Light Painting Tutorial Part 2
In my first light painting article I discussed the equipment, set-up, and techniques I use to create light paintings. In this article I will use one of the photos I took during that session and with The Gimp I will create a new picture by merging it with a public domain image from NASA. This was a very interesting project, because I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it when I started. I knew that I wanted to create a space themed photograph that resembled a painting, and that I wanted to incorporate light painting to do it. The wonderful thing about light painting is that the results are much softer then a regular photo, because the light is very controlled. Working with a light painting is a time consuming process, but I think that the picture to the left is certainly worth the end result. In this part of the tutorial I will walk you through what I did, step by step, and I even list a few mistakes I made along the way.
The Original Light Painting and NASA Photos
During my night painting shoot I made 25 different paintings of the Star Trek USS Enterprise, each with different colors, shadows, and light intensities. While I liked several of them quite a bit, I finally settled on this one, partly due to the image that I want to create with it.
I like how the image is bathed in a red light, with natural shadows from the engines falling onto the saucer section from the back lighting that I did. This will go great with the image that I select to put it into.
For the background of my painting, I selected an image of a nova remnant from NASA images. The great thing about a resource like NASA images is you can use any resource from there for free as almost all of the content is in the public domain. The only exceptions that I am aware of is the use of the NASA logo, or pictures of astronauts where their privacy would be compromised. For more information regarding the public domain and NASA, please visit Using NASA Imagery and Linking to NASA Web Sites.
The Gimp Procedure
The Gimp Magic Wand
I opened up my Star Trek USS Enterprise picture in The Gimp and selected the magic wand tool to select all of the black regions. Since my image was mostly black that was a fairly quick process, however it still left some random selection in the lower right of my screen.
The Gimp Quick Mask
To get rid of this, and to complete my selection, I went into quick mask mode and used the paint brush to “paint” the areas I didn’t want in my selection. In the gimp, quick mask is not the most obvious of selections. This is too bad, because it is a great feature that has been hidden away in the bottom left corner of the screen. No, it doesn’t even look like a button, just a random part of the screen where the ruler doesn’t quite meet the scroll bar! Take a look at the red arrow in the picture to see where this button is hidden at. I then used the paint brush to quickly paint out the random bits that the magic wand missed. To resize your brush in The Gimp, you can use the same shortcut as in Photoshop; pressing the [ key on the keyboard will make brush smaller and pressing the ] on the keyboard will make the brush larger.
Once I had finished this part of the selection I turned the quickmask back off by clicking the same hidden button I used to turn it on. Now, since I started my selection with the magic wand by clicking on the black, and continued this selection by painting out the black I didn’t want with the quickmask, I now had all of the black selected. This was the opposite from what I wanted, however it was far easier to select the black background, then it would be to select the ship itself. To change what was selected, I just chose “Select” from the menu bar, and then cliked on “invert.” Alternatively, I could just press ctrl + I. Now my picture of the Star Trek USS Enterprise was isolated from the rest of the image. I then chose Edit from the menu bar, and then copy. Of course, I could have also pressed ctrl+c on the keyboard to copy the image onto the clipboard.
The NASA Image
I loaded up the NASA image in The Gimp and then selected the Edit menu item, and then Paste as New Layer. It is important that past it as a layer, so that you can move it around later. Once I did this I could use the Move Tool, the cross hairs in the tool box, to move my ship where I wanted it to go. Now I was planning on having the ship appear to come out of the nova, so first I needed to flip my ship layer so that it was facing the other direction. I did this by choosing Layer, then Transform, then Flip Horizontally. I thought that looked pretty good, so I didn’t need to use the Arbitrary Transform tool, which is located in the same menus. I know that the writing and numbers on the ship are now backwards. I will fix that when I am all done by just flipping the entire picture back when I make my jpg. I could have also flipped the NASA photo here, it wouldn’t have mattered. In my minds eye, I had a better image from the direction I turned it. It is all subjective.
Layering the Star Trek USS Enterprise onto the NASA Image
For my next step, I wanted to make it appear as if the Star Trek USS Enterprise was in the nova, so I made a duplicate of the NASA image by right clicking on it in the Layers, Channels, Paths, Undo Box, and then selecting Duplicate Layer. I dragged the copied layer onto the top of the image, so that it was the topmost, and only visible element. This can be done by just clicking on the layer in the Layers, Channels, Paths, Undo Box and dragging it to where you want to go. I changed the opacity of the top, copied layer to 10% so that I could see the ship through it.
Now, I want to make it appear as if the ship is in the nebula, and coming out of it, so I selected the Quick Mask again, and masked the front of the ship, which wouldn’t have any of the nova material on it. I wasn’t real concerned about being to careful here, as I wanted some randomness. I selected Edit, and then cut to remove the section that I had copied. I could then see the first 1/3rd of the saucer section, but it was a harsh, unnatural line. So, I decided to back up a step, and use a full mask and not a quick mask, so that I could deal with that sharp line. I pressed ctrl+z to undo my cut, and then Shift+Ctrl+A to undo the selection. I could have also selected Edit, Undo and Select, None from the menu bar.
So to add a Layer Mask, I just right clicked the layer I wanted, which was still the copy of the NASA image, and selected Add Layer Mask. I selected White (full opacity) and clicked the Add button. Taking the paint brush, I then painted the front section of the saucer in black, to remove the layer from that part of the ship. Note, that if you paint in white, it will restore areas that you removed. I was careful to leave a little bit of the layer on the front of the ship, to add to the realism.
Now that I had my ship the way I wanted, I could then blur the layer mask. This is something that I haven’t figured out how to do in a Quick Mask. To blur the edges, and give them a nice natural look, I clicked on the layer mask, to make sure it was selected. Then I clicked on the menu bar and chose Filter, Blur, Gaussian Blur. This will let me blur the edges and make them more seemless. For the Blur Radius I used 75 on both the Horizontal and Vertical. This makes a nice wide blur, and gets rid of any sharp edges. Note that this blur is applied to the mask, and not the underlying picture. It’s a really neat trick.
To continue the effect of having the ship coming out of the Nova, I needed to copy and selectively reveal sections of the ship several more times. Each time I increased the opacity by 10%, so that the back of the ship wasn’t as visible as the section that was emerging from the nova. To do this I applied the layer mask to my 10% opacity layer by right clicking on it and choosing Apply Layer Mask. After that I duplicated the bottom, original, layer and moved this new layer to the top of the stack of layers. I chaged the opacity to 20% on the new layer. Remeber, when you paint for the 20% layer, you also have to do the same painting that you did for the 10% layer, or else it will be as if there is a new 10% layer on the area that you had previously cleared. I kept doing this until I had created all of the layers that I wanted. My last layer was at 100% because I wanted to selectively have some areas of the ship still inside of the nova. So all together, I ended up using the 10%, 20%, 30%, 50%, and 100% opacity layers. Of course, I also used the ship layer, and the background layer. The other layers I deleted because I didn’t need them. Of course, if you want to really fine tune your image, the more layers you create, the more detail you can put into your work.
My end result turned out far better than I had ever hoped it would. It took some time to selectivly place the star matter around the warp nacells of the ship, but I think that the effort was certainly worth it. To view the full size picture, just click on the small sized one. It will be much easier for you to see all of the detail. My hope was that it would appear that the ship was plunging through, and just managing to escape the nova. Something I would do differently next time is on the saucer section. I did finally add a little tail of material from the nova to come over it, which I think really helped with the three dimensional effect. The area still doesn’t look quite right to me, and I think it is because the very edge is wrong somehow. Something else I would try would be to slightly offset the layers a few pixels, giving an even greater feeling of depth.
My final step was to make sure that I had a file saved with all of my layers. The Gimp can use many different formats, including the Photoshop *.psd extensions. It also has it’s own extension, *.xcf, which works just as well as the Photoshop format. This file is sort of like your negatives. You can always go back in and tweak things differently if you need to. For example, once I was finsihed saving the file in a format that supports layers I merged all of the layers together, and then saved a copy as a *.jpg file so that I could share it on the internet.
I hope that you have found this tutorial to be useful, and you enjoyed my experiment with light painting. The Gimp is a great, free alternative to Photoshop. I really can’t say enough good things about it.
To read about how I created the original light painting, to include camera setup and other equipment, visit my light painting tutorial.
Thanks for Stopping By!
If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.
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