lighting: It's Important ... and Stuff

I know I've said this SO many times, and I plan to say it many times more, but yeah I'm going to say it again ... right now. LIGHTING IS SO IMPORTANT!!! If you are planning to add fire to your image then you should absolutely take that into account when setting up your lights. As we all know, fire gives off light (duhhh) - warm, soft, glowy light. Once you know where your fire is going to be within your frame, grab some orange-colored gels (CTO for those of you that speak lighting), and do your best to cast light where the fire would be if it were actually there. (This would be a GREAT opportunity to make and use the ping-pong-ball light that I talked about in this post. Mine was temporarily out of commission for this post so I had to improvise.) 

 If you can't get your hands on some flash equipment, fear not, dear reader, you can DIY the crap out of this shoot! Run down to your local ... whatever store near you sells "china ball" lights (Ikea, Pier1, even Wal-Mart probably), pick one up, swing by the party store and grab some colored light bulbs, and you're good to go! Also, if you can't find orange gels or light bulbs, it's not like you have to stick with "normal" fire. Perhaps the flames in your shot are purple; no one's judging you here - purple that fire right up!

2. What To Look For When Gathering Fire Images 

Whether obtained with your camera or your mouse, the key ingredient to making a successful fire image is to acquire some stellar pictures of flames to use. I unfortunately didn't have the time or resources at the moment to take my own fire images (drat), so I took the easy route and used stock images.  If you're going to do the same, be sure to search for a fire "collection," rather than just one image of one fire. You can pay for a single stock picture that has lots of different flame options all in one! (The image below is not actually the one I used, but I've got my eye on it for future use!!)  

If you are going to take your own fire images, then more power to yah! Just be sure your flames are against a completely black background.  If you're trying to take the pictures in your fireplace for example, and you can see the bricks behind the flames, you won't be able to get a clean selection on the fire. You'll be able to see the brick texture peaking through and we don't want that. Camp fires can be a great option since you can usually position yourself so that the only thing behind the lapping flames is the darkness of night. Be sure to have someone throw a log or two on there when you're ready, to kick up some flying sparks for a couple images - they come in very handy.

3. How the "Red Channel" Can Be Your Friend

Once you've obtained some pictures of fire, you're going to want to get them off of their backgrounds. There are a ton of ways to go about this (I'll talk about my other favorite method shortly, so stay tuned), but one of the quickest/easiest ways is to use the "channels" tab. It should be located under your "Layers" and "Paths" tabs in the bottom right corner of your screen (at least that's how I like to have things set up when I Photoshop).

This is so stinkin easy ... it's stupid. Click the "channels" tab, then hold down the "command" key (on a mac, or "control" on a pc) and click on the little picture next to where it says "Red" (see image above). That's basically it. If your flames were indeed on a dark black background, this should select your fire perfectly. Pretty much all of the "digital color information" of the flames will live on the red channel so this works like a charm. It's so satisfying. You can just "layer via copy," or throw a mask on the layer now that you have the fire selected. You should definitely give it a try.

4. Blending Modes Make Your Life Way More Awesome 

Learning what all the different blending modes do can really come in handy ... like really really handy.  The one I use for occasions like fire is the "screen" blending mode. This mode does away with all of the dark pixels and only lets the light parts of that layer show though. It basically does the same thing as the red channel technique, but I suggest trying both to see which one you prefer. You'll probably have to use a layer mask to paint away the edges though - be aware of this because if the background of the fire picture wasn't black enough, you can end up with a very light rectangle around your fire showing where the edges of that picture were. (Did that make sense?) You could even select the fire using the red channel and then set that layer to screen just to be extra fancy.  Just be sure you are not trying to place your fire on a light background; that's just not going to happen ... sorry.

5. That Hand (or Whatever It Is...) Should Look Hot!

For my image I obviously intended for her hand to be on fire (if this isn't obvious you should probably seek medical attention...), so I wanted the hand to be glowing white hot like the coals of a fire. Whatever it is in your image that you want to set ablaze should be bright like this as well. Eyes are drawn to the lightest points in images and will pay less attention to the darker parts (it's science); you'll want to be sure to lead your viewer's eye around the image and notice the important parts. Like moths to the flames ... except the moths are their eyes and the flames are... well, yeah I guess they are flames.

To get her hand to look like this I did a fair amount of painting on an overlay layer (like I do for EVERY image), but the other little trick I pulled out of my magic bag of Photoshop knowledge was the use of "layer styles." I selected and duplicated the hand and half of the arm, then applied an outer glow and an inner glow from the layer styles window (you can access this by double clicking on any layer). Once I was happy with it (and clicked "ok"), I right-clicked on the layer and selected "Rasterize Layer Style." This makes it so you can no longer alter your styles, so be sure you're happy with them before doing this (or you can duplicate that layer and turn it off in case you want it later). Anyway, once it's rasterized you can mask away the glowing edge that cuts across the arm. (See above.) If you don't rasterize, then when you try to mask away that part of the layer it's just going to move the glowing edge ... it's rather annoying.

So there you have it - you're all ready to be a digital pyromaniac! Now go forth and set fires!!!!! Pixel fires only, please ... well I guess you can set camp fires too. 

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